In 'less than a minute, the boat was gone'

David Patenaude of Pomfret, center, is led off the dock at Noank Shipyard Sunday after his yacht, Priceless, hit Pulpit Rock and sank just north of Fishers Island with his wife still aboard. Nine passengers were rescued and brought to the shipyard. Groton Town police divers recovered the body of Mary Patenaude, 66, inside the cabin the next day. The state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner has ruled her death an accidental drowning.
David Patenaude of Pomfret, center, is led off the dock at Noank Shipyard Sunday after his yacht, Priceless, hit Pulpit Rock and sank just north of Fishers Island with his wife still aboard. Nine passengers were rescued and brought to the shipyard. Groton Town police divers recovered the body of Mary Patenaude, 66, inside the cabin the next day. The state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner has ruled her death an accidental drowning. Sean D. Elliot/The Day Buy Photo

Bill Jennings' voice begins to crack as he recounts the sinking of the Priceless.

It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon, and Jennings was one of 10 aboard a 31-foot powerboat named Alchemy, cruising around the Dumpling Islands just north of Fishers Island.

Then another passenger aboard the Alchemy pointed to a boat that appeared to hit Pulpit Rock.

"I thought to myself, that's a horrible way to end a Sunday afternoon," said Jennings, of Ledyard. "We've seen it happen before ... boats getting stranded on the rocks, so it didn't strike us as anything unusual."

But Jennings soon realized this accident was different. He said about six seconds later, the boat had a different look. It was listing, and fast.

Jennings said Alchemy's owner, Doug Stowe, "floored it," rushing to the scene.

"By the time we got there, it had to be less than a minute, the boat was gone," Jennings said as his voice began to quiver.

The Priceless hit Pulpit Rock at about 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Nine passengers and a dog were rescued by private boaters.

Jennings said other boats already were at the scene, but his group managed to rescue one of the people in the water, who would later be identified as David I. Patenaude of Pomfret, the owner of Priceless.

Jennings said Patenaude didn't say much, but when asked whether everyone was accounted for, all Patenaude could say was, "My wife is in the boat."

Jennings said he looked at the other boats that had responded to the area and asked again which boat the woman was on.

"He finally looked at the water," Jennings said. "He said, 'My wife is on the boat. She didn't get off.' I didn't know what to do. It just hit me like a ton of bricks. The look of anguish on that guy's face is something that I will never forget."

Groton Town police divers recovered the body of Mary Patenaude, 66, inside the cabin the next day. The state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner ruled her death an accidental drowning.

Jennings said they called in another boat to remove the woman and children aboard the Alchemy to protect them from potentially seeing something traumatic.

He also said four other rescued passengers were transferred onto the Alchemy. He heard one of them say that she and Mary Patenaude went below, into the cabin, to get another life jacket.

The woman said the cabin was quickly filling with water, and she told Mary that they couldn't stay. When she looked back for Mary, she was gone, Jennings recalled the woman saying.

The Alchemy and another vessel, Salty Dog, which had the remaining five boaters and a dog, brought the survivors to Noank Shipyard, where emergency responders were waiting.

Salvaging the boat

Lt. Jeff Janaro, spokesman for Coast Guard Sector Long Island Sound, said the Coast Guard has been in touch with Patenaude's insurance agency, which said it would cover the cost of salvaging the boat.

According to a Westerly vessel registry, the ship is 50.2 feet long and has a gross weight of 32 tons. The boat has a cement hull.

Janaro said the exact details as to when and how the vessel would be removed from the water are still to be determined. He said no timeline has been set.

The Coast Guard, he said, would be involved in the salvage plan to make sure that it's safe. He added that there has been no leakage of fuel "at this point."

Janaro said the wreck does not pose an immediate hazard to navigation, as it rests below more than 40 feet of water. He said the area is used by recreational, not commercial, traffic.

As a precaution, the uncharted wreck is being announced in a marine safety information broadcast for mariners' awareness.

While charts clearly mark rocks in the area, Janaro said, that stretch could be dangerous for boaters not familiar with the area.

"The currents in Fishers Island are very strong, plus it has hazardous rocks," Janaro said. "You should have some local knowledge of the area before going out."

Janaro did not know whether David Patenaude was familiar with the area and said the investigation was being handled by New York State Police. Attempts to reach a public information officer at Troop L in New York were unsuccessful.

Jennings said Patenaude did not appear to be intoxicated, and just was distraught.

"Anyone can make a mistake," Jennings said. "I keep thinking about him. I hope he's doing OK. This experience has changed my perspective on life. How could it not?"

i.larraneta@theday.com

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