Two duck hunters on a sinking boat in Bellport Bay were chest deep in water when three Suffolk marine policemen happened to be half mile away on patrol Monday, police said.

Just before noon, officers Charles Abbene, Christian Schnoor and Steven Tarolli headed toward the small motor boat a quarter mile off Bellport to check on them and enforce hunting laws, police said. The 12-foot vessel was camouflaged with grass and looked like a "floating island," one officer said.

Suddenly, the vessel stopped moving, police said, and as the officers increased their speed, they saw the bow pointed up and the engine entirely under water. The choppy waves had flooded the boat and it was sinking, police said.

"We scooted over there, and they started waving to us frantically," Tarolli said. "They were just hanging on to what was left of the boat."

Hunters Michael Kuehl and Theodore Kokis were in full camouflage hunting gear in the water, which was 10 feet deep and 35 degrees, police said. But they didn't have life jackets and cellphones, police said.

"If the boat had went down totally, they would have been gone from drowning probably," Tarolli said.

Under a state law passed two years ago, boaters in vessels less than 21 feet in length must wear life jackets from Nov. 1 to May 1 That legislation stemmed from cold weather drownings and near drownings of boaters who avoided wearing flotation devices. Boaters may not want to spend money on camouflage life jackets, which can be more expensive than regular, orange ones, while others don't want to add bulk to their heavy winter jackets and hunting gear, said Tarolli, who's been in the Suffolk Marine Bureau for 20 years.

In frigid waters and with bulky wear getting waterlogged, boaters' survival time is much shorter than during warm weather, when people can hang on for 60 minutes, the officer said. "Within 10 minutes of being submerged in cold water, you can lose all body dexterity and movement," Tarolli said."It's not like being in the water in the summer time. You have maybe a half-hour, an hour. You have boat traffic. You have people that might see you."It took just about three officers to pull each of the duck hunters onto the police boat because their water-soaked jackets and gear were heavy, police said.

Kuehl and Kokis were taken to the Bellport Village Marina, and evaluated by medics from South Country Ambulance, police said. The two could not be reached Monday night. Police towed the boat back and returned it to the men.

Kuehl and Kokis, both of Bellport, were issued summons for not wearing life jackets and operating an unregistered vessel. They had valid hunting permits, police said."They took it like men," Tarolli said, "and hopefully next time they'll be out with some kind of life preservers and flotation for themselves."

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