Standing On The Shoulders Of The Past, Sam Linnell Looks To The Future

By: Doreen Leggett

Sam Linnell will spend the winter fishing and working on his new boat. CHRISTINE WALSH SANDERS PHOTO

CHATHAM – When Tim Linnell bought his first fishing boat he brought his six-year-old son Sam 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 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 while working on his new boat, Fair Wind.

Sam is at least the fourth generation of Linnells to build a life around fishing. That heritage shaped him, and helps him succeed. He 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.

Although he’s been known to jet off to Colorado to ski, and will likely visit his 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 boats.

Now the fishing business is hard to get into and tougher to stay in. The boat Sam bought was less expensive than it might have been because the industry’s tough times prompted the owner to get out early. Sam, 24, had been looking for a boat and the price was right.

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 always wanted to get a boat,” says Lucas. “I just knew that was what he needed to do because he has been working his whole life and saving for this moment.”

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 show the connectedness of the fishing world and helped make it possible for him to purchase Fair Wind, which he plans to call Mary Alice (its original name). 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 worked 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 days.

When the elder Fitz heard Sam was the grandson of John Linnell, who is still longraking at close to 80, he was hired.

“So I went out on Grandpa’s name,” Linnell says with a grin.

But even with tens of thousands in 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 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 (he has a degree in history).

But shellfishing within Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge always seemed tenuous; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service periodically says it may shut the practice down. So in the 1990s, Tim decided to concentrate on groundfishing, particularly since there were lots of dogfish, still some cod, and pollock to supplement.

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 be a matter of time before he gave up the permit because Sam’s future was charted from the beginning.

Sam first went fishing when he was 7, and during the summers of third and fourth grade he was out all the time. Sam had been helping to set gear and then one day Tim gave him a knife, told to him to cut the wings off 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 rallied around, and Sam beat the disease.

When he was well again he went back on the boat with his father (and often his brothers Jonas and Caleb) and then started full time after high school.

“I’ve been kind of doing everything on my dad’s boat,” he says.

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.