Posted with permission from NJ.com
A photo of the Queen Ann's Revenge, a 46-foot fishing boat that went missing early Thursday about 40 miles off the Jersey Shore. A photo of the Queen Ann's Revenge, a 46-foot fishing boat that went missing early Thursday about 40 miles off the Jersey Shore.

In the year before he went missing in choppy waters 40 miles off the coast of Barnegat, Paul Alexandre Matos bought a house, had a daughter and got licensed to commercially fish on his own boat. 

He had been working as a fisherman for other people, said his girlfriend, Amy Romano, but he decided last summer to strike out on his own. 

"I think what sparked him is learning he's going to have a child," Romano told NJ Advance Media. "On other fishing boats, he can't make his own hours, and they're away for a week to two weeks at a time."

Matos, 30, was away for just over two days when he and his crew member sent out a distress call early Thursday to the U.S. Coast Guard, concerned their 46-foot wooden fishing vessel was taking on water. The pair, who had set out Monday night from Point Pleasant, were probably fishing for fluke or porgies, two fishermen who knew them told NJ Advance Media. 

After scouring 4,441 square miles of ocean by sea and air, the Coast Guard called off the search for the Queen Ann's Revenge on Friday evening without locating the boat or the people aboard. 

The families of Matos and crew member Dennis Smalling said Saturday that although they had been told there was little chance the men were alive, they still desperately wanted closure and were considering raising money to send a diver in search of the boat. 

When the distress call came from the Queen Ann's Revenge, weather reports indicated the vessel was being battered by 10-foot seas and 25 mph winds.

Romano is awaiting word on the fate of Matos with their 5-month-old daughter in the Berkeley Township home Matos had bought last March and begun to renovate. Matos had been painting, installing windows and repairing the floors, Romano said. 

Matos and Romano hit it off immediately upon meeting at the Shore in the summer of 2015, Romano said, and they soon began living together in Toms River. When Romano became pregnant, Matos told her he wanted to buy a home for their daughter to grow up in. 

A U.S. Navy veteran who had served in Iraq, Matos had learned to fish from his father and uncle when he moved to the United States from Portugal at age 12, according to Romano. As an adult, Matos sometimes worked on his uncle's commercial fishing boat, but he bought his own vessel, the Queen Ann's Revenge, last summer and took it out to sea for the first time in November. 

"He was used to working on 95- to 100-foot boats," Romano said. "I think a lot of us thought, too, maybe that's what went wrong -- he was treating this boat like it was a bigger boat and was pushing it a little too far." 

Romano is now raising their daughter, Stella, without the man she said she had planned to marry. She said it hurts her to think Stella is too young to remember her dad. 

"I have so many photo albums I was looking through today," Romano said Saturday. "I'm just going to have to show her these memories." 

'Maybe he'll come home'

Alice Vannote, Smalling's mother, on Saturday said she was still trying to process that the 34-year-old son who had lived with her in Point Pleasant is gone. 

"It's maybe unnatural to a lot of people, but the hope that maybe they'll still be found alive is there," Vannote said. "The thought of them being forever at sea is just too much to bear."

Smalling had always loved fishing, and he worked on several scallop boats, his mom said. He had only worked on Matos' boat for two months and had felt nervous about the condition of the vessel, which Coast Guard records show was built in 1957. 

He hesitated to go on the fishing trip that ultimately caused him to go missing, Vannote said, but he was loyal to Matos and did not want to let him down. 

"He poked his head in and told me he loved me, and as always, I said, 'Have a safe trip,'" Vannote recalled. "And then he was gone." 

Smalling, who previously repaired antique cars, left behind a 12-year-old daughter who is still waiting for her dad to come home, Vannote said. Both of them miss the man they said would have risked his life for someone he did not even know. 

"There's no closure," Vannote said. "I'll be looking over my shoulder for the rest of my life and praying that maybe he'll come home."

Marisa Iati may be reached at miati@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @Marisa_Iati or on Facebook here. Find NJ.com on Facebook

Have a tip? Tell us. nj.com/tips