A Tale of a Really Bad Dive – Part 3

Getting the dive ladder deployed in a bad sea state

Oh sh*t!

I think that’s where I left off. Let me go back and check…

Tale of a Really Bad Dive – Part 2

Yep – oh sh*t!

This dive has already taken a turn for the worse, though I didn’t realize it at the time. Not even left the marina and I’d already used up the first of my three available oh sh*ts.

So strap in, its going to get a bit rocky…

7:00am Aug 13th has us rolling out of Gloucester, MA aboard the dive vessel Daybreaker. Aboard is my buddy Michael, NEAq scientist Randi and one of her interns, a safety observer from Excelerate Energy, a safety diver, Captain Fran and his mate. The skies were overcast and blustery. A storm front had rolled through overnight and it was rough, even by northeast standards. Too rough in hindsight (are you counting?) but I had rolled the dice and, you know – plan the dive, dive the plan.

Gear for the dive, including the 300′ dropline

An hour and a half later Daybreaker rendezvous with our security escort, the 124′ patrol ship Gateway Endeavor, at a nondescript patch of grey ocean some 12 NM east of Boston. An hour and a half of getting beat up by the 5 foot plus, tightly stacked seas, while Michael and I turned inward as we mentally ran through the plan – and, speaking for myself, dealt with the usual stomach churning stress that always precedes a big dive.

Rehearsing the dive before gearing up
Michael visualizing the dive

Meanwhile the little Lophius was battling her way out of Boston Harbor. The small craft advisory most definitely applied to her, but she’s a hearty Eastern hull and is used to taking a pounding. Unfortunately JD didn’t fare as well (as I later found out). One particularly aggressive wave sent him airborne, striking his head on the hardtop, causing a pretty nasty gash. But he and Barb pressed on.

Getting the Interrogator set up to talk to the targeted pop-up

As we waited for the Lophius to arrive on site we set up the Interrogator and started running a search grid, using the interrogator to ping the pop-up whose GPS coordinates we had targeted. As Daybreaker continued running passes topside, the pop-up, laying some 280’ on the seafloor continuously reported back distance readings between it and Daybreaker . The numbers steadily ticked off on the Interrogator’s display – 400′, 390′, 380′,…,280′, 290′, 300′, 310′ – with me feeding Captain Fran course corrections until eventually I was somewhat confident the device was beneath us – or thereabouts – and ordered the dropline to be deployed. But it was basically finding a needle in a haystack.

Giving course corrections to Captain Fran based on Interrogator data

Okay – sidebar. Dropline. What’s that?

When decompression diving, in open water and subject to strong currents, it is absolutely critical you have a vertical line that you descend on, and more importantly, that you decompress along during your painfully slow ascent. Your dropline is literally your lifeline to the surface – you protect it like it’s your own child. You lose it and, well, not to be a broken record but, you can very well lose your life.

Referring back to my Andrea Doria dive, there’s a bit where I describe using a dropline in greater detail. I’ve been told I’m really wordy, so for those in that camp, here’s a direct link to that section of the video…

During my Andrea Doria talk I discuss using a dropline

For this recovery attempt the dropline was not only our safety line, but was also the guide to our target – we hoped. The pop-up lay on a featureless bottom, an endless sediment drape that once touched becomes an impenetrable silt cloud that no light can penetrate. I knew the bottom features completely because a month earlier the Aquarium had contracted a company to send down a ROV to see if it could locate the po-ups. Though it failed at that task, the video it recorded gave me a pretty grim visual of what to expect on the bottom. Compounding that, at 280′ in the northern Atlantic, there is absolutely no light – it’s so pitch black its oppressive. There is nothing for reference – no up or down, no left or right – just choking darkness. We needed that line – and my placing it at the right spot – to find the pop-up.

So prior to dive day I asked Captain Fran assemble a dropline – specifically a 300′ length of 3/8″ nylon line, with a turkey ball (a large round float) at one end and a 50lb mushroom anchor, with a rolled-up 80lb lift bag attached, on the other. Additionally, I asked him to install an in-line float such that it was 60 feet “up the line” from the anchor. The line was cut to 300′, rather then the expected 280′ depth, to allow for wave and tidal action, but this would mean the descent wasn’t a straight drop to the bottom.  Therefore the in-line float was to ensure the last 60′ to the bottom was a straight run down.

Right – back to the dive. Once I was happy with the boat’s position I had the dropline’s anchor tossed overboard, the line paying out from a tote on the boat (LOL, that sounds funny) until the turkey ball unceremoniously followed. There, bobbing in the rather intimidating seas, floated a blue ball that looked so innocent but, unknown to me, represented a really bad dive that I wasn’t sure I was going to survive.

The dropline deployed – and the starting point of our dive…


To be continued… (again!)

A Tale of a Really Bad Dive – Part 2

Loading gear into Daybreaker

First off, as you may have noticed in the title, this is Part 2 of this story. So unless you’ve already read Part 1, or you’re the type of weirdo who likes starting a series in the middle, you may want to back up a tic and read this first…

Tale of a Really Bad Dive – Part 1

Okay, so where was I…?

Oh yeah, researchers from NEAq had lost four acoustical popup transducers on the seafloor, 280′ beneath the surface at the Northeast Gateway LNG deepwater offloading port. The “popup” part pf the system didn’t work as planned, and I foolishly said I could get them…

In a nutshell (heh, I guess in a way you could call my drysuit that, especially if I didn’t equalize during descent and got a good squeeze…) my plan was simple. Go to the GPS coordinates for one of the transducers, use the Interrogator to ping the targeted popup, position the boat so the range reading to the popup matches the depth, chuck in a specially made dropline, descend this line, and find and retrieve the unit.

Easy peasy.

But not so easy.

Welcome to the wonderful world of technical diving, where pretty much everything tries to kill you, including your equipment. If I had to define what’s the overarching difference between tech diving and recreational diving, I’d say it’s that recreational divers can solve their problems on the surface, where technical divers can’t…

For starters, I should mention a few things about diving to the depths, and at the temperatures, involved in a dive like this recovery attampt. And note – all of these things will come into play during this dive.

For every atmosphere (33′ seawater) of depth, gas consumption (I say gas and not air because I never breath air during this kind of dive) relative to breathing on the surface goes up as a multiple of the number of atmospheres you’re under. So a dive to 280′ means nine atmospheres , so every breath I take is like breathing nine breaths on the surface (for all intents and purposes), and therefore my gas consumption is nine times faster.

Another issue many may not realize is that the oxygen found in air becomes toxic to humans at roughly 212′ (this is a rule of thumb, effected by temperature, conditioning, stress, workload, etc). What does this mean, you ask? Well, this type of toxicity effects your central nervous system and can lead to involuntary convulsions, with absolutely no warning. And convulsing under water is something to be avoided – you could spit out your breathing mouthpiece and drown, as an example. Suffice it to say, breathing air past 130′ starts to become risky with regards to oxygen toxicity, which is one key reason why 130′ is considered the depth limit for recreation divers.  

Great – so air’s not an option for deep dives.

So what DO you breathe at 280′? Well, the simple answer is you reduce the percentage of O2 until its partial pressure at the target depth (280′) is 1.3 atmospheres absolute (ATA). This works out to around 10% O2 at 280′. But oh, guess what? You need, at minimum, 16% O2 at the surface to maintain consciousness. Meaning, what you breathe on the bottom, known as your “bottom mix”, can be deadly to you on the surface. Jump off the boat with a nice full tank with10% oxygen, exert yourself swimming towards the drop line, and voila! You pass out and drown. Great… So you need to start the dive breathing another tank, one with enough O2% to keep you un-dead. This one is known at your “travel mix”.

Getting ready for big dives takes a village and a LOT of gear…

But that’s just scratching the surface. I won’t go into all the nitty details (though I do love talking about this stuff!). Summing it up, to dive to 280′ I need the following tanks:

(SIDE NOTE: This all pertains to open circuit diving – dives where you have individual tanks that you breath off. I have since switched to rebreathers, which is basically your own “gas mix bartender”, allowing you to dial in the ideal mix continuously.)

– A set of double 100 cu ft tanks on my back (200 cu ft total), connected together with a three valve manifold. This “back gas” is my bottom mix. These tanks have two completely independent regulator sets attached for redundancy. This gas is a 10/50/40 mix – 10% O2, 50% He (helium), 40% N2 (nitrogen) – and is called “10/50 trimix”. Trimix meaning, you guessed it, a mixture of three gasses – oxygen, helium, and nitrogen.

– A 40 cu ft tank of “travel mix” of 30/30 trimix (so 30% O2, 30% He, the remaining balance N2) . You start the dive on this tank because at 30% O2 it’s good to breathe on the surface, and it’s also the first deco gas to use on way back up.

– A 63 cu ft tank of 50% nitrox (no helium, so 50% O2, 50% N2). Regulator pressurized but turned off. This is the second deco gas. (I’ll leave it to you to sort out why the reg is pressurized then turned off.)

– A 80 cu ft tank of 80% nitrox. Regulator also pressurized and turned off. This is the third deco gas.

-Oh, and since my back gas is trimix, meaning it contains helium, I can’t use it to pressurize my drysuit, because helium is a tiny weenie little molecule and is a terrible insulator. So guess what – you need yet another tank, in this case a 6cu ft tank of argon that is plumbed directly into my suit. And a drysuit is an absolute requirement – the water temperature during this dive got down to 36F, and you are down there for a decent amount of time.

The upside-down yellow tank with the orange hose is my argon tank attached to my drysuit.

Speaking of cold a** diving – you may want to check out this video of some ice diving I did a while back.

Did I mention decompression? Yeah, that’s the name of the game in tech diving. And deco takes a long time, with many stops and several gas switches along the way, to get you back to the surface. Ascend a prescribed amount, stop at a specific depth, turn on your next gas, purge reg, remove current reg, put in new reg, shut off and stow old reg, rinse and repeat. But NO NOT CHANGE DEPTH! Ascend too quickly and you fizz. (fizzing is bad – don’t believe me? Check my Personal Experience with Getting the Bends)

What my future held on yet another dive…

Oh, and grab the wrong reg by accident (it is, after all, pitch black and you can’t actually see the gear stowed around your body regardless) and you can O2 tox, or you become hypoxic. And then you die…

I know, I know, it sure sounds like I’m being dramatic with all this hyperbole. Sadly I’m not – this particular activity is constantly claiming lives. There’s something known as the “Three oh sh*ts” rule. You may survive the first, and even the second, but very rarely will you make it out in one piece after the third. Generally speaking, the first one most often happens even before the dive has begun, and by then the course has been set.

On this dive I had my three “oh sh*ts”…

Did I mention isobaric counter diffusion? If you switch between a high helium concentration to a much lower one (for example, from the 30/30 trimix to 50% nitrox which has zero He) you run the risk of rapid gas exchange due to a high gas pressure gradient – aka, you can get bent without changing depth at all.

Right, enough about the boring stuff.

Let’s get back to the dive…

For this dive NEAq had to get security clearance from the operator of the deepwater port, Excelerate Energy, who also required an observer to be on board the dive boat. We would also be shadowed the entire time by the 124′ patrol vessel Gateway Endeavor. I had contracted technical dive boat Daybreaker to be the dive platform and scheduled NEAq’s dive boat Lophius as a chase boat. This dive required a ton of coordination among many assets and people’s time, which in turn gave me a very tight window of opportunity – and a lot of stress.

Speaking of people – in my job at the Aquarium I oversaw about a 100 person team of divers, but there was only one person who had the specific skills and experience to be my buddy on this dive. Michael. He was a volunteer diver at NEAq and my long time technical dive partner – we’d trained together for some five years for this kind of diving and had executed similar profiles in the past. He’s the guy I did the Andrea Doria with and we knew each other’s skills, reactions, and behaviors like they were our own. He once cut me free from a drift line in the wreck of the YF-415 at 240′, so I owe him that…

You can check out some interesting details of the YF-415 here.

So I set a date of Aug 13th for this dive and had about a month to get everything set up. Mike and I conducted dry rehearsals, walked through every step of the plan, and worked on blind muscle memory for where each specific bit of gear was located on our own rigs, as well as that of our buddy’s.

As the days progressed towards the planned dive, the New England weather steadily turned worse. An offshore storm was brewing and the seas off Boston Harbor were building. The deepwater port lies some 12 nautical miles east of Boston Harbor and when the wind gets up in any direction other than west it gets rather, um, lively.

But there was very little schedule wiggle room with so many pieces in play – if I lost this window it might not happen at all for the rest of the year. The weather was only going to get worse as fall progressed, and it was doubtful if the batteries in the popups would survive the winter.

The evening of the 12th arrived and I made my decision. We were going to do the dive.

6:00am the next morning found me at Daybreaker’s dock in her home port of Gloucester, MA, where I met up with Captain Fran, his deck hand, a safety diver, my dive buddy Michael, Randi – one of NEAq’s researchers – along with one of her interns, and the observer from Excelerate Energy. The seven of us, with the ton of gear Michael and I required, pretty much filled the boat.

Captain Fran aboard Daybreaker

Meanwhile the Aquarium’s dive boat, Lophius, was heading out of Boston with JD, the VP of Animal Care as captain, and Barb, Curator of Fishes, acting as mate.

Barb and JD aboard Lophius

Both boats would converge at the exclusion zone at 10:00am where we would meet the patrol vessel Gateway Endeavor.

Gateway Endeavor patrol ship

And I had already made my first oh sh*t…


To be continued (heh heh heh)…

And here it is — Part 3 of the saga.


Julie being her usual badass self

A few years back I got a group of fools together to do some ice diving training, and of course it had to be in the middle of winter (I mean it IS ice diving after all) and of course when we did it the wind chill was something like -20F. So, since one of said fools (aka “Cameraman Bill”) just happens to do camera work for Jonathan Bird’s Blue World, he managed to capture the essence of the experience…


A Tale of a Really Bad Dive – Part 1

Geared up in full kit for the dive

Okay – grab a snack kids and pull up a chair. I have a story to tell about about a really bad dive – the kind of dive you never want to experience again. Hell, the kind of dive you never want to experience in the first place. But it’s at least entertaining, so it might as well be told.

However be warned – it’s a long story, so if that’s not your thing then might I interest you in an audiobook?

Part One – The Why…

Back in 2009 the New England Aquarium (NEAq) was collaborating with Excelerate Energy, who was constructing the Northeast Gateway Deepwater Port for offshore offloading of LNG from thousand foot long tankers. It’s a pretty crazy engineering marvel which you can check out here…

Offshore Regasification: Northeast Gateway Deepwater Port

This underwater port was being constructed so as not to bring these very large ships into Boston Harbor for offloading – plug in the word “terrorism” and you’ll understand why.

Keep in mind that though the deepwater port system is massive, it lives entirely underwater. It’s comprised of two Submerged Turret Loaders (STL) with flexible gas risers that run down to the seabed, through a manifold distribution system, and then to a buried pipeline that runs to a tank farm on shore.

Each STL is built to hold a 1000′ tanker securely during a CAT4 hurricane (and indeed one has done just that in Louisiana during Katrina back in 2005). Securing each STL are eight anchor rodes, each running for about a mile in length. They start out as a massive wire cable at the bottom of the STL and transition to enormous chain links the size of a Mini. Each rode terminates at a suction anchor some ten stories high and 40′ in diameter.

These STLs are, well, huge – like 40′ tall spacecraft – that hover some 90 below the surface. Crazy!

Check out the link below to get a visual of what a STL looks like, as well as how it’s drawn into the ship to both act as the anchor and the gas offloading point:

Click to access apl-mooring-and-loading-systems-brochure.pdf

Okay – so what does that have to do with me??

Well, NEAq’s role was to see if the deepwater port was effecting the local habitats of several species of dogfish. We wanted to know if the STLs and associated anchor sites (16 in total) acted as a FAD (Fish Aggregation Device), as well as try to determine if the anchor chains, as they slowly, ponderously, churned up the seabed, affected habitats in a detrimental or even positive way.

Researchers from NEAq, WHOI, and elsewhere captured dogfish throughout the spring of 2009 and tagged them with radio transponders. We then deployed four acoustical popup devices in a diamond pattern on the seafloor (at a depth of ~280′) around one of the two STLs, STL B. These devices would record data transmitted from any nearby tagged dogfish and at the end of the summer would be commanded to release from the anchors holding them on the bottom and float to the surface for retrieval.

Prior to deploying them, these acoustical popups were tested in the Aquarium’s Giant Ocean Tank (GOT) and yes, yours truly was in the water with the Principal Investigator (PI) to conduct the tests. Here I am examining the device as it dissolved the link to its anchor.

Testing the pop-up release mechanism

An acoustical pop-up is a cylindrical pressure housing containing an electronics payload – in this instance data recorders listening for the pings from the tagged dogfish. It a series of floats attached to the top, along with a radio transmitter for RDF locating, and are mounted to a section of railroad rail which is used as an anchor. They are deployed to the sea floor and record data for a given period of time. When it’s time to gather the data off the unit a boat goes out to the site and used a device called the Interrogator to communicate with them. A transducer attached to the Interrogator is lowered over the side, the unique ID of the desired pop-up is entered into the Interrogator and it transmits a series of commands – such as request for battery status, or distance in feet from the unit to the transducer, etc – to the popup. One command instructs the popup to generate a current that will start a chemical reaction that burns off the attachment point to the anchor (as tested in the GOT), thereby allowing the popup to raise to the surface.

An acoustical popup with the Interrogator and transducer
Researchers from NEAq deploying a popup, with the attached listening payload, the float, and the anchor

During the summer of 2009 I conducted a series of dives on STL B itself – to video aquatic life that may have taken refuge on and around it. Did I mention that the thing is huge? Well, it is. And it just sits there in the water column – the top of it hovering around 90′, the bottom at 140′. On the surface there’s no sign anything is down there, with the single exception of a tiny flag attached to a 5/8″ poly line barely visible floating on the surface. That line then leads into progressively thicker line, still floating, until it finally attaches to a massive Kevlar hawser that then makes a 90 degree turn and runs straight down to the top of the STL. This Kevlar haswer costs $150,000 to replace. Side note – in 2014 a whale watch boat with 160 aboard blundered into this restricted area and sucked part of the hawser into one of her jets. More on that story:


Here’s me sitting on the hawser…

Sitting on the submerged SLTL hawser

This entire section of ocean is completely off limits to boaters – well, it’s supposed to be!. There’s a 110′ ship, the Gateway Endeavor, whose sole purpose is to patrol the area 24/7/365 a year. For me to dive the area I had to obtain security clearances, develop a very comprehensive dive plan, and present said plan to Excelerate HQ for approval. Additionally all vessels involved in the op needed to have a company observer aboard.

The patrol ship Gateway Endeavor

When a 1000′ LNG tanker needs to offload it’s cargo of LNG (re-gassify) it pulls up beside the little flag. The crew then couples the 5/8″ line to a line from inside the bow of the ship and a winch inside the ship begins to draw in the line. Eventually it picks up the Kevlar hawser and then begins to haul up the actual STL until it is completely drawn inside the ship, where hydraulic rams on the ship lock into the STL and the ship and STL become one. BTW – the “Turret” of “Submerged Turret Loader”  refers to the section of the STL where the rams lock into it – this section is on bearings and is free to pivot, allowing the ship to watch and rotate  due to sea and wind state.  A hatch on the top of the STL is opened and the ship’s gas line is plugged in. It takes about five days to full re-gassify the LNG and transfer the ship’s contents to land, and the STL keeps it anchored in place while also providing the gas line.

Here’s a really great animation of how a STL is mated to a LNG tanker:

So I spent some dives following the Kevlar line down into blue (grey) open water to the STL, where I attached a reel to the top of the STL and rappelled down to the underside. So cool! Hanging beneath the STL I recorded video of the huge anchor rode attachments and the massive flexible gas riser – all attached to an alien underwater spacecraft (needless to say, there was no ship on it at the time).


But that’s not the story. That’s just the background. This is the story…

Early fall in 2009, the day came to command the popups to, well, pop up. The Aquarium’s dive boat Lophius (bonus points for what the name refers to) went to the site and researchers used the Interrogator to command release from the anchors. All four units obeyed and responded with a Success ACK.

So the researchers waited – and waited – and guess what? Not a single unit popped to the surface. Nor did the distance between the units and the transducer change, meaning they were still laying on the bottom.

A bottom that is 280 feet down.

The next step was to enlist the use of a ROV to visit the site and the video it returned gave the answer everyone dreaded. The non-crushable floats used, well, crushed at that depth, and therefore had lost their buoyancy. Countless thousands of hours of data was trapped on the seafloor. Priceless data. The ROV didn’t have a grabber – just video. So weeks were spent trying to grapple the units from the surface – to no avail.

During one dive on STL B I asked the PI if we could bring the Interrogator with us, and we did some tests on how closely we could use it to pinpoint the location of one of the four stranded popups.

Josh, the PI, and I setting up the Interrogator to ping a popup unit

The results were promising and I felt confident I could get them, but it would require some big dives with a lot of inherent risk – and a special team to pull it off. Several high level meetings later and I was given the green light.

I was going to dive to 280′ in permanent pitch black, onto a featureless sediment bottom, to try to find a needle in a haystack…

Stay tuned for Part 2 of the story, and let me know what you think in the comments.

Click here for Part 2…


The audiobook for Out of Hell’s Kitchen is now available, well, everywhere!

Diving Orange Grove cave system

It’s a pleasure, and indeed an honor, to have Out of Hell’s Kitchen read by the incomparable narrator Philip Battley, who’s voice has brought to life innumerable characters on both the screen and the written word. He has managed to elevate my story to a level I hadn’t thought possible. Why not give it a listen and see for yourself…

Diving Orange Grove cave system

On July 4th I was five days into some intensive dive training in the caves of north central Florida. Unfortunately that particular day had a less-than-desirable outcome: I ended up getting fairly seriously bent.

Long story short, I ended up getting transported to Southern Georgia Medical Center where I spent five days alternating between the ICU and a hyperbaric chamber. My wife Amy had to fly down to drive me the 1,300 miles home, after which  I spent six weeks recovering. Just this past Friday I had a heart procedure that I hope is the last step in my recovery.

Though this was an intensely personal experience, I am sharing it because not only is it a somewhat interesting story, but I think it could be a some benefit to others who share a passion for diving… So if you want to hear about what happened, and why, check out this presentation I recently gave to the staff at the New England Aquarium:

Bella’s Song

~ Bella’s Song ~


Life – it washes around you like a never ending string of waves, and no matter how badly you want it to, there’s no slowing down the passage of time.

That desire was never stronger than when, several years ago, our vet informed us that our beloved goofball of a coonhound had early signs of heart disease. It was like a waking nightmare – we had lost our previous girl (Jackie) to congestive heart failure and to think of it happening to Bella was almost too much to bare.


But that’s not what this post is about. I just had to get it out – and get it out of the way – so I can instead share the important thing. A celebration of a life that has given Amy and I so much joy. A celebration of Bella…

Eight years ago we stumbled across a rescue for coonhounds called, surprisingly, CoonhoundRescue.com  (this rescue’s proper name is American Black And Tan Coonhound Rescue, or ABTCR, and they are absolutely amazing – filled with amazing people who rescue amazing dogs).

We had recently lost Jackie – a black and tan coonhound mix – and the hole in our lives was tangible.

Enter Bella.

FKA Bitsy.

She was an eight month old black and tan being fostered in Atlanta by ABTCR. She was one of two survivors of a litter of B&T pups who were abandoned in Alabama. Apparently the litter was decimated by parvo – and this poor pup was also suffering from luxating patellas (dislocating knees) in both of her back legs. Oh Bella! My heart still hurts for you for the suffering your puppy life had!

So without ever meeting this future member of our family, Amy and I fell in love with her and a chilly December 10th, 2007 found us anxiously waiting at Delta Cargo.


I’ll say it again – enter Bella…

Frightened, confused, and utterly exhausted from her travels, she peered out of her shipping crate at these two complete idiots peering back at her. And it was cold out (did I mention that she was from Alabama, and we live in Boston?)

Plus, cats.

Freekin CATS!

We have two of them. Not sure if she’d ever seen those things before, but she was pretty certain she was scared to death of them. At least those first few days, but more on that in a bit.


Not only did we have cats, but even worse, we had hardwood floors – an entire sea of them. We live in a loft in Boston, a 2,000 square foot expanse of hardwood floors with a smattering of area rugs, with barely a wall or door to lessen the impact. IMG_0596See, the problem was due to both her bad knees and her over-thinking brain, she knew there was NO WAY she could walk on those floors. She’d try – and then begin curling up her strong toes until she made ice skates out of them and then slowly slide her four limbs out to the four points of the compass until she was a waterbug sprawled out on the floor.10400518_44016455412_5576_n-2

However, over the years we ended up with a string of tasteful bathmats and runners strewn literally all over the place and she would scurry from one to the other until she got to the safety of a rug. Well, unless there was, cough, a cat. Specifically Jersey. And then all caution was tossed to the wind – the chase was on. She was, after all, a coonhound.

Unless she was a waterbug, which generally was the case at the end of a good rousing Jersey chase.

(Here’s Bella vs the scary blue lines we put down when we were designing a new office)

Bella was, like I think all coonies are, a creature of habit and she developed her routes all throughout the loft. I’m sure if you traced them out it would look like the treasure map from The Goonies. (Okay – I’m going to say it – it was more like a treasure map from The Coonies… ugh, sorry).

But our home was her home – and she loved it, and we loved her. Though she had bad knees, (now’s a good point to mention that ABTCR actually had corrective surgeries done on both knees before we got her – they care that much about the animals they rescue), long walks and romps in our dog park – Peters Park – were a daily requirement (hers, not ours). She absolutely LOVED all dogs (well, she never trusted dogs that breathed funny, like bulldogs, but she still loved them). Kisses and coy paws on the shoulders were her favorite techniques. And it worked – most of the time…

Several years ago Amy was traveling for work (she has her own event planning business and works out of the loft unless she has to travel for a program) and I was laid up with my own knee surgery, so our trusted dog walker Jeff had Bella out at Peter’s Park. My cell rings, it’s Jeff…

Uh, John?

Yes. Jeff?

Yeah, uh, Bella’s been in a bit of an incident…

(my heart skips a beat)


There was an “out of towner” in the park and she went up to him to say hello and the dog attacked her, and, uh, I’m afraid he bit a chunk of her ear off. It’s bleeding pretty badly – I’m on my way back to your place.

Oh no! Poor Bella! Poor beautiful ear! Those ears that she’s carried around in her own mouth…

Bella's ear IMG_0113

… ears that you can drape across your entire face and inhale her beautiful coonie essence. Poor Bells! (<– sic – “Bells” was one of her many names, as was “Bellow” for obvious reasons for any coonhound owner).

IMG_0023 IMG_0021 IMG_0024

But the amazing thing about this beautiful creature was that she never held a grudge. Never. She was ever optimistic and every dog she was convinced was going to be her new best friend. And if that wasn’t true at first, then she’d wear them down with endless kisses. Or she’d run wild – her back legs flying out in the most improbable angles, all akimbo as it were. Who could not love this dog?

Then there was one day when she began limping and we brought her in to Angell Animal Hospital (which, but the way, is quite the facility. They have a cancer wing, an MRI, and everything in between. Sadly, they knew Bella all too well…)

She had a mass in her front left paw – non-malignent, but it had destroyed the bone in one of her toes, and it had to come off – toe and all.

Poor Bella, of the bad knees, ice skate paws, and a notched ear that would make any goth kid green with envy. Now she was one toe short of a full set…


But then, a new member of the bizarre Hanzl extended family began to take shape – Sequel (for those who don’t know me, I’m an author of action / adventure action books and I’m supposed to be working on the sequel to my debut novel, Out Of Hell’s Kitchen. So as to not break any promises, Amy and I found ourselves in love with a ’06 Sabre 38 Hardtop Express – which, truth be told, has been our dream boat for about ten years. Here’s a link to the blog post where I introduce the boat, a boat that we of course aptly named Sequel. So – you know, I can truthfully say I’m working the Sequel… ).

Here she (Sequel) is during our 1,600 mile trip from Jupiter, FL to the Narragansett in RI. We spent a few days visiting my folks in Hilton Head and she (Amy) took the time to wash the boat (she’s going to kill me when she see I used this pic).

Day 4 - 2

The big question was – how was Bella, the queen of instability, going to manage the unmanageable – a boat??? What were we thinking?

But Bella, in her usual amazing way, not only took the seafaring life in stride, but she embraced it. I dare say she even loved it! This is a test

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Then we had “the year” – 2015.

It started pretty terribly, and it proved to be a tough one right through the summer.

See, the week before the New Year, Bella got very ill.


We thought it was just a cold, but it quickly spiraled downhill until the poor girl simply collapsed and we rushed her to the hospital. It was suspected she had an infection of the spleen, so we admitted her for IV fluids, meds, and observation, and went home to wait for news. Sure enough, not two hours later we got a call – Bella had gone into septic shock – she had a systemic infection and they would have to literally open her up to see why. We were told that she only had a 50% chance of surviving anesthesia, and the surgery would run around $8,000, and that we should think about euthanasia. We were stunned – but neither of us questioned the decision, “Please do whatever you can for her!” And then we waited and waited and waited, in quiet, desperate silence.

When the phone rang next Amy and I both literally jumped.

She had survived surgery, and they had removed necrotic tissue from the mesenteric root (W T F ???). But she was alive, and actually doing well.



She was filled with tubes – out her nose, out her neck, out her stomach – and she really had been opened from one end to the other,


This poor girl! But she was alive and she was going to heal. We visited her day and night for several days – and unknown to her, Bella developed a kind of following on Facebook as so many good people followed along in our ordeal.


And it was finally time to take her home – and boy were we all ready!


Man, what a great dog this Bella was! Her greeting was always full bodied coonie. Window rattling baying that could only bring a smile to anyone within earshot.

Because one in never enough, here’s another Bella baying – kind of a joyous scolding is the best I can describe it. In this instance I was meeting Amy and Bella at the dog park…

So that was a bad start to 2015. However, Bella got better – stronger and healthier – by the day. We’d pulled the mattress off our bed and dragged it into the living room so she could climb up and be with us, and we lived that way for weeks – camping out with our dog (and the occasional cat).

But time marches forward, and we couldn’t escape the inevitable. While she was in the hospital the vets told us her heart was quite large and it was only a matter of time before it went into failure.

Unfortunately I’m near the end of my story. :*(


Bella’s heart kept growing and the signs of impending failure kept growing, despite literally the best possible cardiac care.

Then, at the end of June I headed down to north central Florida to do some dive training on my rebreather in the cave systems down there. While I was away Bella took a turn for the worse – it was a horrible time for my girls (Bella and Amy).

Then everything got worse. On July 4th I got pretty seriously injured – bent – while diving, and ended up being transported to Southern Georgia Medical Center where I spent five days alternating between the ICU and a hyperbaric chamber.  Amy had to fly down to drive me the 1,300 miles home. (Thank you Bobeks for taking care of our poor girl during that time – I know how hard that time was for you guys too.)

It was not a good summer.

Diving Orange Grove cave system

Diving Orange Grove cave system

(You can read more about what happened to me here…)

So this is it – a week after Amy got us back to Boston, we had to say goodby to Bella. I feel she had hung on just long enough for her family to be back together.

But that’s not worth dwelling on.

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Amy and I – and all the people whose lives she touched – had the gift of eight amazing years with this gentle soul. Not once – not one time, never – did she so much as growl. She loved all animals – and won over even the most jaded soul. Her heart was just too big – something we always knew.


Bella – we thank you, we love you, and we miss you dearly…


Life After the ICW


Yes indeed, there is life after the ICW. As almost a full year has passed since our 25 day voyage, I can attest to that fact first-hand. And I’ve been itching to share them with whomever I can. But, rather than endlessly tacking on an infinite trail of entries into the ICW blog, I think this shall be the last official “ICW” post – as well as the first of the series from now on known as the “Sequel Life” series.

Sequel Life – Summer of 2014…

Boy oh boy did we enjoy our summer last year. I won’t blog you down with details of all the trips and experiences we had (heh heh!) – suffice it to say that, with my sabbatical and Amy’s flexibility with her own work, we sure did maximized our time on the boat and tacked on another 1,000 nautical miles to the 1,600 we racked up on the ICW trip. And Bella! She’s an entry unto herself (literally, stay tuned) – she took to Sequel like a, a, well like a coonhound with wonky knees and a skeptical eye towards the water would – fantastically!

Bella, Amy, and I cruised from our marina – Pirate Cove Marina in Portsmouth, RI – and explored our aquatic world every chance we got. From sunsets like no other on a beach in Menemsha on Martha’s Vineyard, to biking on Block Island – from sniffing horses’ noses (Bella did this, not Amy or I) in Greenwich Cove, to relaxing in Cuttyhunk’s inner harbor while snacking on oysters and shrimp cocktail delivered by the raw bar boat – we had so many great experiences, and Sequel brought us through them all…

Thank you boat for giving us such a great Sequel Life!

Here’s some sights and experiences from the 2014 summer. Stand by for more Sequel Life…

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Most of the posts of this blog series has been written from Sequel, but this one is written from the heart… It’s been an honest pleasure for me – and I know the same resonates true for Amy – sharing our experiences on Sequel with all of you.

Even to my own ears that sounds somehow contrived, but it’s true. The trip has been an amazing experience for us, even beyond what we had hoped for. And though it feels nice to be home, we are also both sad to close the door on our now beloved Sequel – even if it’s only temporarily. We know there is plenty of life to live on her in the future – actually, to be honest, this post has been on the shelf for a few months as we were so busy logging many (many) more nautical miles on Sequel over the summer and into the fall. So like it or not, we already have many more stories to share!

But for the time being here’s where we were during the 25 day, 1,600 mile trip north from Jupiter, FL to Portsmouth, RI. I’ve added links to the blog from the various stopping points, you know – to help relive the experience. That I did just for me – I miss this damn trip!

1 Blowing Rocks Marina Jupiter, FL
4 Titusville Municipal Marina Titusville, FL
5 St Augustine Municipal Marina St Augustine, FL
6 Golden Isles Marina St Simons Island, GA
7 Windmill Harbour Marina Hilton Head Island, SC
9 Leland’s Marina McClellandville, SC
10 Carolina Beach Mooring Field Carolina Beach, NC
11 Sea Gate Marina Newport, NC
12 Alligator River Marina Columbia, NC
13 Dismal Swamp Visitor Center South Mills, NC
14 Norview Marina Deltaville, VA
15 City of Annapolis Mooring Field Annapolis, MD
17 Utsch’s Marina Cape May, NJ
18 Liberty Harbor Marina Jersey City, NJ
19 Oyster Bay Marine Center Oyster Bay, NY
20 Village of Sag Harbor Mooring Field Sag Harbor, NY
22 Dodson’s Boatyard Stonington, CT
25 Pirate Cove Marina Portsmouth, RI

Till some time in the future… Thank you!

Oh, and lest you think that “some time in the future” is, you know, far away – it’s not…

The future has already happened, so if you want to see what’s been going on, well, you don’t have long to wait. And to prove it, I leave you with this…



Soon we will move into a whole new world…

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The human race is going to Mars – that’s an amazing statement all to itself. As a matter of fact, it’s so cool I’m going to say it again…

The human race is going to MARS!

Sure, maybe not this year or next, but it’s going to happen and it’s going to happen within our lives. After years and years of what perhaps could be called the “winter of spaceflight advancement”, we are looking at the spring of humanity’s next great push. And the greatest thing? It’s just now becoming tangible – there are things you can touch, and see, and experience. There’s Orion – the “crew vehicle”, and then there’s SLS

Space Launch System – aka SLS.

The Space Launch System is the next generation rocket, and it’s massive. It hearkens back to the days of the mighty Saturn V that hurtled astronauts to the moon – big and massive and powerful.

But the SLS has a much more ambitious goal in its sights – Mars. So it has to be that much more ambitious in its scope.

Part of the SLS assembly is a pair of solid rocket boosters. Think space shuttle boosters, but bigger and badder. These guys are the heavy lifters, the sledgehammers of the system if you will. And they’re being built and tested right now.

That’s where I come in. I’ve been invited by NASA to be one of a small number of “social media content providers” to attend the test firing of one of the boosters at ATK Aerospace Group’s test facilities in Promontory, Utah on March 11th. And I’ll be granted a tour of ATK Aerospace’s assembly facility as well, along with a press conference that will be aired live on NASA TV the day before the test. It’s an honor to be selected for this experience – and one that most applicants weren’t picked for – and I’ll be doing my best to relay the experience to you guys…

Below is a short video of the building and firing of one of these boosters. I’m pretty excited to get the opportunity to experience it first hand!

So stay tuned and see what I have to share about rockets.

Freekin rockets!