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A 'dumb decision to swim pays off in five lives saved

Earlier this summer, a strong southerly breeze whipped up Tangier Sound, an isolated and beautiful body of water along Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

John Franklin Riggs runs a 50-foot workboat out of Rock Hall, Md.

Marshes teemed with ducks and other birds. Low islands seemed to float on an expanse of blue, like green oases in a classically remote Chesapeake Bay seascape.

The tide was on the ebb, and the shallow waters of the sound began to roil. Thunderheads built to the south and soared skyward in swirls of gray and white, heralding the potential arrival of one of the Bay’s ubiquitous summer squalls.

A 16-foot center console pitched in a riptide over Shark Fin Shoal just before 7 p.m. July 9. With the wind against a strong ebb tide, the 2- to 3-foot seas were confused and just perfect for catching fish feeding in the disturbed water. The family of five in the boat, a Carolina Skiff, were fishing for croaker. They’d been out since 1:30 p.m. and were having a grand time. “We were catching lots of fish,” says Contessa Riggs, 43, of Washington, D.C. “We thought we’d make one more run and then head in.”

Aboard the skiff were her 3-year-old son, Conrad, and her 9-year-old niece, Emily Horn. Also on board were her brother, John Franklin Riggs, 46, owner and operator of Perseverance, a 50-foot Chesapeake Bay-built workboat that he’s fished out of Rock Hall, Md., for years, and her father, John Riggs Jr., 70. John Riggs Jr., of Salisbury, Md., retired from commercial fishing after decades working on Chesapeake Bay. Contessa Riggs grew up steeped in the ways of watermen. The adults were all highly experienced boaters and knew Tangier Sound well.

Contessa Riggs

The skiff, which the family jokingly called “bathtub,” suddenly took a big wave over the bow. Then it took another. As her brother rushed aft to grab a bucket and bail, Contessa Riggs hurriedly pulled life jackets from a locker for her niece and herself. She got Emily’s partially on. Rearing up astern was a set of three steep waves. They hit the boat in rapid succession, delivering a one-two-three knockout punch. Seconds later everyone was struggling in the water. The boat capsized and sank stern first. “The boat just went over. It was amazingly fast. There was no chance to grab flares or anything like that,” she recalls.

Contessa Riggs clutched Conrad, who had been wearing a life jacket, while attempting to hold on to the bow section of the skiff. About three feet of it bobbed above the surface, air evidently trapped beneath the bow deck, which kept the boat from sinking. She cried out for her brother to take Conrad while she made sure her niece’s life jacket was secured. Then, with difficulty, she finished putting on her own. The two men dove under the boat and managed to free two more life jackets from a locker.

“When the boat capsized I knew we were in real trouble, given the time of day and where we were. There’s not a lot of shore traffic. The chance that we’d been seen was pretty much zero,” Contessa Riggs says. “I was thinking, Oh, my God! How are we going to get out of this?”

The squall blew in at about 7:30 p.m. Cold rain pelted the family. Lightning flashed all around them. Waves broke over the skiff, tossing Conrad and Emily off the exposed bow section. Contessa Riggs and her brother tried to keep the kids on top of the bow, pushing them out of the water whenever waves dislodged them. Her father helped, too. Sea nettles stung everyone. “It was terrible out there,” says John Franklin Riggs. “The kids were getting slammed around. They were cold. I don’t like talking about it.”

Contessa Riggs and her son Conrad, 3, spent eight hours in the water.

The squall passed in roughly 10 minutes, but the foul weather virtually guaranteed that no one would be out night fishing on the sound, further diminishing the chances of rescue. The sun sank lower on the western horizon. The crew on a fuel barge heading north failed to see them, and Contessa Riggs wondered if they might get run down in the dark. The water was about 80 degrees F, a saving grace. Yet as time ticked on, they all shivered from the cold and shock.

“All the safety equipment was on the bottom of the sound. The VHF was wet and under the boat. There was no cell phone service,” says John Franklin Riggs. “The kids were getting colder by the minute.”

At about 8:30 p.m., John Franklin Riggs quietly asked his sister if he should try to make it to shore. “I was grateful that he was willing to go. I didn’t see any other way out, but I wasn’t sure if he could make it to shore,” the sister says.

The adults knew staying with the boat was the recommended course of action, especially since they were about three miles from the nearest land. The toddler was fading. Emily was cold and losing strength. John Riggs Jr., the septuagenarian, was tiring, though he wasn’t in bad shape yet, except for the painful jellyfish stings.

John Franklin Riggs made his choice. He would swim for help knowing full well that he might not make it. “I did it knowing the consequences of not doing it,” he says. “It was just something I had to do.”

Contessa Riggs watched her brother swim away. Darkness fell. The tide turned, rushing them north. She watched crab pot buoys passing. They were moving quickly up the sound. She could make out the dark smudge of land and an occasional light ashore. She continued to reassure the kids that everything would be fine, but she had her doubts about that.

Hours crept by. The tide was going to turn soon. At roughly 1 a.m., six hours after capsizing, Contessa Riggs hit her low point. “I knew my brother hadn’t made it. I knew my dad was going to float away from the boat and that my son was going to die in my arms. But I knew I had to hold it together for Emily in the off chance that we made it till morning and were picked up,” she says.

At about that time, John Franklin Riggs was losing hope, as well. He’d been swimming toward the few shore lights he could see, but one by one the lights blinked out as people went to bed. Only one light now remained in sight. His arms felt like lead. He’d swallowed a lot of water. He could barely breathe. Sea nettles stung him mercilessly. Exhausted, he let his body go limp, allowing the life jacket to suspend him. Suddenly, he felt his feet touch sand. He willed himself to keep going. Staggering ashore, he made his way to the house. Oddly, it was all lit up with multicolored exterior lights that looked like the kind you use on a Christmas tree.

John Franklin Riggs

The rescue got under way shortly afterward. John Franklin Riggs went out in one of the rescue boats. “I went back to where I’d left the boat and worked north. The chopper was flying around. I was saying, ‘They can’t be up this far!’ We couldn’t find them. I was really starting to freak out,” he says.

The flashing lights of an emergency vehicle scooting along a country road in the far distance marked the first inkling that rescuers might be on their way, Contessa Riggs says. Then she saw the lights of a boat, but it was far away. She heard and saw a helicopter not long after that. “I thought, Here comes the cavalry! It was agonizing watching the grid search. They were south of us. I prayed they’d see us and not move on,” she recalls.

The spotlight of the helicopter twice passed over the upturned boat. “We were shouting and waving, trying to get them to see us,” Contessa Riggs says. “Then the pilot came over again and blinked his lights three times. I knew we’d been seen.”

Relief flooded through Contessa Riggs as a fire rescue boat pulled up a short time later, more than eight hours after the capsize. In that time, they’d drifted six miles north. Her brother showed up in another rescue boat, and the reunion was joyful. They’d come through a tough scrape, in part because they didn’t panic. They “took a calculated risk” and did what had to be done, she says.

“Leaving the boat was a dumb thing for me to do,” says John Franklin Riggs. “There just wasn’t anything else we could do.” He pauses and then laughs. “You know, the best part is the kids can’t wait to go fishing again.”

October 2013 issue