WESTPORT — Two men died and another was hospitalized when their boat capsized in rough water Tuesday during a duck hunting outing, casting them into the frigid Westport River, authorities said.
Shortly before 8 a.m., a resident who lives along the river saw an overturned boat and notified authorities, prompting an intensive search from the air and on the water. Around 10:30 a.m., the bodies of two men were found washed up on shore, about a half mile from the boat.
Authorities identified the victims as Steven James, 53, of Marshfield and Robert Becher, 55, of Cromwell, Conn.
A half-hour later, a third man from the hunting group, who had made it to a small island in the middle of the river, was rescued by a US Coast Guard helicopter crew. Gregg Angell, 51, of Westport, was treated for hypothermia and is expected to survive. He was listed in fair condition at Rhode Island Hospital.
At the time of the rescue, the air temperature was just 8 degrees, with water temperatures of 35 degrees. Authorities did not say if the men were wearing life jackets or had them on board. They said strong winds made the river choppy, conditions challenging for a small boat.
“You had the wind against the tide in the middle of the river,” said Richard Earle, Westport’s harbormaster. “You had 3-foot chop.”
During the search, a hunter’s glove was found about a half mile from the mouth of the river, Earle said. The men had launched their boat, which was believed to be made of aluminum and about 15 feet long, at the state boat ramp at Horseneck Beach State Reservation.
Authorities are investigating the incident, but said it does not appear to be suspicious.
James ran the Monster Shark Tournament for more than two decades on Martha’s Vineyard, said Peter Martell, owner of the Wesley Hotel in Oak Bluffs that served as home base for the fishing event.
“He was a really great guy,’’ Martell said. “He will be missed.’’
James was planning to move the tournament to Newport, R.I., after criticism from animal rights activists and imposition of new public safety fees, said Martell.
He recalled James as an adventurous spirit who traveled to Africa in recent months for a safari. Martell said he warned James about the trip, joking that he could encounter things that would bite, eat, or step on him.
“He just laughed,” he said. “He went on a safari, came back here, and drowned hunting ducks. That’s the fickle finger of fate.”
A colleague of Angell said he is a devoted hunter and fisherman who would often bring fish or meat from his outings into Hawthorn Medical Associates, the health practice where he works.
“He’s a very outgoing and generous guy, always very eager,” said Daniel Schlitzer. “I am so relieved for Gregg and his family.”
The apparent accident follows the Dec. 30 disappearance of Dana Dourdeville, a Brown University student who did not return from a duck hunting trip in Fairhaven. His mother found his car parked at West Island State Beach in Fairhaven, and the Coast Guard discovered his kayak about 2½ miles east of West Island.
Authorities said duck hunting remains popular in the area this time of year, despite bitter conditions.
“They go out in the nastiest weather,’’ said Ray Ilgs of Ducks Unlimited, a nonprofit group that supports both duck hunting and wetlands conservation. “It’s not a sport for people that don’t enjoy rough weather, crazy elements, that sort of thing. You’ve got to be willing to bear it all.’’
Ilgs said the Westport River estuary is known for sea ducks: the eider, the scoter, and the old squaw.
Among sea duck hunters, the top target is the eider.
“It’s kind of a hunter’s bucket list to be able to come out to hunt these birds,’’ Ilgs said. “You don’t see them all over the US. They are very tough, durable birds. Their skin is like Kevlar.’’
Eiders thrive in tough New England wintertime conditions and are more likely to move around during snowstorms, gusting winds, and bitter cold temperatures. That draws the hunters out in the same conditions. “In nicer weather, they hunker down on the grass on the shore, not moving,’’ said Ilgs. “The nastier the weather, the more they like it.’’
At the river’s edge, where crews were working to haul the capsized boat to shore, one neighbor came by to find out what had happened. There had been an accident, he was told, and two of the men had died.
“Terrible,” he said, “just terrible.”