Britain battered by 70mph winds from the Atlantic

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The Independent Online

Gales and tempestuous seas lashed the South coast of Britain yesterday, as the first major winter storm of the year hit the UK. People were advised to stay out of the water as giant waves and 70mph winds were forecast.

Strong winds howled in from the Atlantic and pushed sea swells of 20-25ft up the English Channel, and 40ft in the Atlantic. "It's below the sort of level where people need to be concerned about serious damage to property but it's definitely not the day to be out on the open water," Jeremy Plester, a forecaster with MeteoGroup UK, said.

The Isles of Scilly were blasted with winds of up to 70mph on Saturday night, and people on the South coast were bracing themselves for a day of battling with the elements, as forecasters predicted winds of gale force nine, rising to storm force 10.

"This is the first big winter storm of the year", Mr Plester added, "We've had squalls before with bursts of heavy wind and rain for 20 minutes or so, but this is the first sustained bout."

For surfers, the conditions provided a once-in-a lifetime opportunity. Wave enthusiasts flocked to Donegal on Saturday to take on the biggest waves ever ridden in the British and Irish Isles.

Swells that were estimated to be as big as 55ft (16.7m) allowed Hawaiian-style tow-surfing, where the rider is pulled into the back of a giant wave by a jetski. Duncan Scott, Chairman of the British Tow-Surfing Association, and one of a pioneering crew who brought the sport from the sunny reefs of Hawaii to the ice-cold Celtic waters, was one of a group of four surfers who took jetskis out to Mullagmore Head in Donegal Bay.

Scott, 29, travelled over from Newquay on Thursday night when he saw the swell forecast. "It's been brewing for four or five days out in the Atlantic, and it was the biggest forecast I had ever seen you never normally see that much red on the swell chart. The wave face was over 60ft, and the biggest that any of us had ever seen. I was part of the group in 2005 that previously rode the biggest waves, but this dwarfed them."

Mullagmore Head is uniquely placed for big wave surfing, because open-ocean swells jackknife up over a shallow reef ledge, which magnifies the swells vertically and, this weekend, translated into wave faces of over 60ft being ridden. "If you say you're not scared when you see waves the size of giant houses trundling towards you, you'd have to be a liar", said Scott. "It's that line between awesome and overpowering that's the attraction of big wave surfing."

Previously the biggest waves recorded by the Marine Institute's data buoys were to the west of Galway Bay back in January 2005, when swells of 44ft (13.4m) were recorded.

The weekend of extreme weather began with a fisherman being lost at sea in the English Channel on Friday night, the Frenchman was killed after the trawler Monbijou got into difficulties in force 8 winds.

And the weekend was not the end of the bout of nasty weather: MeteoGroup UK said more bad weather was expected from tomorrow. "There's a big depression over the Atlantic just winding itself up, and that's likely to reach us on Tuesday or Wednesday," said forecaster Mr Plester, "So there's plenty of wet and windy weather to come this week."

A Port of Dover spokeswoman said a SpeedFerries sailing was cancelled due to the stormy conditions, but all other Channel crossings from the port were only delayed by the weather.

And perhaps the surfers will have more gargantuan waves to ride as the poor weather continues.

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