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For wife of a missing fisherman, it was an anxious vigil

Misty Blue, a fishing vessel out of New Bedford, sank 10 miles off the coast of Nantucket Monday evening.
Misty Blue, a fishing vessel out of New Bedford, sank 10 miles off the coast of Nantucket Monday evening. Jim Dills

FAIRHAVEN — Sleepless and refusing to eat, Tammy Roberts kept peering out the window of her seaside apartment, which was already decorated for Christmas. She was waiting for her burly husband to appear, waiting for a call from someone in authority, waiting for any sign of hope.

It had been 19 hours since her husband’s fishing boat went down off the coast of Nantucket Monday evening. Two men had been rescued. But Michael Roberts and a second crew member were still missing.

The night before, Roberts and her 4-year-old granddaughter had brought home a linguica pizza, just as Michael liked, and chocolates to make peanut butter cups for the holidays.


She had expected him to walk in at any moment, weary from three days of steaming through the powerful tides of the Nantucket Shoals, where he and three other fishermen dragged for surf clams aboard the 69-foot Misty Blue. But as bedtime approached, her granddaughter, Aailyah, had a question.

“When’s my papa coming home?” she asked.

So Roberts decided to call her husband, even though he had a spotty cell signal at sea. The call went straight to voice mail. So she texted him pictures of Aailyah, which helped him through the long days on the water.

Then, she saw a voice mail from a friend whose husband works with Michael, 49.

“I need to talk to you,” the woman said. “Call me right away.”

She called back.

“Tammy, the boat just went down,” the woman said. Another fishing boat had rescued two of the fishermen, but the other two were still missing, she said. That’s all she knew.

She always feared that she might receive such a call someday, especially given that Michael never learned to swim. And in the past month alone, the Misty Blue had limped to port four times with problems with its water pumps, she said.


Tammy Roberts, who has low blood pressure and is scheduled to undergo surgery for a herniated disc next month, had already been feeling ill. When the Misty Blue was leaving port, just a few blocks from their two-bedroom apartment in Fairhaven, she texted Michael that she was having trouble moving her legs. Six minutes later, he wrote back.

“Oh boy, do you want me to tell the captain Eric to turn around?” he wrote.

“No. You go,” she said.

“OK, babe,” he wrote. “Love you, xoxo.”

After her friend called, Roberts felt dizzy, short of breath. She didn’t know what to do, so she called Fairhaven police to see what they might know. They referred her to someone at the Coast Guard, who confirmed the terrible news.

. . .

Tammy Roberts held a photo of her husband, Michael, who is one of the missing crewmembers.
Tammy Roberts held a photo of her husband, Michael, who is one of the missing crewmembers. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

When Roberts gave her husband’s name, the official told her that he was one of the missing. He was last seen in the galley, trying to slip on his survival gear as the boat sent a distress call to the Coast Guard at 6:10 p.m. Monday, about 10 miles off Nantucket.

Another fisherman, Jonathan Saraiva, 32, was also missing, said officials at Atlantic Capes Fisheries Inc., a New Bedford-based seafood company affiliated with the Misty Blue. The boat’s captain, Eric Arabian, 44, and another crewman, Colby McMullen, 22, had been rescued, but they were still on a boat out at sea as the Coast Guard began its search.


“We’re saturating that area with as many assets as we can,” said Coast Guard spokesman Petty Officer Andrew Barresi.

It was unclear why the boat sank. With relatively mild winds and low seas, the weather didn’t appear to be a factor, Barresi said.

When it ran into trouble, the Misty Blue was dragging along the Nantucket Shoals with four other clam vessels, Barresi said.

The captain of the Enterprise, which was working nearby, noticed the lights of the Misty Blue going out and watched as the boat rolled over and sank around 6:30 p.m. After rescuing Arabian and McMullen, the other vessels in the area began searching for Roberts and Saraiva. The Misty Blue’s life raft was found empty.

Arabian and McMullen were transferred to a Coast Guard patrol boat in good condition.

Since 2000, 143 fishermen from northern New Jersey to Maine have died at sea, nearly half of them from Massachusetts and 28 from either Fairhaven or nearby New Bedford, according to the Coast Guard.

“New Bedford’s prayers are with the missing fishermen and their families,” said New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell.

. . .

Fishing boats were tied up Tuesday in Fairhaven.
Fishing boats were tied up Tuesday in Fairhaven.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

As Roberts waited for news with friends and family on Tuesday afternoon, hope dwindled with each hour that passed. The Coast Guard had promised to call her. But hours later, she was still waiting.

“Why are they not calling me?” she said aloud. “How hard is it to find a boat?”

She was just 16 when she met Michael at a record shop, she recalled. They dated, fell out of touch, then met again. Ten years ago next April, they got married.


Michael was born in Brooklyn and, to her chagrin, still loved the Yankees, even hanging team ornaments on their Christmas tree. He was like a stocky Teddy bear — 5-foot-6 and 220 pounds, nearly all of it muscle.

He had massive, tattooed forearms and loved to cook, she said. He had grown close to her four adult children from another marriage, she recalled in a long interview Tuesday afternoon.

Then, at about 1:30 p.m., her phone rang. It was one of her sons.

“I’m going to lose my mind,” she said. “I haven’t slept. I’m losing hope, every hour that goes by.”

She hung up, and the phone rang again. It was her heart doctor. She burst into tears as she spoke.

“They’re saying it’s not looking too good,” she said. “I don’t know what to do.”

A friend sitting on her couch asked if Roberts had taken her medicine for her thyroid condition. She hadn’t.

Then Roberts began to think about herself. How would she get through the surgery next month without Michael, who had planned to take time off from fishing to help her? With no savings and a limited income from her job as a cashier at CVS, how would she make ends meet?

As soon as those thoughts arose, she banished them.

“I don’t care about money,” she said. “I just wish they would find him and bring him home.”


She continued to peer out the window and pace around the apartment, where a painting of an old fishermen and an anchor hung on the wall. She wore a ring with an anchor and a bracelet with anchor charms.

Then her son, Kevin, who works as a deckhand on a lobster boat, walked in.

“My nerves are shot,” she told him.

He said he thought the Misty Blue’s heavy dredge might have pulled the boat under, like an anchor, if the boat’s pumps stopped operating and the dredge got caught in strong tides.

He looked at his mom, who was running her fingers along the drawstring of her sweat shirt like rosary beads.

“How are you?” he asked.

She began to cry again.

“I don’t know how we’re going to get through this,” she said.

He hugged her.

“We will,” he said.

. . .

Later that afternoon, she heard from the Coast Guard.

An oil sheen had been found near where the boat went under. State Police said they’d located a large object underwater “believed to be the vessel’’ but the waters were too rough to dive into.

Tuesday night came the worst news of the day: The Coast Guard had called off its search.

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel. Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.