CHARLESTON — Robert Mallard Jr. and David Nelson were counting their blessings well before Thanksgiving this year. Two that they were most thankful for were their friends Champ Smith and Chris Wilson, who rescued them Nov. 11 after they were stranded in the ocean.
Mallard and Nelson, Bishop England High School graduates and experienced fishermen and boaters, were surf fishing on a sandbar Nov. 10 about 35 miles north of Charleston. Around 9:30 a.m. their boat broke anchor and was swept out with the current. Mallard began swimming after it, but the tide caught him and soon he was fighting for his life.
He spent the next three hours in 65-degree water and punishing winds, struggling to make shore on a nearby island.
“I had to keep on going,” Mallard told The Catholic Miscellany in a telephone interview. “I thought about my little boy and my wife and said, ‘He doesn’t need to grow up without a father.’ ”
Another drama was taking place on the sandbar. Nelson had watched Mallard swim off after the boat, and from his perspective, it looked as if Mallard had been swamped by waves and drowned.
But Nelson’s grief was soon combined with fear for his own life as the tide began rising. Nelson planted his fishing pole in the sandbar for support but was soon forced to tread water as the tide rose higher.
When the tide receded, night fell and the temperature dropped. Nelson tried to warm himself by digging a hole in the sand.
Mallard’s wife, Virginia, became concerned about 4 p.m. that day when she had not heard from her husband.
“He’s usually really good at checking in,” she said. “I left him a couple of messages but I was really not worried until David’s wife called.”
By the time the Coast Guard and Department of Natural Resources had started searching by sea and air, darkness had fallen.
Smith and Wilson had joined the rescue efforts after hearing about their missing friends, but were told to go back to the boat landing when their spotlight interfered with the rescue teams.
When the Coast Guard postponed the search until morning, the two decided to continue the search on their own.
“Something inside me was telling me that I had to keep looking,” Smith said. “I hadn’t quite reached the area where I wanted to go. All I could see was the faces of children and wives disappointed with no return.”
The former fishing guide did not allow the darkness, the tides or the waves to deter him, and his hunch proved correct. They found Mallard first and then set off to find Nelson.
“The hand of God was definitely in there playing upon us,” Smith said. “Trying to find David was like trying to find a needle in a haystack.”
Mallard said that he had been fortunate enough to find a bottle of water washed up on the island, but Nelson hadn’t been so lucky. When they finally found him, he was suffering from dehydration and exposure.
After they were back on dry land, calls began pouring in from friends, family and the media. Mallard said that he and Nelson were grateful for the many expressions of love and concern they received. They also wanted their friends to be recognized for their loyalty.
Mallard said the Lord was watching over them.
“Their wives were on their knees praying,” Mallard said of Smith and Wilson. “There are a bunch of small miracles here. All these people were praying for us. It got me home sooner and it got David’s bacon out of the fire. We were lucky and people were praying.”
Smith, a member of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, said that God had a hand in everything that happened.
“The crazy thing was that on Sunday, I went to the early service and the first song was ‘Rescue Me,’ ” he said. “The Holy Spirit was on my shoulder so hard it was incredible. It was quite an experience.”
Mallard’s boat was recovered a few days later near Hunting Island.