Standing on the shoulders of the past, Sam Linnell looks to the future
By Doreen Leggett
When Tim Linnell bought his first fishing boat he brought his six-year-old son Sam up to Maine to pick it up.
“He was climbing all over it,” Tim remembers, “throwing lines overboard.”
Less than 20 years later, Sam brought his dad and another captain, Mark Liska, up to Gloucester to see the commercial vessel he was buying.
“This is what I love to do. This is how I was always going to make a living,” said Sam at the Chatham Fish Pier on a recent sunny day, working on his new boat Fair Wind.
Sam is at least the fourth generation of Linnells to build a life around fishing. That heritage shapes him, and helps him succeed. He is also one of the few who has seen how the Cape’s fleets were battered by regulations, managed to stay fishing through enormous cuts, and hopefully are coming out on the other side with a brighter future.
“I think he is going to be the first to really benefit from what we have done,” says Tim Linnell. “He has me and his uncle to help.”
Although he’s been known to jet off to Colorado to ski, and will likely visit his youngest brother Jonas in Bali, Sam is a throwback to a time when far more fathers went to sea and far more sons grew up on fishing boats.
Now the fishing business is hard to get into and tougher to stay in. The boat Sam bought was likely less expensive than it might have been because the industry’s tough times, from changing regulations to fewer fish, prompted the owner to get out early.
Sam, 24, had been looking for a boat and had found a smaller one he liked, but he got talked out of it because of the size.
This one is bigger, 42 feet, and the price was right. His dad thought it would be a “piece of junk” sitting low in the water.
“Huge relief for me,” says Sam.
Sam’s path to the boat was also a lesson in the cohesiveness of the fishing community. Sam’s little brother was close friends with one of the mates on the boat, and Tim knew a captain who knew the owner. Someone else knew the mechanic.
The boat still needs a net box for the back, a chute and rails. He plans to scrap the name Fair Wind and replace it with her original name, Mary Alice.
“It also needs a steel shoe because our outer bar is so shallow your keel is going to hit the sand and you have to push through sometimes,” Sam says.
He will do the work this winter between crewing on his dad’s boat or other vessels in the fleet. The investment means he will be tethered to town most of this winter. He recently rented an apartment downtown with his best friend, Matt Lucas, also from a fishing family, who he has known since he was five.
“He has always wanted to get a boat,” says Lucas of his longtime friend. “I just knew that was what he needed to do because he has been working his whole life and saving for this moment.
“I think it’s great. People in town have been pushing for him.”
Sam is hoping the two get to fish together.
“It makes us friggin’ fulfilled,” Sam says with a grin. “That is just the way we want to spend our time.”
Sam’s recent fishing stints in California also show the inter-connectedness of the fishing world and helped make it possible for him to purchase Fair Wind.
Sam went out there crabbing for a family and fishery that is a transplant from the Cape.
In the 1970s the state began an experimental Scottish seine fishery and Chatham’s Bob Ryder got a permit. He partnered with Steve Fitz, who ended up taking that boat to California years later. Fitz’s nephew, also named Steve Fitz, runs the business now.
Fitz often needs workers for the busy season and reaches out to fishermen on the Cape, who are used to working long tough days. According to the Linnells, Fitz asked Chris Ciccarelli, who had been introduced to fishing by Tim Linnell, if he was up for it and Ciccarelli said he was a bit too old.
“You got to be able to be an animal, but (Ciccarelli) said, ‘I have someone in mind,’” Sam says.
When the elder Fitz heard Sam was the grandson of John Linnell, who is still longraking at close to 80, he was hired immediately.
“So I went out on Grandpa’s name,” Linnell says with a grin.
The work was backbreaking but fun, and he ended up making close to $30,000 for about a season. But even with two years of crabbing money, Sam still wouldn’t have been able to get his own permit and foothold in the fishery if it wasn’t for his father.
Tim Linnell says he couldn’t justify his oldest boy spending something like $100,000 for necessary permits, and so turning one over to the next generation became a working inheritance.
Tim had always fished, with his brother Matt and others, but he enjoyed shellfishing more. That paid his way through college at Saint Anslem’s (he has a degree in history). Soon after he graduated there was a tremendous set of mussels off Monomoy and many in town did well for several years.
Still, shellfishing within the boundaries of a National Wildlife Refuge always seemed tenuous; the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife periodically says it may shut the practice down. In the 1990s it seemed they might do what they had been threatening for years, so Tim decided to concentrate on groundfishing, particularly since there were lots of dogfish around, still some cod, and pollock to supplement.
“Just in case they shut it down, I have to make a move,” he remembers thinking.
As luck would have it, fish stocks tumbled shortly after he bought his boat and severe regulations were passed. Many fishermen were reduced to about a month of fishing days a year and Linnell ended up buying another permit just so he could have enough days at sea and quota to survive.
“I’m still paying for it,” he says.
Although painful, the decision would greatly benefit his son. Another fisherman has been using Linnell’s second permit, but when Sam said he was interested in buying a boat the elder Linnell gave it to him.
“If he had to pay all of this stuff off there isn’t enough money in the business,” Tim says.
Tim knew it would only be a matter of time before he gave up the permit because Sam’s future in fishing was charted from the beginning.
Sam first went when he was seven and during the summers of third and fourth grade he was out there all the time.
They were bringing in 10,000 pounds of skates a day. Sam had been helping to set gear and then one day Tim gave him a knife, told to him to cut the wings off the skates, and said he would get $10 a box.
That turned out to be an expensive proposition because he was cutting 15 boxes.
Holy sh*t, Tim remembers thinking, you’re doing better than my day guys.
The next year, when Sam was in the fifth grade, he had Burkett Lymphoma and that year was a loss. The community and the Fishermen’s Alliance rallied around, and Sam beat the disease.
When he was well again he went back on the boat with his father (and often his brother Jonas and middle brother Caleb) and then started full time after high school. The skate quota had dropped to 2500 pounds so the two could do the work themselves.
Sam loved the challenge.
“I’ve been kind of doing everything on my dad’s boat,” he says. “My brother Jonas graduated to my position as deck boss.”
Sam and Tim have gotten off the water to make their fishery successful too. When Tim travelled to Washington, D.C. with the Fishermen’s Alliance to meet with legislators to talk about the importance of commercial fishing, Sam, whose self-possession belies his age, was there. When fishermen across the country first gathered to talk about the value of fostering the next generation of fishermen, Sam was front and center.
Tim knows the life ahead will be challenging, but Sam is smart and a hard worker.
“He’ll do well,” Linnell says.
“That’s the dream for me, catching cod, here on Cape Cod,” says Sam. “I hope in my life to see the codfish come back. I believe that the codfish will come back.
“In the meantime, I’ll have fun with skates and dogs.”
Photo by Christine Walsh Sanders Photography.