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For fishermen, November is the cruelest month

Judith Nieves, center, is consoled during a memorial one year after the deaths of three fisherman, held at Seamen’s Bethel in New Bedford. Nieves was the mother of the late Xavier Vega and wife of the late Gerald Bretal.
Judith Nieves, center, is consoled during a memorial one year after the deaths of three fisherman, held at Seamen’s Bethel in New Bedford. Nieves was the mother of the late Xavier Vega and wife of the late Gerald Bretal.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe/Aram Boghosian for The Boston Gl

NEW BEDFORD — One year ago, the four-man crew of the Leonardo, a small, rusted scalloping vessel, set out into the predawn darkness and gathering winds.

November trips can be treacherous, and the forecast was unnerving — 9-foot swells in the afternoon and gusts as strong as 40 miles per hour. But the 56-foot Leonardo, its diesel engines groaning after a series of repairs, steamed out to fishing grounds 24 miles southwest of Martha’s Vineyard. It would not return, and three fishermen — Mark Cormier Jr., Gerald Bretal, and his step-son Xavier Vega — were never found. Ernesto Garcia, the lone survivor, was rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter crew at dusk, about two hours after the ship capsized.

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This week, as Garcia and the families of the lost fishermen prepared for a remembrance ceremony on Saturday, they received news of another tragedy at sea. Four fishermen were lost when an 82-foot trawler out of Maine went down off the coast of Cape Cod. It was a cruel reminder of November’s perils, when demand for seafood runs high but sea conditions can change in a moment.

“It just keeps happening. November is always a rough month. That’s when the real hard nor’easters first start blowing in,” said Garcia, 51, who now lives in Florida and still struggles with the loss of his friends.

Garcia said he and his crew hesitated to leave port that morning but felt pressured by the vessel’s owner and were motivated by the high price of scallops during the Thanksgiving season. In an insurance lawsuit, an attorney representing Garcia alleged that the boat was not sturdy enough to withstand the conditions that day.

“We knew the weather was coming. If we didn’t go he was going to fire everybody. He didn’t want the boat at the dock — Period,” Garcia said. “When the weather got rough we really found out what kind of boat it was.”

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The owner of the Leonardo, Luis Martins, said the boat was seaworthy and denied pressuring the crew to make the trip. He said he is haunted by that day.

“I still have nightmares about it. I still wake up, not every night, but two or three times a week I wake up thinking that it’s not true,” Martins said in a recent interview. The Leonardo had just undergone nine months of repairs and was “safe as it ever was,” he said.

He said he is now trying to sell his two other boats and the seafood corporation, Mary Lou Fishing, he has run for 34 years. Martins’s lawyer declined to comment.

David Anderson, a Boston attorney who specializes in maritime law, is representing Garcia and the families of Bretal and Vega in the insurance lawsuit. He said recent repairs had caused the boat to sit lower in the water than designed and high, heavy rigging made it unstable. Martins was aware of the vessel’s condition, he said.

Anderson said he was on the legal team representing the families of the Andrea Gail of Gloucester, which sank in 1991 with its crew of six, a tragedy chronicled in the book and Hollywood film, “The Perfect Storm.”

“This wasn’t a perfect storm. There is a problem here,” Anderson said. “Our contention is that the boat was not seaworthy when she left the dock, and she wasn’t seaworthy the trip before that.”

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When the Leonardo left the harbor just after 3 a.m., a cold, sharp wind was blowing in from the northeast, Garcia recalled. He and his crew watched vessels nearly twice as big turn back to port.

As the crew dredged the bottom for its 600-pound quota of scallops, Garcia was on deck with Cormier for a final tow when he felt the boat shift hard to the left. Waves crashed over the railing, pulling down the boat’s stern and leaving it fully exposed to the storm’s fury, he said.

“‘Just hold on, hold on,’” Garcia said, recalling the last words he heard from Bretal, 51, the captain, who remained in the wheelhouse with his stepson, Vega, 29. “He never let go of that wheel.”

Commercial fishing ranks among the most dangerous occupations in the state. On boats out of New Bedford alone, 348 people have died at sea in the last century, according to archives at the Millicent Library in neighboring Fairhaven. November is the deadliest month, with 67 lives lost since the library began keeping records in 1919 — more than double the toll of most months.

Behind those statistics are often questions about the seaworthiness of the vessels. Anderson and other industry officials wonder if owners in New Bedford, which consistently ranks as the leading port in the country in commercial fishing revenue, are sufficiently investing in maintaining their fleet.

“You would think something would change, but it doesn’t,” Anderson said. “They just want to get the boat out there, and working, and making money. That’s how all these boats are.”

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After the tragedy, Garcia decided to leave the fishing industry after 37 years of working on the rusted decks of scallopers like the Leonardo. He and Bretal, his best friend of more than two decades, had shared a dream of buying their own lobstering vessel and settling in their native Puerto Rico.

“We were going to fish one more year . . . And then that would be it,” Garcia said. “[Bretal] was going to take his whole family and we were going to do what we always wanted to do. We were going to own our own boat and get out of the cold.”

On a warm, grey Saturday afternoon, relatives of Vega and Bretal gathered at the Seamen’s Bethel, a wooden chapel built in 1832 for a private memorial service. For those lost at sea, there are no bodies for burial, so marble cenotaphs mounted on the walls honor them.

From outside, the sound of an old wooden organ carried into the cobblestone streets. After the ceremony, the family gathered on the front lawn of the chapel.

“That was my brother and my nephew,” said Yancy Bretal. “I miss them every day.”

Bethel’s the Rev. Russ Chamberlain, 67, who led the service, looks more like a weathered fisherman than a preacher, his white hair peeking out from under a fisherman’s cap and a thick beard framing his face. Earlier this week, as a light wind kicked up autumn leaves on the steps of the chapel, Chamberlain said the fishing community is all too familiar with loss.

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“It’s a tragedy,” he said. “It always is.”

Will Sennott is a freelance journalist who first covered this story for the Vineyard Gazette. Follow him on Twitter @willsennott