The forecasts didn’t get Ophelia quite right
A website to advise the surfers of the world had proved intriguingly reliable until now
Illustration: Michael Viney
It’s my habit to rise early, still in the dark, when BBC World Service makes way for BBC4 and its shipping forecast. I took the radio to the loo and shared the familiar round to the Irish Sea, where the first threats of violent storm and hurricane began.
There was a scrabble of raindrops at the window, on the wrong side of the house and some heavy breathing from the ridge. That, at least, was encouraging: the wind was where it was meant to be at this early stage of the day. Four full watering cans stood around me, for when we lost power for the pump.
I’ve been conscious of hurricanes ever since first arriving in Ireland, on my bike, in the wake of Hurricane Debbie in 1961, and finding Connemara with its moorgrass flattened, the hill forests fringed with wind-blown trees, the townland mood subdued.
By 1991, now living on the west coast and as climate change made more hurricanes likely, I wondered in this column if the stress of stormy winters could eventually make “exposed” coasts uninhabitable, except for summer holiday homes.
We’d had quite a few such winters ourselves, fraying the nerves as well as the coastline. In a storm early on, when our cottage extension still had a flat roof and single-pane windows, we watched the gusts sucking up the living-room ceiling, and bending reflections in the glass. In another, a roaring southeaster from the mountain, we lost a lot of slates and lived under a tarpaulin for months.
None of this held me back from building a greenhouse, half-sunk in the ground on the sunny and seaward side of the house. It’s now on its last legs, the cedar rafters sodden, the first panes beginning to slip.
And then, when our planting of trees seemed high enough, I risked a big polytunnel for vegetables. It has been my all-weather retreat and good exercise for an old man, with spells of sitting down with Lyric in my ears. It has also, of course, made me even more apprehensive of storms. My wife, Ethna, is staunchly soothing: “Why torment yourself?”
I spotted Ophelia early on, on the US’s ocean-watching website, noaa.com. It was a small, scarlet pinwheel out in the mid-Atlantic, whirling northeast. Its projected path was aimed like a fiery sword at the heart of Ireland.
As its arrival grew more certain, I took to poring over weather sites. Along with forecast maps at Met Éireann, there’s the website windguru.cz, mysteriously sited in the Czech Republic but tailored to advise the surfers of the world.
Many surfers in Ireland are drawn to the breakers of Carrowniskey Strand, just up the coast from me, and this, almost bizarrely, is among Windguru’s Irish locations. It has stars for good surfing on the right days of wind and wave. I have found its forecasts intriguingly reliable.
The site projects figures for gust strength and wave period, at three-hourly intervals, with arrows showing wind direction. Met Éireann adds arrows to it shifting zones of colour, the winds ranging up through the Beaufort Scale to reach pink gales and dark purple hurricanes. The closer Ophelia came, the more often Met Éireann’s maps changed.
Eventually Ophelia ringed Ireland with the southwest in its eye, the lurid red and purples of its eastern wall spilling across the corner to bloody the Irish Sea. It was in this rim, where winds fell in line with the way the storm was going, that their power was strongest. I wondered if the shallower, perhaps warmer, Celtic Sea would pull the hurricanes this way.
Tragic storm news
Safe in Ophelia’s eye all morning, we had patches of blue sky at noon and some vivid arcs of rainbow. Shades of green on Met Éireann’s map continued to promise us rather less than a gale and kept me happy.
Later the short-range map predicted that pink would swerve into the coast for a gale to last the evening. Windguru had threatened gusts of 50mph, as the eye of the storm travelled north.
Neither got it quite right. For some hours, indeed, the trees were dancing and our beech swung its skirts in a ponderous mazurka.
But by teatime nothing worse had arrived, gilded slivers of sky had opened to the west and, unlike the hundreds of thousands of households in Ireland left without power, we could sit down to watch the dramatic, sometimes tragic, storm news on the telly. The lights stayed on for bed.
For decades the wind has been the background to our lives – the cleanest wind, with the longest ocean fetch: the original breath of fresh air. We were sorry when time brought double-glazed windows, shutting out the wind in the trees and from the shore, along with the songs of birds.
All that, of course, is on gentler days, of which there will still be very many. And for the passage of Ophelia, at least, our corner of the west proved the best place to be.