Norwich — Five Norwich Free Academy students were taken by ambulance to The William W. Backus Hospital Wednesday for treatment of signs of mild hypothermia after their racing shell capsized during rowing practice in the Thames River.
The five high school students, members of the NFA Crew Club, were in the water for several minutes before being pulled aboard a motorized "chase" boat accompanying the two shells, the type of the boats used by rowing teams.
Julie Stehli, one of the three coaches in the chase boat working with the rowers, said there were 10 students in two shells in the third practice of the season on the water.
The rowers, a mix of males and females, typically row from Norwich Harbor to the area of Mohegan Sun casino and back as part of practice. On Wednesday, Stehli said they were out in the water when "the winds picked up pretty badly."
Winds started churning up the water and caught one of the boats broadside as it was turning, tipping it over and dumping the five rowers into the water.
Rowers don't typically wear life vests once they pass a prerequisite swimming test. Just one of the five in the boat, the coxswain, was wearing a vest. She was also the first one pulled onto the chase boat, which is equipped with life jackets and thermal blankets.
Stehli said they called 911 for help since they could not take the rowers back to shore and leave the second shell in the water.
Norwich Fire Department Capt. Larry Balsley said the department's 25-foot Marine 1 was called out to retrieve the cold and wet students about 5:30 p.m. Balsley said the rowers were fighting an outgoing tide and a brisk headwind and making slow progress back.
Marine 1 arrived at the Howard Brown Park with the students huddled in ponchos and blankets, shortly after 6 p.m. Emergency medical personnel from American Ambulance were waiting on shore with three ambulances to take them to Backus.
Stehli said parents of the students were informed of the incident and met their sons and daughters at the hospital. Coach Pat Fuery said all students were treated and released and were back home by late evening. Fuery said he suspects the water temperature was in the 40s.
Fuery said he expects to be back on the water today in an attempt to retrieve the shell that was abandoned in the area of the former Norwich Hospital in Preston. He said the wind had blown it into some pilings near shore and, because of the wind, conditions were too dangerous to approach the shell by boat Wednesday evening.
Anyone who spots the 40-foot shell is asked to contact Fuery at (860) 887-6758.