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Dublin: 2 °C Sunday 19 November, 2017
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Storm Ophelia surfer: 'The picture makes the ocean look rough... but it wasn't really that significant'

Luke Donnelly from Stillorgan is a trained lifeguard, surfing teacher and is studying oceanography as part of his degree.

ON MONDAY AFTERNOON, the same time that ex-Hurricane Ophelia was crashing through Ireland’s southern counties, a man from Stillorgan was heading out for a surf off the Dublin coast.

Photographer Gerry Andrews, who was out collecting cancer medicine in a Dún Laoghaire pharmacy, spotted the surfer swimming out to sea. He grabbed his camera and took the photo from his car – with one foot on the path and the other in the car.

“I was out of the car for all of 10 seconds,” Gerry told TheJournal.ie, who was anxious to get home before the storm hit.

22528323_1657179037635847_2716063371528578341_n Source: Gerry Andrews

That same day, five windsurfers were brought to shore by Coast Guard members, despite red weather warnings urging people to stay indoors (and away from the sea, for that matter).

In the aftermath of the storm that killed three people on Irish roads, Fianna Fáil proposed that it should be made an offence to recklessly endanger the lives of emergency personnel during a red weather warning.

A lot of those who saw the photo agreed.

“Should be charged for endangering lives,” said one person in response to the photo shared on Facebook, referring to the lives of emergency service personnel.

On the same post, another person said:

Anyone stupid enough to enter the water or even to go onto the piers or cliffs around the country should be left to natural selection!

But the surfer who was snapped at White Rock beach in Killiney says that those who got outraged don’t have the full picture.

Someone snapped a picture of me down at Killiney yesterday and it caused a good bit of uproar on the @thejournal_ie haha. Check out some of the 1200 comments in the link below if you feel like a good laugh. My favourites include "I hope he drowned", "He should be castrated", and "Should be charged for endangering lives". To put the picture in context it was taken at 1.30pm before the wind picked up before the hurricane hit Dublin. The surf in this picture is about 4-5 ft max and I regularly surf here at twice the size during the winter months. Hope all the #keyboardwarriors had their fun sitting at home yesterday with this one. #ophelia #surf #dopes https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=1657181847635566&id=137576076262825

A post shared by Luke Donnelly (@billyandthecloneasaurus) on

“What I was doing was calculated,” Luke Donnelly told TheJournal.ie.

“I’ve been surfing down there for 8 or 9 years, and using online models to check the weather, like the M5 weather buoy, the M2 Irish weather buoy in the Irish Sea. So I have a pretty in-depth knowledge of the local area, and about how winds and swell will affect it.”

The 27-year-old Trinity student, who’s been surfing for 15 years, had seen two or three days in advance that there would be “a small bit of swell” heading in.

He kept checking the Dublin buoy all that morning and thought he’d head down to check the tide at around 1pm, when there was an hour window where he could head out.

“It wasn’t a major swell event compared to smaller winter swells. When I saw it wasn’t really that significant – almost to the point that I wouldn’t have bothered going out.”

A friend of his, who’s a trained lifeguard, joined him at the coast, but decided not to head out as the 4-5ft waves weren’t large enough to bother, Luke says.

He caught one or two waves, and then got out before “they got too big”.

“The picture makes the ocean look rough, but it was relatively small.

I’m a qualified lifeguard, had another mate of mine on the beach who was another qualified lifeguard, I’m a trained surf instructor, I’m currently doing a degree in oceanography [as part of an Earth Sciences degree]. I would have a little bit more knowledge.
Going down there, I would know the weather conditions back to front before heading out there. For me it wasn’t even significant.

When Gerry saw Luke in the water, he said he was “taken aback” but added that it was obvious after a few seconds that the man “knew what he was doing”.

Panama.Surf Luke has taught people to surf in the Caribbean, the US, Australia and Southeast Asia. Source: Luke Donnelly

“People who are into adventure sports go out into hazardous conditions,” he said, adding that the photo does open up a discussion on what emergency services should do.

So what does Luke think of Fianna Fáil’s proposal to make it an offence to ignore red weather warnings to stay indoors?

“I can definitely see the point in it,” he says, “but what I was doing was more calculated. If someone brings out a small craft in gale force winds, or winds exceeding 150 mph, they’re going to [have to] get rescued.”

I don’t recommend it to anyone to go into the water without the adequate experience. There’s plenty of surf schools on both the east and west coast of the country if anyone wants to give surfing a go under the guidance of a qualified ISA instructor.

But he admits that there are many people out there who think that it will never be them who get caught out in a storm. “There’s always a chance you can get hurt,” he says.

“It’s kind of gotten to the point where I have to think now, do I call ahead and tell the Coast Guard that I’m going out and I don’t want to be rescued.

“But then if someone else gets into difficulty in the same area and the Coast Guard don’t come out to the actual call, that’s more or less my fault, so it’s kind of like an ethical decision of whether to call the Coast Guard.”

On the day Storm Ophelia hit, the Irish Coast Guard said that the decision to head out to sea made by those who were later rescued were “innocent errors”, but said that it wasn’t the day for Coast Guard services to be unnecessarily held up.

It’s because of this, on the day of an unprecedented tropical storm slamming into Ireland that people became outraged at the idea that someone would head out to take that risk. Does he understand that outrage?

“I mean, I can and I can’t,” Luke says.

I can see if swimmers were out in that. I wouldn’t think it would be a good idea for kids to be out or people out on piers, as an example.

“I think the reaction to it was definitely because there were so many people sitting at home because they had the day off work and then a picture popped up, so there would be a lot more people commenting on it than normally would.

“People were saying that ‘He has no respect for his family, he’s going to die out there’. My family knew I was there and were laughing at that kind of reaction.”

So what did he think when he saw the photo itself? Is he happy with the shot?

“I kind of try to stay under the radar, it’s a cool photo the angle that it was taken at, but I didn’t really want to associate my name with it. There was just a huge backlash especially some of the more harsh comments.”

And Gerry?

“Not particularly so, to me it’s just a photograph! I travel the world taking photographs and have been in tricky situations myself - a few weeks ago I was in a tropical storm in Vietnam.”

Read: Coast Guard warns public to stay away from the sea after people spotted in stormy waters

Read: ‘People need to take responsibility’: Laws could punish those who put emergency services at risk

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