HARTFORD, Conn. — Megan Potter mustered all of her strength to swim through 10- foot swells as the boat she had spent the summer on slowly sank into the frigid water of the Bering Sea off Alaska’s Aleutian Islands.

A University of Connecticut student, she had spent the last two months on the Ambition, her father’s boat, ferrying thousands of pounds of salmon from fishing boats to canneries on the Alaskan shore. Now, with her family scattered in the water around her, Megan started to panic. Her rescuers were on another fishing boat, the Star Watcher, some 100 yards away.

Megan had been working alongside her father, mother, brother and a family friend, Erin Tortolano, on the 75-foot fish transport boat. Recently, she recalled the dramatic events of July 23, an afternoon she will never forget.

The crew was 17 hours into a trip from Port Moller, on one side of the Aleutian Island chain, to King Cove, on the other, carrying about 180,000 pounds of salmon. They had only about four hours to go when Megan was stirred from a late afternoon nap by her brother, Kyle.

Something was wrong with the boat, he told her urgently. Her father needed her help on the back deck.

“My dad said something was not right,” Potter said. “He had an uneasy feeling. Something was not sitting right.”

The back of the boat was riding lower than it should be and the boat was taking on more water than could be drained out by the pumps. Water began to pour over the rails.

The boat started leaning to the left, so they moved a crane from the port side of the boat to the right, or starboard, side.

“That didn’t really help,” Megan said. “We were listing to one side.”

In the boat’s wheelhouse, Megan found her mother.

“My mom is sitting on the floor, holding down a pump switch, and she’s crying. And I look at my dad who’s sitting in the captain’s chair. He is shaking his head.”

Corey Potter helped his daughter focus by looking directly at her and giving specific instructions.

“It was weird, I just felt a sense of calmness,” Megan said. “I just wanted to figure out what the problem was.”

As the boat’s warning alarms began to sound, her father told the family to put on their survival suits– big, orange, top-to-bottom coverings that protect the wearer from the cold Alaskan waters, which are about 40 degrees at the surface at that time of year.

On the radio, he put out a “mayday” distress call.

A 19-year-old animal science major from Quechee, Vermont, Megan grew up with her father spending summers on fishing boats in Alaska. He had worked on the boats for more than 30 summers, and for the last three she had joined him.

Corey Potter had taught her a lot, like about how boats create sinkholes when they slip under water– if people or another boat are too close, they get sucked down with it.

That could have happened to the Star Watcher, the fishing boat that was closest to the Ambition as it took on water. As the Star Watcher approached, Corey Potter made the decision to abandon ship– everybody but the captain.

Megan and the rest of the crew went to the back of the boat, which was now nearly under water.

In his deepest, loudest voice, her father ordered Megan and Erin Tortolano to go first.

“You girls in the water, now!” he yelled.

Her mom and brother went next, and her father went last.

In the water, Megan thought about getting pulled under by a sinking ship. She could no longer make eye contact with her father.”

A crew member of the Star Watcher threw a life ring to her, but it fell short.

“That’s when I started to freak,” Megan said. “I was flailing. I started screaming.”

The crew told her to float on her back, and she did. From that vantage point, she could then see that another life ring had been thrown, this time too far.

She grabbed the rope and they pulled her in. Within minutes, all the Potters, and Tortolano, were safely on board the Star Watcher.

The Coast Guard has called the boat’s sinking last month a “serious marine incident” and is investigating, said Binniker. Such investigations typically take six to eight months.

In the meantime, Megan Potter will have something to talk about when she returns to UConn, where classes start Monday – her 20th birthday.

“I’m still trying to process it myself,” she said.

That’s not to say the Potter family has given up summers in the Bering Sea, she said.

“We’re already looking at boats,” Megan said.

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