Keep your life jacket on!

On June 27, 2020, Ritchie Nichols and his dad, Richard, went fishing on South Carolina's Lake Moultrie. Little did they know, their father-and-son getaway would turn into a life-threatening ordeal. (Nichols family photos)

Have you ever flipped through channels on television and happened to come across the show “When Vacations Attack?” It’s the kind of show that features accounts of tragic accidents in the wild. Most people would probably say, “That would never happen to me,” or “That’s pretty farfetched!”

That’s exactly what I used to think.

Some of the stories on the show are just that–rare instances that have only happened to a handful of people. Even though I never thought I would be the one to experience a freak accident or find myself in some horrific life-or-death crisis, I still always pray for safe travels before any trip. Not only do I pray for my safety, but also the safety of my fellow travelers and our families.

On one fishing trip last summer, I found out firsthand why it is always a good idea to pray, as I would go on to experience a near-death situation that seemed like something you’d see on The Discovery Channel.

Father and son fishing trip

When Covid hit, it gave me a chance to slow down and rekindle and build on the relationships with my family and friends. When work slowed down, I saw it as the perfect opportunity to take my dad on a fishing trip to one of my favorite fishing destinations. The sole purpose of this trip was to show him a good time in hopes that it would bring us closer together, and I was determined to make that happen. Little did I know at the time, this trip would end up bringing us closer than we’d ever been.

I had all the details planned out for a four-day fishing trip, and I was looking forward to spending some time on our own, out on the lake.

Ritchie and Keila Nichols with their two children, Mayson and Mariana. (Nichols family photo)

On June 26, 2020, I visited my wife, Keila, and daughter, Mariana, at the hospital in Atlanta. We ate dinner and enjoyed good conversation all evening. After a lovely visit, we said our goodbyes, and I left. I knew my daughter was in good hands. I then visited my son, Mayson. Before I left on the trip, I hugged each of them, told them I loved them and I’d see them soon.

Later that day, my dad and I arrived at our destination.

Santee Cooper consists of two lakes: Lake Marion and Lake Moultrie. We started out fishing Lake Moultrie. The lake is more than sixty-thousand acres and is the third-largest lake in South Carolina. Wildlife is abundant there, including some of the largest alligators in the state. It is a beautiful place, especially at sunset.

As I would soon find out, it’s not a place that you want to get caught in a storm.

An unexpected storm

On June 27, 2020, my dad and I ventured out onto the lake. We were both very obviously excited as the boat pulled away from the ramp. I FaceTimed my wife from the boat and showed her my beautiful surroundings. As we talked, she asked, “Are you wearing your life jacket?” I replied, “No,” feeling a little rebellious but also glad to have a wife who cares so much for me. She immediately told me to be sure and put it on right away as soon as we hung up. Foolishly, I didn’t put the life jacket on at that moment. I brushed it off, not thinking I’d need it, and we headed out onto the lake.

Richard Nichols hooks a fish

At around 7 that evening, not more than a half-hour later, my dad hooked his first fish. My reaction was that of a child  — I was grinning from ear to ear. My dad later told Keila that he had never seen me so excited.

We fished another hour before heading in for the night. I looked at the weather before moving and saw nothing on the screen: Clear skies with a little wind. It was getting darker out, and the night was beautiful. I motored the boat toward the camp and decided to make one last stop before calling it a night. By that time, it was 8:50 pm. The place where I decided to stop looked very promising, and I was ready to catch a big fish.

After stopping, I began looking around to decide where to cast my line. We were twenty yards from one side of a bank and twenty yards from the other side of the bank. I could only see the outline of the shore. Five minutes later, it began to rain, so I checked the weather radar again, but there were still no signs of bad weather.

What happened next was completely unexpected and terrifying.

Within three minutes, a fierce wind came out of nowhere. We had no warning at all, and everything just started happening so quickly!

“I knew I was in grave danger if I got separated from my life jacket.”

I could tell right away that we had gotten caught up in a really bad storm. The wind caused the waves to kick up tumultuously. I looked at my dad and told him, “If we don’t get out of here, we are in trouble!” I cranked the boat and tried to get us to safety as quickly as I could. Moments later, my dad yells, “Ritchie, we are going down!” As soon as he said that, I felt the water hit my knees, and the boat capsized. It was at that moment that I remembered my wife’s words and quickly grabbed my life jacket. Thank God my dad had worn his the entire time we were out there.

Just like that, the boat turned upside down and we were in the water. We struggled against the rain, fierce waves and wind, and the current beneath us. I was struggling to hold onto my life jacket as I hadn’t had time to put it on properly, so, I was just holding it in my arms with all my might. I knew I was in grave danger if I got separated from the life jacket. I held on to that thing as if my life depended on it because I knew that it did.

The wind and current caused the boat to keep ramming into us. I was afraid that we would get our shoes hung in one of the rod holders and be drawn under, so I kicked it with all my strength to get it clear of us. Then, I hear my dad say, “I love you, Ritchie.” I said, “I love you too!” That was the last I heard from him.

Lord, help me get through the night

The storm passed quickly, but the waves were almost just as rough and going in every direction. I found myself alone and afraid. I gathered my thoughts and started to pray — so many thoughts kept running through my mind. I couldn’t stop thinking of my family and continuously thanking God for my utterly amazing life. I thought about those who had died in the hospital alone, taken by Covid. I prayed that I had not killed my dad on our very first trip together.

I was also mad.

South Carolina’s Lake Moultrie is one of Ritchie Nichols’ favorite fishing spots. That’s where he and his dad were on the evening of June 27, 2020, when their boat capsized. (Nichols family photo)

Hours had gone by at that point. I was mad at my wife, assuming that she must not have even been worried or bothered to call anyone because I had not been rescued. I thought surely someone from the camp will notice. But no one came. All night I floated, swimming against the treacherous waves and weather. I realized that these evil thoughts and blame weren’t coming from me but a darker presence.

Once I realized I was under attack spiritually, I said, “Devil, not today! You are not taking my life today. I will not die alone out here. You are a liar and a thief. You will not rob me of my family or my life!” I felt empowered and surrounded by the love of God at that moment. I decided to remain positive and try my best to get through the night.

Once I felt God’s hand over me, I knew I had to do something to help myself. Eventually, I started swimming toward some lights that I kept seeing that seemed close enough to swim to. I swam for two hours straight, and I was getting nowhere. I looked at my watch and noticed it was 1 am. I repeated the same prayer. “Not today, devil,” for it was a new day, and I knew in my heart my God was right there with me.

After the long swim and getting nowhere, I was totally physically and mentally exhausted. Then, I heard a still, small voice say, “Are you done yet?” I answered, “Really, Lord? I have nowhere to go, and no one is checking on me. Yes, I think I’m done.” All the while, it felt like something was keeping me away from those lights. Like a force much larger than myself or my life was holding out a hand and blocking me from reaching the lights that seemed like the shortest route to safety. At the time, I did not understand, but it was not long after that it all ended up making a lot of sense.

I’ve found that is how God works in our lives so often when we do not understand what is going on and we lose hope or get frustrated — when we are trying to make our own plans and follow our own lead, not remembering how God is always working behind the scenes on our behalf.

Covering 60,400 acres, Lake Moultrie is the third largest lake in South Carolina. It stretches 14 miles across at its widest point and has an average depth of around 18 feet. (Source: South Carolina DNR)

I later learned that I had actually been swimming towards a very dangerous area—a swampy area where I’m told there are hoards of alligators. The lights were a warning to nearby boats to steer clear of the shallow waters near the marsh. The entire time I swam, that still, small voice was knowingly keeping me away from the danger.

This account serves as a constant reminder that even when I can’t see or feel Him working and even when I’m trying to do things my way, to take a step back and realize that God is always working for my benefit. He is always watching my back, whether I understand it or not.

I couldn’t stop thinking of my family and continuously thanking God for my utterly amazing life…I prayed that I had not killed my dad on our very first trip together.

After my exchange with God, I fell asleep on my life jacket for a short time, only to be awakened by a loud splash right beside me. It was the biggest splash I have ever heard. My thoughts suddenly turned to the alligators. At the time, I had not thought about the wildlife with everything else that was going on. I believe we scared each other so much that both of us went in different directions. Then suddenly, my swimming skills were that of a professional. I felt like I could have outswum any athlete.

By the time I finally came to a stop, it was 4 a.m. At this point, I knew I just had to float until daybreak, and a sort of peace had come over me.

Daybreak, danger, despair

Daybreak seemed to come early, and, to my amazement, I could see the shore. I began to swim toward the shore, but I was exhausted. I must have swum for several hours, but, like before, I was getting nowhere thanks to the strong current and waves. I had to wait until the boats started coming out and ride the wakes to shore. I later realized I had been swimming toward shore that morning for three full hours–from 6 a.m. until 9 a.m. when I finally reached the shore.

Once I had land underneath my feet, I began climbing up the bank, and I collapsed from sheer exhaustion. I laid there and stripped off my clothes, hoping they would dry. I knew I had to get myself dry if I was going to survive. Then, I just slept. I slept for two hours, only to be awakened by an alligator skull digging in my back–a remnant, stuck in the dirt, that I had not noticed when I collapsed there. I told myself, “At least I’m out of the water and the danger of drowning,” but deep down, I knew that a new danger awaited me on the island.

A few small islands jut out into the open waters of Lake Moultrie. (Source: South Carolina DNR)

On the island, the dangers I was faced with were alligators, snakes, mosquitoes, heat and humidity, dehydration, and my arthritis made worse from being in the lake all night. Every muscle in my body ached from swimming all night. I tried to get up and walk and only fell back to the ground. I finally got enough energy to get to my feet and found two sticks I could use as crutches. I then found a spot to sit down to plan my next move. I happened to spot a boat in the distance. I got back to my feet, grabbed my white shirt, and waved it in the air, all while yelling. The boat came closer and closer. I thought I was going to be saved. The bow of that boat was pointed straight at me and suddenly turned and left. I guess a man standing in his red underwear was too much to handle. My heart dropped — my mind almost in despair.

Again I prayed, “Lord, you did not let me come this far, swim for 12 hours, only to let me die on an island. I cannot accept this defeat.” I sat against a tree and went through the pockets of my life jacket to see what I could use. I had nothing but my wallet. The only useful things were the credit cards to use as reflectors and a quarter. Again, I stood to my feet, grabbed my clothes, and walked using the crutches I had made. I walked, keeping the water in sight, when all of a sudden, I walked into the path of an 8-foot alligator. We looked at each other, right in the eyes. He opened his mouth and hissed at me. That was my cue to leave. I had to find another route. I slowly walked away only to find a swamp that I could not cross: alligator territory!

Wildlife, including alligators, is abundant in the waters of Santee Cooper Lakes. (Source: South Carolina DNR)

Every step I took, I stepped on alligator shells, bones, and humps where they had buried their shells. I noticed their tracks indented in the soil. There was no way I was going to win a wrestling match with one of those guys. I walked all the way around the island until I was absolutely dehydrated, and I just could not go on. I came to rest beside where some alligators had made their home, but they didn’t seem to be home that day, thank God. It was the best place I could find in case of rescue.

I could see boats sitting in the channel miles away. I was close to a tree that I could climb to sleep in. The only problem was the nearly 12-foot alligator swimming right in front of me. I prayed again and told the alligator we’d have to be buddies for a while. “I am not here to hurt you,” I said, hoping he understood my tone. I cautiously stepped in the water and drank lake water until I couldn’t drink anymore. My throat was on fire, and my body was shutting down. I stripped down to my underwear again to dry out and placed my white shirt on the farthest point I could. I laid down in the shade and drifted off to sleep.

Rescue!

(screen capture WCIV)

I woke up to the sound of a boat cranking. I looked up to see they were heading in my direction. I just sat there watching them come closer, completely dumbfounded. I didn’t move. Once I could muster the energy to stand, I got up and tried to wave them down. They got closer and closer. I jumped in the water, waving my shirt in the air like a flag. They flashed lights at me, and I just threw my hands into the air and shouted, “Thank you, Jesus.” At last! I was rescued!

They took me into the boat, and right away, I asked to call my wife. I knew she would probably never let it go if I didn’t get in touch with her immediately, and I could have only imagined how worried she must have been. They did call her and told her that I was ok and headed to the hospital.

I can’t remember ever being so relieved in my life.

“God still performs miracles.”

The EMTs then informed me that they had found my dad–he was at the hospital being treated for dehydration as he was in the water all night. I was utterly relieved. The EMT motored me back to camp where we were staying, only to find a crowd of people standing there watching, awaiting our return. They put me on a gurney, and everyone cheered loudly and clapped to praise my rescue. One guy in the crowd said to me, “You are one lucky S.O.B.” I just had to laugh. To be honest, I needed a good laugh after the night I had just gone through.

After a brief investigation, I was on my way to the hospital. At the hospital, they wheeled me in to see my dad before taking me to another room. I said, “Hey, Pops, we made it,” as tears flowed down his face.

Father and son were reunited more than 18 hours after being separated by the storm. (WCIV)

I was missing for 18 hours and my dad for 15 hours that weekend, both of us in perilous, life-threatening conditions. I was alone, dehydrated, and at one point hypothermic. The EMT told me on the boat that I probably would not have survived another night.

It is by the grace of God that I was able to endure. God shut the alligator’s mouth. He guided the alligators and wildlife in different directions, away from us. He kept me from swimming right into the marsh. My dad and I are here today because of the grace of God.

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What a difference a year makes. Ritchie survived his harrowing ordeal and was around to celebrate his son Mayson’s wedding to daughter-in-“love,” Charleigh. (Nichols family photo)

What I learned

Three days before the anniversary of his rescue, Ritchie Nichols and his wife, Keila, welcomed their grandson, Richard Miller Nichols, into the world. (Nichols family photo)

It has been a year since the accident, and I still struggle with some of the events from that night. Yes! I still wake up in the middle of the night feeling like I am drowning, and I struggle with thoughts of “what if?”

God has blessed me to see my family again and to meet my first grandson, who was just born on June 25. I cannot wait to tell him the story when he’s old enough to understand. What I went through was tough, and people want to hear my story and what I have taken away from this experience.

The Bible is like a life jacket: It will keep you afloat through the wind and the waves, no matter how dark it gets

My message is this: Even now, in this day and time, God still performs miracles. God may take you on the longest route possible to keep you from danger. You may not understand what he’s doing or why He’s doing it, but let him, it’s ok; He knows better than we do.

The times may be hard, and you may feel like giving up. Keep your life jacket on!

The Bible is like a life jacket: It will keep you afloat through the wind and the waves, no matter how dark it gets. No matter how strong the storm, you can weather anything if you keep the Lord at your side.

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