Denise Pettaway, daughter of drowning victim Georgia Johnson, said her...

Denise Pettaway, daughter of drowning victim Georgia Johnson, said her mom "loved to make people smile." ( Aug. 10, 2011) . Credit: Jim Staubitser

A 71-year-old Patchogue woman on a fishing trip on Long Island Sound drowned Wednesday as her daughter struggled to stay afloat after their 21-foot boat took on water and sank.

Georgia Johnson could not swim and was not wearing a life jacket, her daughter, Denise Pettaway, 29, said after being released from the hospital. Pettaway was foundering after the boat was swamped in rough waters and sank until a passing boat helped her, her mother and the boat's owner -- a family friend -- from the water and took them to shore, she said.

"I still can't believe that she's gone," Pettaway said later in the day at the home on Waverly Avenue she shared with her mother. "I feel like it was a freak accident.

"She loved to make people smile; that was always her thing," Pettaway said. "She was always the person that would help someone. If you needed a place to stay, my mother would let you stay. . . . If you needed help, and she could do it, she would. . . . She just never liked to see anyone down."

Pettaway said she and her mother went fishing often -- sometimes on boats and sometimes from the shore. She said her mother preferred freshwater fish, particularly perch and bass, but Pettaway likes saltwater fish.

She and her mother -- who were "like peas in a pod" -- planned a fish fry for Saturday and had expected to go fishing Thursday, but the boat's owner Paul Clayton, 70, of Coram, called about 7 a.m. Wednesday and suggested they go a day early.

They left home a little after 8 a.m., hoping to catch porgy and bluefish off Cedar Beach in Mount Sinai. She said the tides shifted and the water became rough shortly before 10 a.m. and they decided to move. They had trouble raising the anchor, she said, and the boat began taking on water and sank.

"By the time we got it [the anchor] up, the boat was already sinking," she said. As she struggled in the water, going under a couple of times, Pettaway said, she tried to see where her mother was.

"I was worried about my mother," Pettaway said. "I just remember the whole time, I just kept trying to watch my mother."

After the passing boat picked them up, Johnson was taken to St. Charles Hospital in Port Jefferson, where she was pronounced dead, officials said. Pettaway and Clayton were treated at the hospital and released.

Pettaway said her mother, a retired bus driver, was born in Mobile, Ala., and moved to Long Island decades ago.

With William Murphy

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