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Coast Guard ends search for three missing fishermen from capsized boat off Martha’s Vineyard

Xavier Vega (left), 29, and his stepfather, Jerry Bretal, 51, have been missing since the F/V Leonardo went down 24 miles off the coast of Martha's Vineyard.
Xavier Vega (left), 29, and his stepfather, Jerry Bretal, 51, have been missing since the F/V Leonardo went down 24 miles off the coast of Martha's Vineyard.

NEW BEDFORD — Scalloper Samuel Pereira was headed back to State Pier on Saturday morning when his boat passed the Leonardo heading out to sea. Over the radio, he said, the two skippers chatted briefly about the forecast, which was predicting fierce conditions.

“The weather was no good for me, because I have a small boat,” Pereira recalled Monday. “He knew it was going to be [sloppy]. But he said he was going to fish slow.”

It was the last Pereira would hear from the boat, a scalloper, or its captain. On Monday, the Coast Guard suspended its search off Martha’s Vineyard for three fishermen missing from the 56-foot Leonardo, which apparently capsized 24 nautical miles from the Vineyard and sank Sunday, with four aboard.

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“We will no longer be searching unless a new development happens . . . meaning something is reported that would necessitate reasonable efforts to continue,” said Petty Officer Zachary Hupp, a Coast Guard spokesman.

Hupp said the agency has notified the three fisherman’s next of kin that it had called off the search.

One crew member was rescued by the Coast Guard Sunday, Petty Officer Ryan Noel said Monday. The fisherman was in a hospital, according to the boat’s owner.

The survivor was not identified but the Coast Guard late Monday night released the names of the missing fishermen: Gerald Bretal, Michael Cormier Jr., and Xavier Vega.

The rescue began around 5 p.m. Sunday, according to the Coast Guard, which had received a distress signal. A precise cause of the sinking had yet to be established Monday.

The Coast Guard posted a video on Monday showing the rescue of the fisherman. In it, a basket is lowered to the sea from a helicopter, followed by a rescue swimmer who descends to the ocean via a rope.

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A soaking wet man is hauled aboard the helicopter in the basket as air from the chopper’s blades ripples the water below. The rescue swimmer is close behind.

Should the other men not be found, it would mark another catastrophe for the region’s fishing industry, which has seen many.

In 1991, a nor’easter swept across New England, claiming the lives of a crew of six aboard a Gloucester vessel, the Andrea Gail.

Captain Samuel Pereira of the Mary Emmalene said he had a shhort conversation over the marine radio Saturday morning with the doomed Leonardo.
Captain Samuel Pereira of the Mary Emmalene said he had a shhort conversation over the marine radio Saturday morning with the doomed Leonardo.David L Ryan/Globe Staff

The story became the heart of the bestseller “The Perfect Storm.”

According to the Massachusetts Coalition For Occupational Safety and Health, commercial fishing was the most dangerous occupation in the state from 2000 to 2013. During that time, 60 fishermen and lobstermen died on the job, according to a 2014 report from that group.

And New Bedford, which is consistently ranked as the top port in the country by revenue from commercial fishing, is no stranger to tragedy on the seas.

In December 2017, divers recovered the bodies of two crewmen from the Misty Blue, a 69-foot, New Bedford-based fishing boat that sank 10 miles off Nantucket.

On Monday, the mood was somber at New Bedford’s State Pier, a massive, eight-acre expanse that serves as a ferry terminal, cargo facility, and dock.

The fishermen lingered in small clusters, hands stuffed in coat pockets, sharing what little information they knew about what had transpired.

The weather, so precarious a day earlier, was mostly calm. A light breeze passed through the pier’s long corridors, where boats with names such as Cool Change and Angel Fisher and Queen of Peace were docked.

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David Bolton, like others on the pier, noted that the Leonardo had appeared to be in immaculate shape.

Still, he’d been surprised, given the forecast, that the crew hadn’t forgone the trip.

According to the Coast Guard, there were 9-foot waves and 29-knot winds gusting up to 39 knots when they made the rescue.

The 56-foot boat Leonardo.
The 56-foot boat Leonardo. Leonard Hall

“I can’t believe they went out,” Bolton said. “I know what they were thinking. They were looking at the weather report and thinking it was going to get better.

“But it actually got worse. They might have been there at the very worst time — when the tide was going against the sea.”

Two Coast Guard cutters, the Cobia and the Escanaba, were involved in the search, along with air crews.

Alisha Marques, who said she is the sister of one of the missing fishermen, whom she referred to as Mark Cormier, told WJAR-TV earlier Monday that her family was hoping for good news.

“I don’t want anything else but him to come home to his family safe, and I’m just going to keep the faith, I just want him home, we all want him home,” Marques told the station.

She also discussed the case in a Facebook posting Monday.

“My brother Mark Cormier [i]s missing at sea right now he was one of 4 on the boat that went down,” Marques wrote. “Keep positive energy we need all the prayers to bring my hero home.”

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New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell also posted a message on Facebook on Monday morning.

“The crew of the F/V Leonardo and their families are in New Bedford’s thoughts and prayers,” he wrote.

Luis Martins, who owns the Leonardo, said Monday that the fisherman who was rescued was suffering from hypothermia and was still in the hospital.

“He was not in good spirits,” Martins said, “but he is alive.”

The others who are missing are “three young people,” Martins said.

“They’re hard workers,” he added. “People have no idea the work that goes into fishing.”

The episode, Martins said, has been difficult for everybody involved.

“It’s devastating,” he said. “People can’t imagine how devastating this is . . . It’s like losing one of your own.”


Travis Andersen and Emily Sweeney of the Globe staff contributed to this report. John R. Ellement can be reached at ellement@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.