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.
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 the District; 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 rainsquall 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 Inc., 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.’ ”
But it was on them quickly. “The boat took two or three over the bow,” he said. “Then it started coming over the stern. From that . . . it just went right out from underneath of us. . . . It was shockingly fast.”
Contessa Riggs said only her son had a life jacket on, so she grabbed two more and gave one to her niece. She got hers partially on before they were all in the water. Everyone clung to the boat. Her brother and father both dived under the vessel to retrieve their life jackets.
It was about 7 p.m. Thirty minutes later, the storm hit.
It was a pretty big storm,” she said. “There was lightning striking around us, hitting the water. . . . It was just horrible. My niece was crying. My son was crying.”
They worried about who might rescue them. She was not expected back in Washington until the next morning. And they were growing increasingly concerned about the children.
“Both of the kids were really cold,” she said. “Conrad, my son, was just shivering and shivering and saying, ‘I’m cold. I’m cold.’ ”
And now that it was getting dark, any other barges that came by were liable to run them down.
John Franklin Riggs knew that plenty of fuel barges traveled the sound. But they were often so illuminated for people to see them that they couldn’t see beyond their lights, he said. Plus, an overturned Carolina Skiff would probably not show up on a barge’s radar, he said.
“Even if they did see us, by the time they’d seen us, they wouldn’t have been able to turn or stop,” he said. “That would have been terrible. That would have been the end of the scene right there.”
The adults had already decided that it was too far to swim for shore, but John Franklin Riggs could see by his sister’s face that she was really worried about the children.
“When it really got to the desperate hour, I asked her . . . ‘Do you want me to try and make a swim?’ ” he recalled. “And she said, ‘No, but yeah.’ ”
“With that, I told her she owed me a pair of shoes, kicked off my shoes and headed to shore,” he said. It was then about 8:30 p.m.
Five hours later, after everyone had clambered aboard a rescue boat, Contessa Riggs spotted her brother, who had ridden out with the rescuers.
“Johnny Riggs!” she yelled. “I love you! I told you you were my . . . hero!”
On Friday, he said he still wanted replacements for his old shoes.
“They were Rockports,” he said. “They were nice shoes.”
Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.