A cautionary tale – knowing your limits with David Tidball

Words: David ‘Tids’ Tidball

It was nearly 25 years ago I drowned in the Great Storm of 1987…

With the advance of Hurricane Ophelia I was helping a young in the blood surfer get his SUP ready at the weekend. Excitedly, between gluing, he showed me the graphics on his phone from the MSWeed App. “Look”, he said “Its 16sec at 4 meters, wow!!! Shame I’m at work.”

In 1987 Michael Fish announced that no hurricane was coming to the lady who’d called in to the BBC. My fellow watermen and I were always excited by big tightly packed concentric rings on the 6:30pm weather reports. The next day at work after receiving several faxed synoptic charts (that was our MSW of the day) we rushed to the local beach, Exmouth, about 7 miles from where I worked as a young lawyer in Exeter.

We rigged our smallest windsurf sails as the wind picked up. The sea emptied and the tide advanced. I swapped rigs with my less-good but larger friend, John, who could not manage the conditions. About an hour later I found myself trapped on the sand bar with 4m waves bashing me from two sides due the convergence at this point. With a friend, Gary, in attendance I shouted my intent and tried to separate rig from board to allow me to surf home. Then a huge wall of water towered over me before breaking, separating me from board and senses. I was momentarily pinned to the sand bottom before being released and span. I caught breath only to be hit again and again. I lost count of how many times this happened. I fumbled in foam to gasp more breath. I was fit but not enough. I was swimming and just trying to survive. I heard the launch maroons, woosh BANG, and then again, woosh BANG for the lifeboat. The big orange boat in the distance was but a glimmer as I fell asleep – content. The white light and warmth consumed me. I was being drawn inwards and I liked it.

“Wake up you f##k!”  Bang went my head against the deck of John’s board. I came to in a cold grey place. I liked hearing John swear at me. I’d made it to the channel. I landed on a shale bank and ran until eventually a man from a large yellow helicopter tackled me. I remember falling in a field, blue lights flashing and being taken to hospital where voices filled my head. I heard them say he’s lost three degrees and still going down. I fitted, threw off my coverings and ran half clothed in silver and neoprene to a room where four men in yellow sat drinking tea. They smiled, I counted 1-2-3-4 and fainted.

That night my dad picked me up. “Mum’s got soup on”, he said and we drove home in silence.

I made the news that day – front page and all. I’d been in the water fighting for over two hours, the inshore lifeboat had turned over coming to get me. The coastguard’s son had his christening ruined. Ever grateful and whisky laden I made my apologies and today I still spend much of my time helping lifesavers of all sorts on land and sea. I have the dubious honor of surviving a drowning experience.

So when you all get excited with the coming of Ophelia (or other storms) remember it’s not the seconds between the sets but the size and uncontrollable nature of big swells you need to think about. It’s not that phone app that puts you in harm’s way, it’s your decisions. This is a once in 25 year storm therefore in theory if you were not around to see the last storm in 1990 then you’re not going to handle it.

1987 was a once in 200 year storm and although information is much better now remember to be careful. Be sensible, know your limits as the decisions you make on one day may last a lifetime-  25 years is a lot, lets live to see it!

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  1. Know your limits with Ophelia | Andy Joyce

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