“It wasn’t an option. It just had to be done.”
That’s the simple explanation offered by John Franklin Riggs, discussing his extraordinary effort to get help for his family after their boat capsized in the Chesapeake Bay Tuesday night. Riggs swam for five hours in darkness before finding help near Deal Island, Md.
Their fishing boat had been overwhelmed by a storm that hit the Bay that night. On the boat were Riggs’ father, 70, and sister, along with two children, ages 3 and 9. As Riggs swam, they clung to the boat, which drifted five miles in strong tides.
“The boat finally sank just before sundown and we were hanging there on the sides,” Riggs, 46, tells Reuters. “I waited a while and no other boats were out there. Finally, I decided to swim, and that’s what I did. I just swam and swam.”
After Riggs left to get help, those left at the boat sang songs to pass the time, Reuters says.
They were reportedly wearing life jackets, but that didn’t protect them from sea nettles as they floated, Riggs’ sister, Contessa, tells news site Delmarva Now.
Riggs says he used lights on shore to guide himself; he also used crab pot buoys in the bay to get a breather. Finally, at around 1 a.m., he arrived at the shore, and went to the first house he saw. There, residents Carol Wood and Angela Byrd called the fire department for help.
Riggs’ family spent another two hours or so in the water, as a rescue helicopter searched for them.
“It is a long swim for anybody, in that kind of tide and that kind of wind,” Deal Island Fire Chief Donald Ford tells local TV station WBOC. “I don’t know if too many people survive Tangier Sound in a flood tide like that.”
Speaking with Reuters, Contessa Riggs says she was sure her brother would reach shore.
“When I finally saw him on the boat, I just said ‘I told you you’re my hero,'” she tells the news agency.