Underwater acoustic (UWA) network protocol design is a challenging task due to several factors, such as slow propagation of acoustic waves, low frequency bandwidth and high bit error and frame error rates often encountered in real UWA environments. In this paper, we consider the design of a robust and scalable data gathering protocol for UWA sensor networks (UASNs), focusing on practical considerations and lessons learnt from multiple lake and sea trials. A cross-layer protocol is presented that integrates a network discovery process, intelligent routing, scheduling via Transmit Delay Allocation MAC (TDA-MAC) and multi-node Automatic Repeat Request (ARQ), to facilitate reliable data gathering in practical UASN deployments. Furthermore, this paper presents the details of a novel experimental testbed and underwater sensor node prototype that were used for the trials reported in this study. Based on the results of the trials, important conclusions are drawn on the protocol features required to achieve reliable networked communication in realistic UWA environments. The insights gained from the trials are valuable both for further development of the proposed data gathering protocol, and for the wider UWA networking research community concerned with developing practical solutions for real-world UASN deployments.