NEWPORT CITY, VT – A sailing trip on Lake Memphremagog turned tragic for 58-year-old John Connell of Calais, VT, Sunday afternoon.
Connell jumped off the sailboat he was on in an attempt to retrieve a canoe his boat had in tow, Police Chief J. Paul Duquette said. Duquette said Connell took a few strokes away from the boat and hollered back to his friend that he was having breathing difficulties. Connell’s friend, who was still on the boat in clothes, went below to change but, by the time he returned to the main deck, Connell had disappeared.
“He dove in to look for his friend but it’s so murky out there he couldn’t see him,” said Duquette. “He went back on to the boat to look for bubbles but he didn’t see any so he got on the phone and put out a call for people.”
Newport City Police, the Newport City Fire Department, Vermont State Police, the state police drive team, Border Patrol and Newport Ambulance Service responded to the scene at around 4:11 p.m.
Firefighters on the fireboat used an underwater camera to find Connell’s body. The rescue ended up being a recovery mission for the state police dive team.
“It’s the safest thing to do,” said Duquette about using the dive team. “They were in 16-feet of water. That’s pretty far down to try to retrieve somebody.”
The dive team has members all across the state. One member came from the Rutland area, another from the Middlesex area and another from the Brattleboro area. The dive team has one member from the northern part of the state, but he acts as a support member.
Connell’s body was sent to Burlington to determine the exact cause of death, but it doesn’t appear suspicious.
The men were not part of Sunday’s sailboat regatta.
“They keep a boat here and this was the first time they were on it this year,” Duquette said of the men.
Ironically, Connell’s canoe made it back to the city dock, which other boaters had retrieved before they knew anything about what had happened just a feet away.
Thadd Beebe of Newport City was sitting on a bench on the western side of the dock when he saw the canoe float by and crash into the pier.
“I started yelling to people over on the boats, "There’s a loose canoe,'” said Beebe. “Three or four guys came jumping off their boat, one with a grappling hook, and grabbed onto the canoe and pulled it out of the water.”
The canoe contained a pair of shoes, two life jackets, oars and a grocery bag, Beebe said.
After rescue crews arrived, Beebe saw someone on the lake waving a white flag.
A witness, who helped retrieve the canoe and initially brought rescue crews to the area where Connell drowned, call it sad.
Drownings are not common on the United States side of Lake Memphremagog, but they do happen. Duquette said this one might have been the fifth or sixth one in the past 35 years or so.