Looking back at a life on the water: Stonington fisherman says, 'It's risky. It's dangerous...I wouldn't change one thing.'
Stonington —There are 41 names of those who have perished at sea on the fishermen's memorial at the Town Dock, and lifelong fisherman John Rita knew most of them.
"I don't know the exact number on that stone, but I know the names. I don't know all of them, but I know the majority of them," said Rita, now 71, who took his first commercial fishing trip out of Stonington Harbor with his father before he was 10.
"It's risky, it's dangerous," he said of commercial fishing. "A lot of times people only have the chance to make the mistake once and hopefully it's not a deadly one. But usually, some of the mistakes, whoosh, you make it once and you're not coming back."
Rita will participate in the Fisherman's Mass at St. Mary Church on Sunday and then board a fishing vessel to make the short journey out of Stonington Harbor past the breakwaters where an anchor wreath will be dropped in memory of the lost souls from the town's fleet, part of ceremonies at the 68th annual Blessing of the Fleet. He has done it too many years before to count.
"It's important to put that day aside to remember the ones that did give their lives at sea," he said.
Rita grew up in Stonington Borough, the son of a fisherman who married the daughter of a fisherman. His paternal grandparents immigrated from San Miguel in the Azores, and the family Americanized their name to Rita from Decosterita. He still remembers his first fishing trip when he was 9 and his father took him out on the Connie M.
"I helped a little bit, but I was sick from all that rolling around," he said.
But he went back several more times that summer and eventually would overcome the seasickness and become a career commercial fisherman.
"I always was around the dock and I always wanted to fish," he said. "It's hard work, but it's the reward, not just the paycheck, but the freedom. I love being on the ocean and all the things you see out there, like the sunrises and the turtles."
'I wouldn't change one thing'
He would lobster in his high school years and, after graduation from Stonington High School in 1968, signed up for the draft and joined the Army. After training in guerrilla warfare at Fort Dix, N.J., and later in Colorado, he was sent to Vietnam, where he spent 10 months fighting in the jungle before coming back to Stonington in March 1971.
He immediately went looking for work on a fishing boat and was hired by Arthur Medeiros for a job on his dragger, the Rosemary R. The position was temporary, a two-year stint filling in for a crewman who had shipped off with the Army, but Rita stayed for four decades. He spent 18 years with Medeiros on the Rosemary R and another 22 years when the captain traded in the Rosemary for the Seafarer.
"If I was a young man, I would do it all over again. I would do it in a heartbeat. I wouldn't change one thing," Rita said recently in his basement barroom that is filled with fishing memorabilia, including the ship's wheel and compass from the Seafarer. "I have a lot of respect for the fishermen who do it today. I'm 100% behind them."
The boats and equipment are more sophisticated now, but Rita said the work is just as dangerous. He and Medeiros had a number of their own close calls — two boat fires, one caused by a lightning strike — and a treacherous wintertime journey from Greenport, Long Island, to Stonington in hurricane-force winds. It was blowing so hard that day, he said, they had to sheer off course and go far out of their way to make the turn into Stonington Harbor, otherwise they would have been broadside to the wind in an ice-encased boat.
They also aided in three rescues, one time pulling two men from stormy waters off Napatree Point when their boat, the Wee Willie, rolled over and sank. Rita and Medeiros were able to get close enough when the Wee Willie floundered to rescue the men with life rings. Later, one of the survivors told a newspaper reporter that he believed he was seconds away from drowning.
And then there was the time at the Town Dock, when Rita was unloading 500-pound barrels of bait fish with his son. A chain snapped and a boom pounded down on top of his head, cracking his skull open. It knocked him out cold and he only woke up to give his boy a thumbs-up as he was being loaded into an ambulance.
"The doctor told me later it just missed my brain," he said, explaining he spent a week in the trauma unit at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital, and more time later recuperating.
But it's time he spent fishing, and on the open water, that he enjoyed the most. He always worked on draggers, boats that pull nets along the sea's bottom to bring up catch. This was before there were conveyors to move hauled-up catch and Rita and Medeiros would sort by hand.
"Pick, pick, pick," Rita recalled. "We would hand sort. Flat fish in one bucket, whiting in another, squid over here, and so on, sorting it all out."
'All I ever wanted to do'
Rita was nearing age 60 when the Seafarer developed issues along the keel and Medeiros decided to scuttle the boat rather than make the costly repairs. For the first time in his life, Rita took a land job, in shipping and receiving at Cable Components Group in Pawcatuck.
"I was like a fish out of water, so I left after two or three months," he said. He found a fishing job out of Point Judith, R.I., and did that for a time before realizing the longs days fishing and the commute to Point Judith were too much.
"So, I bit the bullet and went back to Cable Components and stayed there until last June 22, when COVID came along and everything slowed down, and I was the old man on the totem pole and they retired me."
He still thinks about going out fishing again and visits the Town Dock regularly.
"It's just something that is in you. I'm not sure what to call it, but it's in you," he said. "All I ever wanted to do was be a fisherman.
"And I'm not sure if people really appreciate fish and what a fisherman goes through to get this fresh piece of fish to the fish market," he said. "Getting up at 1 or 2 in the morning, fishing all day, making sure to ice it properly, and then getting it back to the dock."
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