Man swims 5 1/2 hours to save family after boat capsizes

A man swam 5 1/2 hours in the darkness of Tangier Sound, Maryland, to summon help as four other family members, including two children, clung to the capsized fishing boat that had taken on too much water and overturned in stormy weather.

abc news john franklin riggs

Photo of John Franklin Riggs via ABC News screen grab.

The 16-foot skiff toppled around 7 p.m. Tuesday night, and 30 minutes later, John Franklin Riggs, 46, set out for help, swimming three miles through stinging jellyfish and strong waves, and then crawling over rocks along the shoreline to find the first house he could, according to the Daily Times of Salisbury, Maryland, WBOC and the Maryland Dept. of Natural Resources Police.

“It wasn’t an option, it just had to be done because they had been out there all night,” Riggs told WBOC, adding that the lives of his father, sister and young niece and nephew depended on it.

Riggs couldn’t explain how he did it, but told WBOC that his only thoughts were of saving his family.

“Just not knowing what’s going on with them while I was gone,” he told WBOC. “It was getting nasty and blowing harder. And not knowing if we [rescue crews and Riggs] would be able to find them when we got back out there.”

It was about 1 a.m. Wednesday when Riggs reached land in Chance, Maryland, located on the sound in Chesapeake Bay. Riggs got the attention of Angela Byrd, thanks to her barking dogs.

"I've been swimming since sundown; I need help," Riggs said, according to Byrd.

Byrd phoned 911 and the Deal Island fire chief, whom she knew. At around 3 a.m., eight hours after the boat capsized, a rescue helicopter hovered over the relieved family members, who were soon surrounded by members of the Mt. Vernon Volunteer Fire Department and the U.S. Coast Guard.

"There were a few storms in the area, and the boat turned upside down," Sgt. Brian Albert of Maryland Natural Resources Police told the Daily Times. "Mr. Riggs swam to shore. These people are very lucky. No one was injured."

fishing map

Google Map outlines town of Chance, Maryland, where John Franklin Riggs summoned help. It is surrounded by Tangier Sound. Chesapeake Bay can be seen at the far left.

John Riggs, 70, organized the fishing trip and was among those who were rescued along with his daughter Contessa Riggs, his grandson Conrad Drake, 3, and his granddaughter Emily Horn, 9. John Franklin Riggs, the swimming rescuer, is John Riggs' son.

The Carolina Skiff capsized three miles offshore near Shark Fin Shoal in Northern Tangier Sound, according to the Maryland Dept. of Natural Resources Police. Once the boat began taking on water, the occupants put on life jackets and then hung on to the boat once it overturned. They were found near the mouth of the Wicomico River.

"I've never been so happy to see search boats in my life," Contessa told the Daily Times. "It took him five hours to swim ashore. He had to stop and grab a crab pot buoy and rest, then swim.

"We clung to the side of the boat and got stung by sea nettles in the dark."

The family wore life jackets and that is what saved their lives, Albert said.

In an interview with ABC News, Contessa elaborated on the horrifying ordeal. With lightening on the horizon and the weather nasty, they knew no other boats would be passing by, and family wasn't expecting them to return until the next day. They were on their own.

“John and I looked at each other and he said, ‘Should I try it?’" Contessa said, referring to her brother John Franklin Riggs. "I knew he was talking about swimming to shore. So I told him to try it. But we had no idea if he would make it to shore."

Meanwhile, the kids took turns sitting on the boat with Contessa holding the other between her and the boat siding.

coast guard boat  1

Coast Guard from South Island, Maryland. Photo: Lee Cannon/Flickr.

"It was so cold," Contessa said. "My son [Conrad] was shivering and shivering and shivering against me. He kept repeating, 'I don't like this,' 'I don't like this,' 'This is no fun.'...

"It was absolutely horrible. Our legs were getting stung over and over again by the jellyfish. We had cuts and bruises. My son was crying. Waves kept crashing over our heads."

Contessa was most concerned about her father, who wears a pacemaker, and she agonized over the realization that if anything happened to him, she'd have to choose between helping him and leaving the kids, or just staying with the kids.

"It was such a hard choice to make peace with," she said.

To buoy spirits, Contessa kept saying rescuers were coming and talked about "stupid things" like eating ice cream and watching movies.

When John Franklin made it to the beach, he was so tired he couldn't walk, so he crawled to the nearest house. Fortunately, dogs were present and their barking woke the occupants. John Franklin accompanied one of the rescue boats and was soon reunited with the family.

"It was the most amazing feeling," Contessa told ABC News. "I ran up to John and said, 'You are my hero.'"

He was being hailed as a hero by everybody else, too.