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Taking Stock and Moving Forward

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Well, where to begin? So much has happened in the last few months. A few months ago feels like years ago. It is hard to believe 2020 is almost halfway through, but here we are.

In February we had posted our last blog update—we had just returned from Florida and participated in the SECONN New England Wreck Symposium, and we were working on the full season Gauntlet schedule, making plans for a great dive season. 2020 was off to an awesome start diving-wise. But in the background, things were brewing with COVID-19 and a few weeks after that life as we know it came to an abrupt halt. And with that, the dive schedule vanished, overtaken by uncertainty and the possibility we would be unable to run the boat for some time.

Like everyone, we stopped. We made our last dive in late March, after which we decided to stop diving for a little while. The situation was worsening, and as more and more places closed in order to force everyone to stay at home, we felt that it would be most appropriate for us to take some time off.


Our last dive in March at Peirce Island.

We decided to take some time off because we felt that it wasn’t appropriate given the circumstances to be diving, but we also found ourselves struggling to cope with being indoors, plugged into computers and without a way to process the stress of the situation through physical activity. So we waited, we took stock and determined how to move forward. And when the time was right, we decided to resume diving focusing on shore dive sites, and with relatively low-risk straightforward diving only. It felt good to do this. We ventured all over, discovering some new dive spots roaming around southern NH diving in lakes.

Getting ready for a scooter dive adventure in a NH lake.

As we watched COVID-19 play out through the stay-at-home phase, and then move into the re-opening phases in Massachusetts, we have aimed to move forward with diving and dive charters. Our approach has been cautious, identifying risks and managing them as best we can. As late May approached and other states began opening up, we decided to venture away from home. Things were quiet up in Alexandria Bay, NY. There had been few COVID-19 cases, but everything was shut down. However, there was shore diving, and Blue Foot Diving was resuming charters. We devised a plan to go up there, minimizing our time spent in public places, and relying on ourselves for food.

Dinner time! Working out of the dive trailer, we cooked some great meals!

We prepared a plan for everything from driving to Alexandria Bay, ensuring our hotel room was clean, having all our own food with us with the ability to cook outside in the parking lot, and of course having masks and protection for diving from a boat and being around others. We hoped our learnings would help us prepare for our trip to Presque Isle later this summer. Overall, it was a great weekend and we did learn a lot about how to have fun while staying as safe as possible.

Socially distant dive charters!

 

We were also treated to some amazing conditions with 50+ feet of visibility on the Vickery. The Keystorm was also really good. To top it all off, we did an absolutely awesome dive in the river on scooters that was definitely one of the top non-wreck dives we’ve done. This area truly has so much to offer.

 


Out on the first charter of 2020 for Blue Foot Diving.

When we returned home, Massachusetts was in the process of reopening with the first phase for charter boats beginning May 25. And with that, we got to work writing an extensive plan, the Gauntlet COVID-19 Safety Management Plan (SMP). We implemented the plan for a feasibility assessment, made a few adjustments and officially resumed charters on June 6th, at reduced capacity and with modified processes and procedures.

The Gauntlet SMP feasibility trip to optimize our procedures was a success.

As we move forward, we’re slowly increasing our capacity to a maximum we think is appropriate given the size and configuration of the boat. We have decided not to publish a full summer schedule versus roll out dates a month or so at a time. We need to be flexible. We know that as the situation changes it may be necessary to modify our procedures, or even reduce capacity. We just do not know, so this is a time to stay flexible. So far, it has been different, but no less fun. Spending time with friends going diving is really what it is all about, and we still have that. Not even COVID-19 can take away the special experience that is inherent in being out on the water having fun with friends.

Remember to have fun, and take care each other. We will get through this!

 

Until next time–stay safe, have fun and be good to one another.

Gauntlet Mid-Winter Check In

By News

Picking up where we left off with our last report back in September, there wasn’t a whole lot to say about charters for a little while. Windy fall weather arrived and blew us out of charter after charter. We found ourselves traveling a bit to get dives in. In fact, during September and October, we spent more time diving in ponds, quarries, rivers and lakes than we did in the ocean! I have to say, diving in fresh water is nice when it comes time for dive gear clean-up!

Beautiful sunrise in Beverly Harbor while en route to the Patriot.

Finally, the weather let up on us though and we managed to get back into the salty ocean in middle October. We made a trip to the Poling and another to the Patriot – it is always a gift when we make it out to Stellwagen in the fall. In fact, another boat had the same idea and two of us were out there at the same time. Although we had very low visibility inshore on the Poling, it was actually not bad offshore. Considering the weather pattern, it was actually about as good as one could hope for with about 15-20 feet of visibility. That said I was glad I didn’t bring my camera. After all, I’d have to clean it if it went in the salt water!

Weather conspired against us again soon after that, and we had more trips blown out. Our next go at ocean diving was a desperate move at getting a dive in with a trip to a sunken barge called Barge 200. There was a very good chance the dive would be a braille dive with zero visibility, but the weather looked to be so nice with 60+ degree air temps in early November that we couldn’t resist. Note to self for next time: resist.

In December 2018, the “Barge 200” sank while under tow in rough seas. The barge was heading to a dredging project site and carrying construction equipment that all together held ~500 gallons of diesel fuel and ~400 gallons of hydraulic oil. The barge broke free of the tow and sank into 100 feet of water. After the authorities did their part out there, it seemed reasonable to go dive it, and a few charter boats went to check it out. We weren’t in a rush, but figured it would be something different to break up the Poling trips in the fall/spring part of the season. And what better time to check out a new wreck when the conditions might be horrendous? Let’s go!

We found the wreck easily enough based on reported locations from the local notice to mariners. We took a few images with the Humminbird unit and then got to it. We got tied in quickly enough, but when the first divers returned the reports were grim. Basically there was no visibility. Suddenly sleeping in seemed like it would have been the right decision that day. Anyway, we had to pull the line out so that meant we were diving. We suited up and hit the water.

Barge 200 (left panel) might not be there much longer!

All I can say is, the visibility was nearly as bad as it gets. We spent about 20 minutes groping around following an edge as the surge and current pushed us around before calling it quits. I have no idea what we saw, but a few things were apparent. The barge was settling into the bottom so the minimum depth was deeper than reported. Since it’s upside down, it is getting more upside down as the upper structure holding it up sinks into the mud.

It was pretty sketchy and I even decided to leave my strobe on after removing it from the line and clipping it back on to my harness so my teammates could see me. Did I mention it was a really beautiful day outside? In any case, we reluctantly canceled the charter for the following day since doing an even deeper dive in those conditions didn’t seem prudent. Since then, I’ve heard the Barge 200 will be salvaged and removed from its current resting place. So much for a new wreck. This is the 2nd time we’ve dived a wreck that was only temporarily in place. Oh well.

After that things went quiet again and soon enough it was time to head to Egypt for our Rea Sea safari with MV Legends. Our plan was to spend a week diving a northern route in the Red Sea, followed by a few days of sightseeing in Cairo. It was a really fun trip and seeing the pyramids… well, I think it lives up to the hype as a “seven wonder”… The diving was also very nice; the wrecks were historically interesting and a few of them were legit “Truk caliber” wrecks. The reefs were nice too, although we tried to stick to wrecks (with this group of wreckers the crew thought we hated fish! gasp!). Here is a short clip of some Red Sea diving:

 

 

One thing I appreciated was just how windy the Red Sea can be. It was extremely windy almost the entire duration of the safari and the seas got quite rough. Because of that, we did have to spend a day diving from the rib since it was too rough to get the big boat anchored up (and for us to get back on it). Other days were borderline. And some wish-list wrecks weren’t possible. We even had a few tense moments when a rib capsized with crew members in it due to wind and rough seas.

The aftermath and after the clean up.

Nothing quite compared however to my “bathroom experience” during a crossing. Since the boats do not move around at night generally, we got underway first thing in the morning. And by the time I got into the bathroom in our cabin, we were moving and beam-to in some big seas. Our cabin was also on the upper deck so we had a little extra swing thanks to physics. It got so rough things could only be described as “violent” in that bathroom. I couldn’t stand or brace myself and as a result, I hit the wall so hard with one roll that I took out a mirror, shelf and toilet paper dispenser (yes the toothbrushes hit the floor! Gasp!). I was amazed the sink didn’t come off the wall too. And I was very lucky that I suffered only a small cut on my foot from the broken glass that showered down my back and onto the floor.

I came down to the galley where everyone else was riding out the seas and told Dave that I had “a little problem” in the bathroom and we no longer have a mirror… or shelf… or toilet paper holder. We told the crew. They said, “No problem, go diving and we’ll take care of it.” Hmm, interesting. I was thinking about what we’d do for the rest of the week with no mirror in the bathroom. So we went diving, and when we came up from the dive, our cabin bathroom had a new mirror, shelf and the toilet paper roll was back on the wall—like nothing ever happened! Impressive. I wonder how often this happens?

After our time in Cairo was up, we headed home. We had some charters on the books before the year end and surprisingly enough, we got them in! The wind had let up for just long enough for us to get both days of diving in. That was amazing. It has been awhile since we’ve had to bust out the trash bags to cover gear and protect it from freezing spray. We got trips into both the Poling and then the Romance. We had some really nice visibility. The first timers on the Romance got seriously spoiled. We rarely see 25-30 feet of visibility on that wreck, but when we do, it is such a nice dive!

Romance wreck

The bow of the Romance in some very nice visibility.

The holidays came and went and suddenly it was 2020, and time to roll over the dive log calculator. Although Gauntlet remains in the water, we take a break from running charters since the weather usually does not cooperate and we like to have some time to do other things besides watching marine weather forecasts. And although you generally won’t see us out on January 1, we do like to keep diving throughout the year so we headed down to Hathaway Pond for a dip in early January. Earlier this year we built a custom dive trailer—a sort of Gauntlet with wheels if you will—to help us dive more comfortably when on the road or when teaching. Check out a short video clip here:

In the middle of January, we decided to head south to Florida to visit cave country and spend some time looking at wet rocks instead of wrecks. Since we have the dive trailer now, we brought both open circuit and CCR gear with us so we could dive whatever came along.

We had a really fun trip, making some new friends and getting to do some really cool dives. Here is a short clip of a fun dive we did in Peacock:

With our dive gear nearly still wet, we beat it for New England in time for the SECONN and UCONN Avery Point dive club New England Wrecks Symposium in Groton, CT where we were presenting on the discovery and identification of the Allentown. This is an excellent dive show focused on wreck diving. We really enjoy seeing the diversity of presentations and all the cool stuff our local dive community is doing. The show will be on January 30 next year so make a point to check it out!

Allentown Presentation

Presenting on the Allentown discovery and identification at the SECONN New England Shipwreck Symposium.

And with that here we are, approaching mid-February with a winter that can only be described as uninspiring. But this time lends itself to planning and we’ve already got some great ideas for the 2020 dive season. New year, new decade… sounds like possibilities abound to me!

Mystery of Lost Steamship Allentown Solved

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The final resting place of the doomed collier Allentown has finally been determined after more than 130 years.

The Allentown was one of six Reading-class colliers, built at the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania shipyard of William Cramp & Son Ship and Engine Building Company for the Reading Railroad. The Allentown, hull number 190, was launched in June 1874. The 1583 gross ton iron collier measured approximately 250 feet in length, with a breadth and depth of 37 feet and 20 feet, respectively. The Allentown carried a crew of 18 men.

The November gale of 1888 was a particularly devastating storm in New England. An estimated 15-20 ships were wrecked between Scituate and Boston during the storm, with loss of life and property, including and most notably, the iron-hulled collier Allentown. On November 21, 1888, the Allentown departed Philadelphia heavily loaded with 1650 tons of anthracite coal with an expected arrival in Salem, Massachusetts to offload the coal. However, while underway, the Allentown encountered the brunt of the severe nor’easter that developed into a hurricane-strength storm and never reached Salem. The Allentown foundered sometime around November 27, 1888. None of the crew survived.

Based on debris and witness accounts, the Allentown was believed to have foundered off Cohasset, Massachusetts. In the days following the loss, scattered debris from the Allentown washed ashore along the waterfront beaches from Cohasset to Scituate. On November 28, 1888, one body believed to be a crew member from the Allentown washed ashore in Scituate. Villagers reported hearing a whistle out in the fog sounding at brief intervals during the storm, believed to be the Allentown seeking help. The debris and witness accounts suggested the Allentown had foundered on ledges in the vicinity of Minot’s Light; however, despite the supposition the Allentown foundered off Minot’s Light, the Allentown had essentially vanished without a trace with only ominous debris washing ashore.

From left to right: Eric Takakjian, David Caldwell, Heather Knowles, Josh Rackley, Jessica Morrison, Feng Zhang, Tim Maxwell, Scott Tomlinson, and John Minigan.

The Allentown’s loss has remained a mystery for over 130 years. Initial discovery of a portion of the wreck was made by NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries (ONMS) during a survey of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Northern Atlantic Dive Expeditions (NADE) partnered with the ONMS through a research agreement to initially explore the site; however, since the site is not located in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, Heather Knowles and David Caldwell of NADE assumed project leadership, continuing to research the site, locating the third and final piece of wreckage, performing remote sensing surveys and exploration dives to ultimately determine the identity of the Allentown.

The Allentown was found some distance from the area of Minot’s Light and rests in over 200 feet of water much further to the north off Cape Ann. To date, the exploration project has spanned four years. Poor weather and difficult conditions at the wreck site hampered progress. The wreck consists of three distinct sections, and coupled with low visibility, deep water and strong currents, exploration of the Allentown has been challenging and slow.

The determination of the Allentown’s identity would not have been possible without collaboration and teamwork. Collaborators and contributors include Matthew Lawrence of NOAA, Mark Munro of Sound Underwater Survey, and the NADE exploration dive team of David Caldwell, Heather Knowles, Tim Maxwell, John Minigan, Jessica Morrison, Josh Rackley, Eric Takakjian, Scott Tomlinson, and Feng Zhang. Notably, in 2017, the team carried Explorers Club Flag number 210. This honor carries significance within the Explorers Club as a symbol of engaging in scientific exploration.

The Allentown has been explored under a permit from the Massachusetts Board of Underwater Archaeological Resources (MBUAR). The Allentown is a historic wreck, and as it is a grave site the wreck should remain undisturbed and treated with respect.

Gauntlet Summer Recap!

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Recently we decided to make a change in the format of our dive reports moving from weekly/per trip reports to a summarized format. Unfortunately poor weather sometimes makes the reports pretty sporadic and of course that does not inspire making plans to go diving, so we’ve decided to focus on the big picture. And with that, let’s get into it!

We all recall spring got off to a very rainy start. It was a constant push to make it happen, but we did! I knew eventually I’d be wearing shorts and sporting an embarrassing “crocs tan” on my feet, it was just going to require a little patience!

The tie-in team waiting for the OK to be dropped in on the Patriot shipwreck.

June arrived with cold, damp and foggy conditions on a number of occasions. However, surprisingly we made it out to the wreck of the Patriot in very early June, which is somewhat unusual especially if the weather hasn’t been cooperating. We had some strange currents though and that first trip was a challenge–strong current wasn’t lining up with the slack window and it took two tries to get tied in because the divers were pulling the shot line away from the wreck trying to get down. It was definitely one of those days! However, the efforts were worth it because we had some very nice visibility down there despite the current.

We had a little extra work to do, but we got the mooring installed, which provided easy access for all the charter boats over the season, and of course we appreciate the collaboration with NOAA’s Stellwagen Bank National Marie Sanctuary staff in managing diving access in a reasonable way on modern shipwrecks.

From there, we turned our focus to some local Mass Bay wrecks like the New York Central 14-2, which is a site we like for training because we can get students in the 110-120′ depth range, making a nice bridge from the one hundred footers to the 150+ range wrecks. However, in the last few years, mother nature has not been kind to this wreck and it has collapsed considerably. In fact, the wreck is like a fragile shell made out of cheesecloth. I am not even sure it’s such a good idea to be going inside the wreck given how fragile structures seem to be.

The other thing that is noteworthy about this season is we’ve done some upgrades to our camera equipment. Dave wanted a “big kids camera” and I finally decided to buy a drone, which I flew for the first time off the boat after a few short flights in the house (which are no longer allowed after a crash put a few chop marks in the wall and some furniture). The combo of a DSLR, and the Sony A6500 video system with Light & Motion 9600 lumen lights, and the drone, gives us some nice tools to step up our media. Check out this video from the Chester Poling:

 

John swimming along the starboard side almost at the stern, the current was quite strong and we had a fast ride back to the bow.

June went by in a hurry and before we knew it the July 4th holiday weekend was upon us. Wow. This is about when we started getting some really nice weather though, so we didn’t complain too much. Over the long weekend, we had the opportunity to support a project involving MIT Sea Grant focused on photographing Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary via a Hollings Grant. We had perfect weather for the long haul to the Paul Palmer–and excellent visibility too. We had been focusing on mid/late August for Paul Palmer trips in the recent past to take advantage of the warmer water for seeing the most marine life. However, we were finding the visibility wasn’t as good. With an early July trip, we were definitely treated to some nice visibility, although the wreck wasn’t as loaded with sculpin and other fish we’re used to seeing. In fact, the Patriot really never blossomed this year with any high density marine life. I suspect this has to do with the lower concentration of sand lance which has affected even whale activity in the area.

As July progressed, we moved into our exploration dives, focusing on our long-running project “SAS-11” which has been such a challenge, partly due to weather getting in our way, and partly because the wreck is in three distinct pieces and suffers from the typical conditions we find on the deeper wrecks that are in muddy/silty basin type areas–very poor visibility at times. However, we planned carefully since we really wanted to confirm the identify of the wreck and dedicated an entire weekend to the project in addition to several other dates.

With some well-coordinated teamwork, we were able to focus on one particular part of the wreck, taking measurements that allowed us to finally exclude one of the two possible wrecks definitively and confirm the specifications matched with the wreck  we suspected it to be. We plan to make an announcement soon and present on the project in 2020.

Careful planning and teamwork for the SAS-11 project led the team to success.

Before we knew it, it was early August. We looked forward to our trip to the Pinthis, although this must be one of the latest points in the season we’ve visited this wreck, as it is a popular dive and we usually try to get to it earlier. Weather didn’t cooperate earlier in the season, but we were finally there.

Another charter boat placed a mooring on the wreck, which was nice since we seem to be the only ones that do them anymore. We got tied off and diving right away. Visibility was excellent as it usually is on the Pinthis. And of course, we noted as we do each year that the wreck just continues to crumble. The interior gets smaller and smaller each year, with some sections completely transformed or no longer accessible.

As I see these wrecks aging it reminds me that wreck diving in this area 20 years from now, maybe even 10 years from now, will look drastically different. The shallow wrecks will mostly be debris fields like the Romance and City of Salisbury. Not that they won’t be good dives, but we’re really quite lucky to have had wrecks like the Pinthis and the Poling so accessible with semi-intact/intact structures. It is too bad we’ve never been able to implement any kind of reefing program for old ships in Mass Bay. It would really enhance the diving community, and create reefs for sport fisherman, getting people out on the water having adventures.  But I guess we needed casinos more instead…

Tim coming out of a small space near the bow of the Pinthis.

In mid August we did something a little different and co-sponsored an event with Evolution Scuba focused on a day of learning, practicing skills and fun at Hathaway Pond. As most know, Dave and I recently began doing training with GUE and have been supporting efforts to bring some more GUE prominence into the area. Our goal is simply to see divers getting high quality training and offering highly experienced divers the opportunity to “brush up” with critical review and opportunities for self improvement. To that end, Dave and I took over the Facebook group “Massachusetts Underwater Explorers” (MAUE) and worked with Evolution Scuba to put together a diver event. The event was open to all divers, not just GUE trained divers. The day began with land-based lectures and drills, and then an in-water session. We had about 25 attendees of all levels from newly OW certified to advanced CCR trimix divers. Oh and of course we had a BBQ! No dive event is complete without a burger, folks. Some photos of the event are posted on the MAUE Facebook Page. We hope to offer this again next year so if you think you might be interested in GUE oriented training, networking or simply learning more, this would be worth checking out.

Another highlight of this summer was a major upgrade of our electronics aboard Gauntlet. Unfortunately, our fish finder decided to die at an extremely inopportune time over the July 4th holiday weekend and despite all efforts to secure a replacement quickly, we weren’t able to get one in time to stick with our original schedule for that weekend. And while we did get a replacement in time for the following weekend (matching a unit compatible with a 15 year old transducer to avoid a haul out meant we could only buy one type of unit), we decided it was really long overdue for a major upgrade.

Humminbird Solix down-imaging view of divers on the granny line. We can check your trim from the surface!

We decided to “go big or go home” although that might just be “go broke” and get the boat really tricked out with the latest technology, which included our long desired installation of the Humminbird Solix, which offers a poor man’s sort of side scan sonar with what is quite honestly very impressive technology given it is side-imaging and down-imaging with a pair of transducers. We performed the installation of the transducers during Gauntlet’s annual haul-out and the following week had installers from Voyager Electronics wiring everything. This was quite a job and took both a lot of research to ensure we had the right components and some expertise to install it properly with NMEA2000 connections allowing all the machines to “talk” to each other. Yeah, it’s really freakin’ cool.

Part of the reason we wanted the Humminbird set up was to help provide more information for our exploration projects when looking at targets we have difficulty discerning on the bottom, but ones where we are also not ready to invest in the effort and cost of bringing a side scan sonar out to evaluate. The technology is quite good with both side-imaging (most similar to what you’d see from a traditional side scan sonar unit) and down-imaging, which can provide a cut-away type cross-sectional or side view of a target. Although these aren’t marketed for shipwreck imaging and deeper water wrecks won’t have the same quality of image as something in shallow water, the technology works and is good enough for our purposes. This type of imaging will allow us to see what we might have and get an idea of its structure, orientation and possibly even vessel type. We’ve just started using it and have lots to learn, but we can practice on known wrecks to get an idea of what things look like. Plus it’s cool and fun to play with!

Chow time on the Pinthis! No shortage of meat available, although we are vegan friendly!

As August went by, we distinctly felt Fall creeping up on us–Northeast wind, bad visibility and yep, a blow out. Nevertheless we pressed on. And this brings us to Labor Day weekend, sigh. Already? Wow, time really went by fast this summer. On Labor Day weekend we had our final trip to the Pinthis planned, along with a local trip to the Herbert. We were able to get our Pinthis trip in, but sadly the visibility was not too good. And on Sunday, our Herbert trip ended up being a Poling trip in choppy seas and very bad visibility. Offshore low pressure systems and hurricane activity increasing did a number on the visibility with persistent surge keeping things churned. But we did have a BBQ on the Pinthis! That’s the great thing about Pinthis trips. Even if the visibility stinks, the food will be good!

Now we are into mid September. Hurricanes are in the Atlantic. We’re blown out and hence I have time to write a long dive report–a sure sign of the impending arrival of Fall in New England. That’s ok though. It has been a really great dive season, not without it’s ups and downs, but overall a really fun stretch of a few months diving cool places with friends. We’re pretty darn lucky we get to do this every weekend.

So what’s next? Well, we will continue to run Gauntlet on a more limited schedule as Fall and Winter arrive. We will remain in the water at Glover Wharf Marina through the winter, so there’s always the possibility of a few winter trips, but honestly in the last few years the harsh winter weather has barely allowed it. In the meantime, we have some late fall travel planned and our schedule will otherwise run through the end of December. Look for the next recap in our annual newsletter “The Lookout.”

Thank you to all our customers and crew aboard Gauntlet for your support and participation!