July 13, 2013

Heroic swim leads to family's rescue on Chesapeake

A man braves currents, storm-tossed waves, stinging nettles and jellyfish to save his family.

The Washington Post

The family had been in the water a while, clinging to the overturned boat called the Bathtub. The children were cold and crying. The waves were rough, and the mess of croaker they had caught had gone to the bottom, along with their cellphones.

click image to enlarge

Siblings John and Contessa Riggs, photographed Friday at her Washington home, were fishing with her son, their niece and their father Tuesday when their skiff overturned.

Washington Post photo/ Jahi Chikwendiu

Suddenly, they spotted a northbound barge a couple of hundred yards away. The adults boosted a 9-year-old onto the hull of the upturned boat and had her wave her hands. But the barge didn't see them, and it glided way into the distance.

This was about dusk Tuesday, and the Chesapeake Bay ordeal of Contessa Riggs, 43, of Washington; son Conrad Drake, 3; niece Emily Horn, 9; brother John Franklin Riggs, 46; and father John Riggs Jr., 70, was just beginning.

They went on to endure a violent rain squall and stinging nettles that wrapped around their legs, and there was the agonizing five-hour wait while John Franklin Riggs struggled against the tides and wicked currents in Tangier Sound to swim for help.

There was also the sight of blue phosphorescent jellyfish, called sea combs, clinging to their hair and skin.

The ordeal ended about 1:30 a.m. Wednesday when a Maryland State Police helicopter spotted them during a search of the dark waters off Deal Island, on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

They were pulled to safety by state and local rescue boats, one of which carried John Franklin Riggs. He had made it to shore by resting on a crab pot buoy and swimming for a house decorated with Christmas lights.

"It was miserable," he said Friday. "Couldn't breathe hardly. Sea nettles and jellyfish burning you up. Tide ripping you one way. First I swam with the ebb tide . . . [Then] flood tide got off. . . . I was out of steam. I stopped in the water. My body went straight up and down in the water, and my big toe hit sand."

He staggered to a house, where rescue crews were alerted.

The day had started as a simple fishing trip. Tuesday morning, Contessa Riggs drove with her son and niece, who was visiting from California, to her father's home in Salisbury, Md. They then towed the 16-foot Bathtub to Chance, Md., and set out to go fishing about 1:30 p.m.

The family has deep roots on the Eastern Shore. Contessa Riggs grew up on the water in Rock Hall, Md., north of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Her brother still lives there.

Her father is a retired commercial fisherman, and her brother is carrying on in the family business. "All of us have a healthy respect for the water," she said Friday. "We love it. It's in our blood, for better or for worse," she said. "But you've got to respect it."

Contessa Riggs, who runs a nonprofit agency, Jobs Have Priority, that operates three shelters for Washington's homeless, said they were about three miles into the sound. As the sun began to set, she said she and her brother were both thinking that they ought to head for home. But the fishing had been good, and the elder Riggs wanted to make one last run.

The bay, however, can be capricious.

"Tangier Sound is probably one of the nastiest places in the Chesapeake Bay," John Franklin Riggs said. "The currents . . . real tall, sharp waves. There's nothing to knock them down. It kills a lot of duck hunters in the wintertime. If the water had been cold, every one of us would have been dead. That's just a fact."

He said they could see a storm to the south, which looked as if it were headed from west to east. "But when it hit that sound, it turned and come up that sound," he said. "We were like, 'We better get on shore."'

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