Lone survivor recalls scallop boat sinking

Another loss for dangerous and lucrative industry

THREE FISHERMEN were killed at sea this week in a tragedy that will be long remembered by their families and others in New Bedford.

A fourth man survived, and told his harrowing tale to WHDH reporter Jonathan Hall, who interviewed him in his hospital room where he was recovering from hypothermia.

“We took one over the stern,” said 50-year-old Ernesto Garcia, recounting how a “rogue sea” – a big wave moving in a different direction from the others – capsized the 56-foot F/V Leonardo during rough weather on Sunday.

Garcia described how he and his crewmate, 35-year-old Mark Cormier Jr., were plunged into the chilly water. Garcia swam up towards the light, and reached the surface where he found a floatation ring. He and Cormier held onto the ring and swam towards a life raft, but after about 20 minutes Cormier was “face down in the water” and he slipped off the ring, Garcia said.

A signal from the overturned scallop boat had alerted the Coast Guard, and Garcia was pulled out of the water by a helicopter with the help of a rescue swimmer.

The loss is compounded for the family of the boat’s skipper, 51-year-old Jerry Bretal and his 29-year-old stepson Xavier Vega. Those two were near the bridge of the vessel went it went over, according to Garcia, who believes they may still be inside the Leonardo, on the seafloor 250 feet below the surface.

Reporters for the Boston Globe visited the New Bedford pier where others in the fishing industry convened somberly, and shared some of their observations. The boat itself was in good shape, they said, but the weather was fierce. The Coast Guard reported 9-foot waves and wind gusts of around 45 miles per hour when they pulled Garcia out of the water.

David Bolton told the Globe that he was surprised the fishing crew went out in those conditions, and suspected they might have been on the water at a particularly bad time when the force of the tide went up against the waves.

The 52-year-old boat sank roughly 28 miles southwest of Martha’s Vineyard. The Leonardo is of a smaller class of scalloping boats than the ships that ply the edge of the continental shelf on long journeys.

Leonardo is owned by Luis Martins, who said the episode has been “devastating” and likened it to “losing one of your own.”

The family and friends of the three who were lost described them as good men, said they would be missed, and noted that Vega had survived bone cancer as a child. Cormier’s family is trying to raise $10,000 online to give him “a proper vigil and to fulfill the needs he was attempting to fill.”

Scallops are a highly lucrative business, and the scallop industry centered in New Bedford has made the South Coast city the most valuable fishing port in the United States for nearly two decades.

Yet despite those riches, the industry is also beset by danger and hardship. The Globe cited a report from the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health, which found that from 2000 to 2013, 60 fishermen and lobstermen died on the job in Massachusetts. Barry Richard, a commentator for WBSM, reported that the Leonardo is the seventh New Bedford vessel lost at sea in the month of November since 1919.

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Andy Metzger

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

For Garcia, it wasn’t the first time he narrowly escaped drowning at work. Hall said that the lone survivor of the Leonardo was swept overboard during the winter and rescued by crewmembers when he was in his 20s.

“Despite all that, he does plan to return to fishing over the objections of his family,” Hall reported.