Trip Report: Bottle diving, scallop diving & Chester Poling

The weather this weekend turned out better than can be expected for New England winter boat diving.   With the winds blowing for most of the week I did not have high expectations for the conditions but I was pleasantly surprised when the winds finally laid down on Friday and I was greeted with flat and calm seas Saturday morning.   Although I have been diving most weekends in January and February all of these dives have unfortunately been shore dives since pretty much every charter has been blown out this winter.     I have gotten so sick of cleaning sand and mud off my dive gear from shore diving. Thankfully I was able to sneak a couple days of boat diving in this weekend.

On Saturday I went out with Boston Scuba.    Capt Jim and Capt Pat were running the charter so I got to do some “fun dives” for a change and instead of crewing which was nice. We only had few paying customers so we decided to explore some new sites looking for artifacts and scout out potential new scallop beds.    I decided on a whim to dive open circuit since I knew I wasn’t going to be much deeper than 50ft and my dives weren’t going to be very long. A lot of my exploratory dives tend to be shorter or saw tooth profiles so I can come back to the surface to have something marked on GPS (scallop beds) or to get re-dropped in another area so I left my rebreather in my car for another day.

First dive was Utonia ledge off of Hull, MA.  Having never dove this site before I wasn’t sure what to expect. It’s actually pretty close to the wreck of the Kiowa.  The site consists of a mostly hard rocky and sand bottom with some big boulders.  Surprisingly not much debris. The site is pretty exposed and shallow so I am guessing anything on the bottom does not last very long. Max depth: 45ft (14m) Runtime: 48 minutes Water temp: 39f (3.8c) Visibility: 10-15ft (3m).  Unfortunately I didn’t find any artifacts and it wasn’t really the type of bottom topography I would expect to see scallops. I think though it would make a great lobstering site in the summer provided the boat traffic is not too bad. I did happen to see a couple lobsters that I guess for whatever reasons decided not to venture to deeper waters this winter.  Considering I haven’t renewed my lobster license this winter and I’m wearing very thin dry gloves I gave them a free hall pass.

For the second dive we planned to go back to a known site that we’ve been doing really well for scallops and bottles. I won’t name it here since it’s pretty easy to identify if you know the harbor. Let’s simply say it’s somewhere in the Boston Harbor Islands.  If you want coordinates then punch this sucker into your GPS. (40-29-30N / 69-50-36W…You might find some scallops there… ).   Anyway, there are scallops and bottles from all different time periods at this dive site.  The visibility was much worse here since the bottom is sort of a hard muddy bottom that gradually changes over to muddy gravel/sand.  Visibility was probably 3ft-5ft or so (1.5m).  Max depth: 34ft (10m) for 50 minutes  Water temperature: 39f (3.8c)

I managed to fill half a bag of scallops, find 3 decent bottles worth keeping and a clay pipe. The rest of the bottles were random 1950s coke bottles and vintage ~1990 “budweiser” bottles, not worth taking. Perhaps in another hundred years or so 1990 Budweiser bottles will hold more value beyond their return deposit. I could have easily filled a full scallop bag but my money was on bottles this dive.   It can be incredibly hit or miss where you land and I spent 20 minutes of the dive firmly in the mud until I came to a muddy / gravel partition where I had the best luck.

Torpedo bottleClay pipe

On Sunday I decided to go out diving with some friends on Cape Ann Divers. It was booked for a scallop dive and a Poling dive. I was hoping we might encounter some of that elusive and epic winter visibility on the Poling that can sometimes happen but based on my dive conditions from yesterday I knew that would not be in the cards. I always think back to a couple years ago in February where we had well over 50ft+ of gin clear visibility but 38f water. When you start descending down one of the moorings and you can already see the wreck sitting below at 90ft then you know you’re in for a great dive! I’ve seen the same exact thing in late April too a few times.  Provided there are no Nor’Easters, heavy winds and snow or rain, you can sometimes get some phenomenal visibility days in New England when the water is still cold.

Since my rebreather was already packed and built from Saturday I was good to go.    When I got to shop Mary and Dave informed me that the boat had 10 divers scheduled. Not too bad for a February charter!    I believe this was also their first charter that they’ve successfully run since January. Everything else has been blown out.   The ride out to the scallop beds was bumpy and wet since the winds had picked up a bit, Capt Steve was not sure if we were going to hit up the Poling on the way back in.

Cape Ann Divers

Not much to report on the scallop dive besides a full bag of scallops, I would rather not give away positions or coordinates that people worked hard to find. 🙂  Max depth: 48ft (15m). Runtime: 58 minutes Visibility: ~10ft (3m) Water temp: 41f (5c).  I managed to fill a full bag of scallops in about 45 minutes, sent my bag up on a lift bag and spent the next 15 minutes or so searching for old bottles and pipes to no avail.   Around 60 minutes or so is usually my “mark” in the winter without another layer of undergarments and another pair of liners in my dry gloves. I can push it to 70 minutes but my hands will get pretty cold, even in dry gloves.  Of course I didn’t have a piece of bungee inside my left wrist seal to equalize the air between my suit and dry glove so my left hand was freezing.    On shallow dives less than 60ft I don’t normally bother with equalizing my dry gloves.  My hands are usually “warm” enough and the compression is not bad.  I figure it’s added security if the glove were to flood.

While shucking scallops the winds had died down considerably and Capt Steve decided we would make a run for the Poling. Everyone on the boat agreed.  Unfortunately there were no moorings left when we arrived but thankfully Capt Steve was able to “hook the wreck” without too much trouble.  What most people call the wreck of Chester Poling is actually the stern section which sits in approximately 100ft. If you want even more of a history lesson, this isn’t even the original location of the wreck. It was moved several hundred yards by the blizzard of 1978 (source). The bow section itself lies turtled in approximately 180-190ft of water and is less frequently dove.

Here’s a new side scan image from Cape Ann Charters (Daybreaker).  It gives you a pretty detailed layout of the stern section of the wreck.  Capt Steve was able to hook into the wreck on the “port” side of the wreck very close to where the second mooring is usually located.  Technically speaking, the broken end of the ship is the bow (or closer to where the original bow would be) and the more intact part of the ship is actually the stern.  That is how I would refer to it but I have seen some people refer to the broken end as the stern which can be a little confusing.
Sidescan of Chester Poling stern

Chester Poling

Me and my buddy John were the first two divers to descend.   The visibility was maybe ~5-10ft, not great but better than nothing. I usually judge it by looking down the catwalk. We both went to the stern end of the wreck to check and see if any of the original mooring line was left.  The majority of the line was still present so we coiled it up to be fixed later.  You could tell the line had been cut but I wasn’t exactly sure how much was left  so I didn’t want to risk sending it up on a lift bag to find out that it was 10ft underwater from the surface.   We had much greater luck on the 2nd mooring closer to the break.  All of the line was intact but it fouled a little bit around some lobster pots.  Me and John spent a little time unfouling the line; It looked like the mooring buoy/ball was cleaned ripped off.  Even the loop of line where it would be attached was still present so I sent it up on a lift bag so Cape Ann Divers could fix it after the dive.

Me and John decided that since the visibility was poor we would just stay on the wreck instead of going into the sand looking for pipes like we originally planned. We spent more time inside the wreck where the visibility was much improved (maybe 25ft or so).  Spent a bit of time looking at the engine room area and then swam up / down the corridor to the galley.  After John’s no-deco time was up I stayed on the wreck for a bit longer and ran into Sang whom I spent the rest of the dive with. At about 50 minutes or so we both realized we were starting to get pretty cold so we ended the dive shortly thereafter.  Max depth: 99ft (30m) Runtime: 60 minutes. Visibility: ~5-10ft (1.5m to 3m) (20-25ft inside) Water temp: 39f (3.8c)

One more thing I forgot to mention, since I still couldn’t find a piece of bungee to equalize my left hand dry glove I dove without it like from the first dive.   It’s always been my “rule” to use bungees or a straw or something to equalize my gloves if I’m going below 60ft.  Curiosity and laziness got the best of me this time and I opted to dive without it again. Horrible idea. The effects at 100ft of an un-equalized glove with thin liners are not very fun but are manageable. I could easily feel the compression differences between both hands.   I mean it wasn’t “terrible” but I really don’t want to imagine trying this at 150ft+.    After 60 minutes my left hand was very numb (but a dry numb!) and my right hand was completely fine.  I suggest to anyone that doesn’t think they need to equalize their gloves try this little experiment, you’ll be surprised.  Morale of the story, wear thicker glove liners and/or always equalize gloves at 100ft.  I suppose I could also uses the thumb loops on my undergarments for equalizing but didn’t do that either.

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