Kelsie Linnell works at the intersection between fishermen and wind energy. Photo courtesy of Kelsie Linnell.
By Doreen Leggett
Kelsie Linnell was spending 10 days in a row on a 75-foot boat, working during the day and pulling the 1 to 6 a.m. watch; when she did get on land it was for 24 hours at a time trying to pack in all she missed: seeing friends and family, going to the gym, going out to dinner, and grabbing a good cup of coffee.
When her stint working on a scout boat for Sea Services, contracted by Vineyard Wind, ended late last year she flew down to Disney World with her boyfriend. By January she was missing the routine.
“I’m actually tired of being on land. I’m ready to get back,” she said with a laugh. “I like being on the water. It is very calming for me. You feel like nothing can really get to you out there.”
Linnell, 24, a native Cape Codder, grew up in Chatham and comes from a fishing family six generations deep.
Her father Matt has been fishing since he was young and Kelsie, the oldest of two girls, used to help him any chance she got, “mostly fixing the boat and running errands,” she said. One of Kelsie’s early memories is dressing lobsters up in doll clothes and having them crawl around the deck of the F/V Rachel T.
After graduating from Monomoy High School she planned to move across the country and go to school for business in California. Her father had one condition: she had to fish with him first. So she did, and then stuck with her plan.
After several years in San Diego, she decided she wanted to come back to the Cape in 2019.
“It was getting expensive out there and I was just kind of over it,” she said.
Linnell likes commercial fishing, knowing that not many people can hack it and that she is part of a tradition.
“It is very rewarding,” Linnell said. “It’s been really nice to grow up in a place with so much fishing history.”
Although there are few women in the Chatham fleet – Kelsie was highlighted by the national fishing group Seafood Harvesters for Women’s History Month — her family never made a big deal of it.
“My dad always stressed that I could keep up with all the guys,” Kelsie said.
She started fishing again, gillnetting for monkfish and skates, scalloping, working for her dad, Uncle Tim, and cousin Sam.
“I really only go with the family,” Kelsie said. “We are all really close.”
Captain Sam Linnell, who fishes F/V Great Pumpkin, said when Kelsie came back in the middle of the summer a few years ago he was happy she could hop aboard.
“Kelsie was always eagerly waiting to leave the dock in the morning with a big smile on her face,” Sam said. “She has a great work ethic and is a fast fish cutter.”
Sam, a few years older, has a fun boat, Kelsie said, adding with a smile that he is a little less strict than her dad.
Her dad is the one who connected her to the wind business. Matt Linnell had recently bought a bigger boat, the Fleet King, that he used to scallop and mussel.
At the dock in New Bedford one day he was approached by representatives of Sea Services who asked if he would be interested in doing some scouting for the 62-turbine wind farm planned by Vineyard Wind. The nation’s first commercial scale offshore wind farm is being built by Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners and Avangrid Renewables about 15 miles off Martha’s Vineyard.
It wasn’t a simple ask, said Kelsie. There is a lot of effort and expense involved in getting the boat transformed from a fishing vessel to a scout boat. Since many of the wind companies are international there are more extensive standards, and a more elaborate communications system needed to be installed.
“It took us awhile to get the boat ready. There are some serious, crazy safety regulations,” Kelsie said.
Kelsie also took a captain’s course through New England Maritime, with her boyfriend Sean Connell, so she can take charge if need be.
Crista Bank, fisheries liaison at Vineyard Wind, met Kelsie and the rest of the crew during the environmental training session that is required of all crew members working on the Vineyard wind project. She knew Matt Linnell from her previous job as fisheries biologist at the School for Marine Science and Technology (SMAST) at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, when she was studying cod, monkfish and halibut.
Bank said she expects the work load will increase this year, not only for scout boats, but for smaller boats that can be involved in research efforts or shorter-term assignments.
“We want to make sure there are opportunities if (fishermen) want them, not to take them away from fishing, but it can supplement their fishing income. There is so much data to collect,” Bank said, rattling off a list which included bathymetry, sediment, habitat.
There are two types of survey boats, geotechnical and geophysical.
The geotechnical vessels tend to stay in one place, for example gathering information about sediment by inserting a small rod into the ocean floor, or a five-inch diameter pipe that will show changes at various depths.
The geophysical vessels are where fishing vessels such as the Fleet King come in, supporting research vessels towing side sonar scanner or a magnetometer to detect anomalies or metals on the bottom.
“If you are doing this data collection in an area where there is fixed gear and mobile gear it is really helpful to have local fishermen,” said Bank.
There is a fishermen on each of the geophysical and geotechnical survey vessels helping to communicate and coordinate with the crew on the scout boat, in this case the Fleet King, doing reconnaissance up ahead. They can let fishermen in the area know the survey vessel will be there for another 10 minutes, the type of gear they are towing and the space they need.
“If you don’t work around gear you are going to get your magnetometer caught up in a highflyer,” said Bank.
Kelsie said the Fleet King was responsible for running a specific tract in the ocean each day, reporting and marking what they saw.
“We would drive up and down a section and look for buoys, high flyers, whales, dolphins and send a report,” she said. “It would take us all day to do a track.”
Kelsie said there were two people on at all times. During down time they watched DVDs, played games.
“We tried to do a puzzle, but it got too crazy,” Kelsie said. “My dad and I were really into word searches for awhile.”
Kelsie has a room on the boat, which she set up with comfortable sheets and blankets and shelves for her stuff. She plans to revamp for the next season, maybe add some art or paint the walls.
They started in earnest last fall and were there until December. Kelsie said they were mainly surveying an exploratory cable route for a future project. The cable route for the first Vineyard Wind project makes landfall in Barnstable.
“There are a lot lobster buoys out there. As the season went on the buoys would get moved around,” she said.
Although fishermen’s relationship with wind power companies is tense, particularly because of worries that the turbines will close off fishing areas, Kelsie said the fishermen she spoke to on the radio were “always very nice.”
Bank said having local fishermen support the survey activity has been helpful to build a bridge between Vineyard Wind and the fleet. She said many fishermen think anyone who works for offshore wind is suspect, but having local fishermen be the company’s eyes and ears on the water focusing on the fishing activity and helping the survey vessels avoid gear entanglements has begun to change that.
Bank said a lobsterman called her to thank the Fleet King’s crew, who he regularly communicated with and who he felt was watching out for him.
“These little steps hopefully lead to having these two industries work out there more compatibly,” Bank said.
Kelsie feels good about the project. She sees climate change beginning to affect where fish are and thinks the local fleet will co-exist with the new industry.
“I feel like I am doing something good for the environment,” she said.
She is hoping to get back out there soon. She and her dad just bought a boat together that hopefully will join the Fleet King in working on the wind farm project, or others in the future. She has been working on the boat in her down time.
“My dad said I could name it anything I want,” she said.
She called it the Fleet Queen.