John Carter spins a tale of dedication and frustration as he heads back and forwards to Cornwall chasing a brace of epic forecasts for nuking winds and huge waves, albeit without very little sunshine! Read on for a tale of damp and drizzly carnage as JC recounts his trials and tribulations.
Words & Photos John Carter
I like big storms, the named ones in particular! People that know me, kind of expect me to disappear off somewhere – Cornwall, Ireland, Scotland or even further afield when the weather turns nasty. Storm Brendan was the first big low pressure after Christmas and regardless of what the weather was predicting, I had my mind made up four or five days earlier that I would be hunting this one down. Fellow ‘Motley Crew’ member, Timo Mullen, is on the same wavelength and I knew he would be looking at the weather charts, but unfortunately he had a work commitment the exact day Brendan was due to lash our shores with wind and waves. With Timo out of the equation, I was weighing up alternate options of where to go and who to shoot. I was even contemplating heading to Nazaré to go capture Kai Lenny ride some giant Atlantic bombs, but decided to keep my options open until the last minute.
While storm Brendan was coiling itself up somewhere off Iceland, another banging low was set to hit Cornwall on the Saturday with favourable southerly winds. Knowing that he was going to miss out on Brendan, Timo was hungry to head down to Gwithian for the day and make it back to Poole in time for tea with the family. Despite the weather calling for overcast skies, I decided to tag along for the day just in case Brendan was a blow out or somehow didn’t materialize. I had decided I could cope with cloudy, not ideal, but better than rain! At least that was what every forecast was saying. I set off at 5 a.m., had a smooth journey and was in Poole by 8 a.m. and straight on the road bound for Gwithian. With low tide around 11 a.m. we were set to arrive at the perfect time for the prime session of the day.
Aside from wind strength, wind direction, wave period and size, the tides have an enormous effect on the conditions at Gwithian. On a big swell and high tide, the water surges right up to the cliffs and rocks, while low tide usually means heavy barrelling kit breaking closeouts, the sort of conditions Thomas Traversa eats for breakfast while most mere mortals avoid like the plague. So mid-tide is usually favoured by the locals and those that know their stuff!
With Gwithian a tad side-shore, the word on the street was that Mexico’s (Sandy Acres) was cooking, so we headed straight there. A rusty old ticket machine greets you at the entrance where you need to make sure you pay up as there are some quite evil parking attendants that patrol the area. We were greeted at the top of the hill with smooth lines of logo high waves on offer and a few guys already out in perfect side-offshore winds. Not too bad! One thing I know about Mexico’s is that you need to traverse a steep sandy hill with all your kit en route to the beach, so make sure you don’t forget anything, as it is like SAS training when you come back up!
Bearing in mind this was a cold overcast Saturday in January with a pretty hefty 5 metre swell forecast, it was surprising to see over thirty guys out on the water by 2 p.m.! It was almost like being at Ho’okipa on a busy day in April, albeit without the sunshine, balmy temperatures of Hawaii and deep blue Pacific waves. On second thoughts, maybe not! With the conditions firing there was an abundance of carnage on the water, as sailors of all levels took on Mother Nature. I witnessed at least three guys dragging trashed kit up the beach after tussles with the bone crunching sets. Meanwhile the likes of Timo, Andy King, Steve King, Ian Black and Louis Morris were all bashing lips and taking plenty of beatings in the wild conditions.
From a photography perspective, it was fine for the first twenty minutes, just cloudy, but then a nasty, foggy, drizzle set in and the weather turned absolutely miserable. It was one of those days where you think it’s not really raining, but you end up soaked to the skin nonetheless. I guess human nature is all about perception. We all associate sunny blue skies, warm weather and clear water with paradise; while cold rainy days in January don’t quite fit the mould. If the human brain was conditioned to register murky, damp, cold drizzly mist as heaven, then I would have been laughing.
The conditions were actually pretty epic, but being huddled up in waterproofs, wellington boots and rain covers on the camera, were not quite the same as shooting a crisp sunny winter’s day. Rain was splattering the lens; my fingers were frozen numb, and I knew the pictures I was taking were likely to be rejected by the hierarchy at Windsurf Towers! By the end of the day I was soaked through and miserable, unlike most of the windsurfers who had scored a pretty epic days sailing. We left Cornwall around 3 p.m. and I rolled into my house on the Isle of Wight around 11 p.m., tired, still damp and wondering if any of that effort was at all worth it.
Come Monday the 10th January and I was just about mentally and physically recovered from the weekend and re-psyched to go face-to-face with storm Brendan due to hit overnight and into Tuesday. Blacky, who loves a good storm, was calling that the morning session could be on at Gwithian on the dropping tide before the predicted 70 mph winds kicked in at noon. It was a small, risky window of opportunity, but I didn’t want to miss it. At 10 a.m. Timo messaged saying his morning appointment in Newquay on Tuesday had cancelled and he was free to sail until about 1 p.m. Hearing that the likes of Thomas Traversa was heading down to Galicia to hunt down big waves I was determined for my own slice of the pie and made up my mind to head back to Cornwall there and then. I didn’t fancy driving through the night into that storm, so decided to catch a train from Southampton down to Hayle, via Westbury and Plymouth, which worked out cheaper than driving. What could possibly go wrong? I had to make a mad dash to catch the 12.25 p.m. train from Southampton as it was £50 cheaper at that time for some reason than any other train during the day, don’t ask me why! I packed in a matter of five minutes, jumped in the car and headed off again leaving a scrawled note on the kitchen table for my beloved and understanding wife, that I would be back in a couple of days (hopefully).
Fast forward a few hours and I was now at Westbury station on the platform waiting for my train to Plymouth. All sorts of high wind warnings were flashing up on my train app warning of weather delays and disruption. I have seen a lot of weather pictures in the past of trains being halted by the crashing waves on the seafront at Dawlish and that was right where I was headed. I also had this haunting feeling I had left my car lights on back on the Isle of Wight, but I would have to deal with that later! Of course, the journey was horrific. The first wave of the storm was hitting the West Country, causing my trains to have a maximum speed of 50 mph. Meanwhile we were sitting still on the railway for reasons unbeknown to anyone on the train, including the conductor. Many hours late, I finally made it to Hayle, where there was weirdly no wind at all, it must have been the calm before the real storm. Maybe we were in the eye, who knows! At least I had made it after eight hours on trains and was in place to tackle Brendan first thing in the morning! On the train journey I had plenty of time to research and digest the forecast. When I left home they were giving sun and showers, but during the day the BBC had switched to heavy rain and 50-70 mph winds, combined with 7 metre seas. Rationally looking at this it was going to be a total washout, but as the saying goes, ‘You have to be in it to win it’ and at least I was in one of the locations with the biggest waves forecast for the whole of the UK with the likes of Timo and Blacky to take it on!
The first thing I did when I woke up, aside from regretting drinking a bottle of wine (the ‘Motley Crew’ are getting more sophisticated in the new decade) was to check the Seven Stones wave buoy located off Lands End, which was reportedly 25 feet! I think that is one of the biggest readings I have ever seen, so waves were not going to be a problem at least. I guess I had been lured in by these huge waves and storm force winds and had not actually considered that Gwithian is essentially a beach break. With that amount of water moving around and essentially dangerous conditions along with driving rain, it suddenly dawned on me that in reality the chances were high that today there may be no sailing at all.
BLACKY BRAVES IT
By 9:30 a.m., the likes of Timo, Blacky, Steve Thorp and Duncan Coombs were gathered in the car park at Gwithian looking out at some serious conditions. As I feared, the reality of the situation was that there was a tonne of water pounding the cliffs at high tide and as far as windsurfing goes, it was gnarly and totally un-appealing. Timo was doubtful he was even going to go out (which basically never happens when there are wind and waves), Steve Thorp wasn’t looking keen while Blacky and Coombs were half and half. After about forty minutes of deliberation Blacky finally dragged his self-designed, beaten-up single fin board out of his van along with a 4.7m Severne Blade and headed down the goat track. Even with 25 feet on the buoy off Lands End the waves didn’t seem that big to me, more like thick lumps of swell with thirty to forty knots of wind racing across the faces and picking up by the minute. This was the sort of day the Storm Chase organizers would have loved but without a jet ski, lifeguard or ambulance in sight, our crew were left to their own devices to survive the mercy of the ocean. Blacky bravely headed out, but didn’t last more than about twenty minutes in the hectic seas. It was so windy and kind of dreary up in the car park, it was barely possible to shoot and to be honest there was nothing worth shooting.
RIDERS OF THE STORM
By the time Blacky was back up at the cliff, the wind looked to have swung more side-shore, triggering Timo to suggest a quick check back down at Mexico’s where it would be side-off at least. So we convoyed up the coast, with Timo now under a time constraint with his work meeting looming in a few hours. To my surprise the conditions here looked to be sailable with logo to mast high sets pluming in the storm force winds. If I am honest the conditions were not too far away from Saturday at first glance, but today there was more of an intensity in the wind and the sea was angrier. The sets were longer walls, meatier in volume, while the gusts felt more severe. After the crowds of the weekend, this time round we were the only crew in the car park, not surprising really as there were all sorts of travel warnings issued with literally survival conditions at sea. Just as I had set up all my equipment and started that dreaded hike down to the beach, I looked over to St Ives to see a thick wave of rain and low cloud approaching. With all the crew headed out and probably only able to sail for an hour or so, I had no choice but to shoot in the rain or miss the action altogether. This was the path I had chosen. This was the storm I had chosen. I had travelled eight hours on a train to shoot this one hour in the driving rain, this was my window of opportunity, like it or not!
Down on the shoreline, I could barely stand up in the wind and driving rain. The only way to shoot was to stand with my back to the onslaught. I could feel that cold wintery drizzle working its way through my waterproof jacket, which was now apparently no longer capable of its duties. My T-shirt underneath was wringing wet, so were my joggers underneath my similarly incapable waterproof trousers. The crew were struggling out on the water. Duncan Coombs on a ragged old North 4.2m was actually hitting a few twelve o’clock vertical smacks, which was impressive! Thorpy was riding some bombs upwind, although those waves were difficult to shoot straight into the mist and rain. At one point the gusts were so strong I was huddled next to my tripod, using it as a lever to stop me being blown over. Swathes of sand were engulfing my wellington boots in ghostly trails blown by winds which must have been over 60 knots. After thirty minutes or so I jealously watched Timo retreat to his van, barely able to hang on to his rig as he marched slowly across the low tide sands. At least he was headed for a warm shower and a cosy business meeting with hot coffee and tasty chocolate snacks no doubt. Unable to cope anymore with the torrential deluge, step by step I retreated towards the SAS dune, hanging onto my gear for dear life as the winds went to storm force levels and the rain seemed to drive even harder. Looking towards St Ives the rain was so thick you could not see the headland. I had shot what I could of storm Brendan, but now the storm had got the better of me. I was physically not in a good way. Totally soaked to the skin, numb hands and all my gear was wet, humid and probably likely to break down due to this beating. Those that know me would probably say I thrive on misery. And in a weird way I was actually enjoying this. It was so bad it was good. I finally staggered to the top of the SAS dune and crumpled down in the shelter of a café that had closed down for winter. The boys were all finished with Brendan as well. There would be no more sessions today.
RIDICULOUS TRAVEL MISHAPS
Looking at my watch it was now 2:15 p.m. Timo had mentioned he was headed off to Ireland tomorrow, while the forecast in Cornwall was for clear skies and light southwest winds, but still a residual 5 metre swell pumping in. Blacky looked at the forecast and said ‘Naah’, swell is too southwest and the wind may not materialize. I was wet to the bone and kind of deflated and made the impulse decision to head home, even though I knew the next hours would probably be a travel catastrophe. I needed to evacuate. Blacky dropped me at St Ives station at 3 p.m., where I eventually caught a train to Plymouth that was already running 20 minutes late due to this severe weather. I was now at the mercy of train operators to get me back to the Isle of Wight in the midst of storm Brendan. I was greeted by some strange looks on board; being totally sodden and splattered in sand I was still a shivering wreck as opposed to most folk wrapped up in warm dry clothes.
Two hours later I made my connection by the skin of my teeth at Plymouth, which they had held especially for our late train, and jumped on the next train to Exeter. The outlook was bleak at this stage. Aside from a miracle, it looked like I was going to miss my connection in Westbury and all the ferries going to and from the Isle of Wight were currently suspended. Happy days! Was I enjoying this misery or not, at this stage I wasn’t really sure. My wife certainly found it entertaining, smiley emojis and all sorts of smug remarks were hurtling through onto my phone which had somehow been running on 1% battery for the past hour and a half!
About ten minutes from Exeter a call from Timo was buzzing on my phone. The weather in Ireland had now changed to storm force winds and heavy rain and he had decided to abort. With no work planned for tomorrow, he suggested I jump off the train at Exeter and turn around in the hope that we actually score some sunny action the following day. The pressure was on. The train pulled into the station and I had to make a split-second decision. Stay on or get off. A moment of madness hit me, and I scrambled my gear together, jumped off the train and watched it crawl away towards Westbury. Deprived of another £20, I purchased a single ticket back to Plymouth, now headed back another hour in the direction I had just come from. Timo would hopefully be headed towards Plymouth and then drive me back the other hour and a half back to Cornwall! With the rendezvous completed, we eventually arrived at 9:30 p.m. at Timo’s pad in Gwithian. Just a mere six and a half hours on trains and in the van to get back to exactly the place I started at 3 p.m., if that isn’t Motley I don’t know what is. And I was still drenched to the bone. Another bottle of wine was consumed, plus, between us we ate a whole block of cheese. You have to treat yourselves sometimes when the chips are down!
The next morning the rain had cleared but my head wasn’t so clear, again! Glorious blue skies greeted us along with light southwest winds. A quick check at the Bluff in the morning was enough to raise the excitement with some solid turquoise swell still grinding into the bay. We drove up to St Michael’s Mount to check Marazion, where the likes of Blacky, Andy Fawcett, Big Dave and the local crew were waiting on conditions for a jump session. The swell on the south coast was pumping and the wind was on the edge. The boys looked confident. Despite the locals, (who usually know best) being camped out at Mazza, I was drawn to heading back to the Bluff. It was a waiting game day, but I was not in the mood for waiting. By 12:30 we were back at the Bluff and the wind seemed to be filling in. It did not look epic, but after all that effort going forwards and backwards on the train, I was determined to come home with some worthy shots of storm Brendan. We had already seen shots of Kai Lenny scoring monster waves at Nazaré on a tow board and Traversa riding a huge slab in Galicia on Instagram, while we had endured heavy rain, nuclear winds and the brunt of storm Brendan in the worst possible way.
The first few waves Timo caught were pretty futile as there was barely enough wind to drift out, but suddenly he started planing and catching a few nice walls trying to line up an aerial. For the next hour it turned on. Heavy low tide Bluff was throwing us a bone. The Bluff at low tide is consequential. Basically, you are looking at a close out unloading onto a sandbar and if you mistime your hit the wave could break your kit into smithereens. Timo was prepared to take that risk and diced with the sets until our window of wind fizzled out around 2:30 p.m. Content that I had broken the deadlock of the rainy days with some crisp gloriously sunny photographs, I headed back to Hayle to catch the 3 p.m. train, this time pretty sure I would be going all the way home. With the storm now working its way somewhere towards Scandinavia, the lines were all clear and my train connections all worked out. I finally made it back home to the Isle of Wight at 10 p.m. only to realize I had forgotten about my blooming car lights, but that is a whole other story! My wife had consumed a bottle of wine and was unable to pick me up, let me just say that.
Next time I look at one of those big black swell maps on Magicseaweed I need to think rationally. Named storms are not to be trifled with. They are named for a reason. To bring to the attention of the public that there is severe weather coming and that travel disruption and dangerous conditions are likely. The heart of the storm with the biggest waves and the strongest winds is most likely not the best place to be unless you have a spot that can handle it and safety lined up. As windsurfers it is your duty to look out for each other when out on these crazy days. With all that said, next time I see the mother of all lows, most likely I will head to the epicentre! Yep, I think I like misery!