After six hours of fishing on Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay, 46-year-old John Franklin Riggs and his sister Contessa, 43, were ready to call it a day. It was nearing 7 p.m., the sun was setting, and the croakers had stopped biting. But their father, John senior, said, “Let’s do just one more run.” Since it was his dad’s 70th birthday, John figured he’d indulge him. Gunning the motor on the 16-foot skiff they called the Bathtub, the younger man turned the boat around and headed back toward Tangier Sound. The kids—Contessa’s three-year-old son, Conrad, and their sister April’s nine-year-old daughter, Emily—were having so much fun, and the mild weather was holding out. Why not?
The anglers hadn’t yet cast their lines when high waves began battering the little boat. Within minutes, water was sloshing around their feet. John grabbed a five-gallon bucket for bailing; Contessa retrieved life jackets for Emily and herself from a compartment in the bow and tightened the one Conrad was wearing. As Contessa was getting into her life vest, two big waves rolled over the bow, one right after the other. Within a few seconds, the skiff had tipped backward and capsized, tossing the five of them into the sound.
About four feet of the boat’s bow jutted out of the water, and everyone grabbed onto it. “Let’s get back in the boat, Mommy,” Conrad murmured. He was shivering.
“People know we’re out here,” Contessa reassured him. “They’ll send help soon.”
Bobbing in the water, the adults exchanged grim looks. They were floating in the middle of a shipping channel frequented by huge fuel barges that might run them over.
“I knew we were in a tight spot,” says John, a third-generation commercial fisherman who, like his father and sister, had been raised on the Chesapeake Bay.
When a squall blew through about half an hour after the boat had capsized, the children panicked. “The waves were really big,” says Contessa. “It was brutal to be in the water.”
It had been a perfect July day, with the water at a temperate 70 degrees, but everyone was cold by 9 p.m. The water was thick with jellyfish, which stung anyone who brushed up against him or her. John could see that his father, who was diabetic and had a pacemaker, was turning gray.
If they weren’t rescued soon, they might not survive the night, John recognized, but the closest spit of shoreline was about four miles away, illuminated by only a few glowing house lights. After a while, John asked his sister in a low voice, “Should I swim for it?”
“Yeah, do it,” she replied.
Pushing quietly away from the boat, John focused on alternating swim strokes as his muscles started to burn. Strong tides pushed him up the bay, then pulled him in the opposite direction. But he plowed on, propelled by the image of his family drifting helplessly back at the boat.
Soon all that remained to guide his way was a strand of lights outlining a single home.
Around 1 a.m., after swimming for four hours, John stopped and flipped over on his back. When he let his legs hang down vertically in the water, his feet hit a sandbar. Getting a toehold, he crept along the ridge of sand to shore and dragged himself along the waterfront to the house framed in lights. He pounded on the door. A half hour later, he was on a boat with a search party, heading out into the bay to hunt for his family.
At 3 a.m., a helicopter crew spotted the foursome floating six miles north of where their boat had capsized. When at last Contessa and her other relatives were pulled from the bay, miraculously unharmed, it was thanks to her brother, she knew. “He’s my hero,” she says. “He always has been.”