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The mystery of a message in a bottle

Thousands are launched and lost, but when they do turn up, it’s memorable for sender and recipient

The sea was as calm as a millpond. The stroke of the paddle was rhythmic as clockwork. Like a prowling cat, the boat glided along silently, dodging a slight but persistent current.

Our sailing editor comes across that rarest of nautical missives: a message in a bottle.

I was suspended in a balance of solitude and silence, one with my surroundings on the southern shores of Orcas Island, Wash. Heading east, my position was about halfway between Grindstone Harbor and Guthrie Cove on the southern fringes of the island’s center lobe when I spotted a familiar, albeit unwelcome, sight: floating trash. Here, in the pristine San Juan Islands. Whatever my meditative state might have been the moment before, it was gone now, replaced by a fit of rage. But on second look, this one was different from the junk I typically encounter when I paddle overpopulated and overpolluted venues. It wasn’t plastic or Styrofoam, but a wine bottle. Wait: A glass bottle doesn’t float unless it’s corked, right? And typically a corked bottle contains something.

Booze? Nah.

A message? Could it really be a message in a bottle?

Yes, it was. After 40-plus years of messing about in boats, I found the holy grail of nautical lore drifting right under my nose. It was a rite of passage and I almost immediately found myself under the spell of pop culture as I started to hum that famous song by The Police.

A secret no more

That night — Friday, June 26 — after an oyster barbecue on the beach, the kids were in for a treat. We solemnly crushed the bottle that showed no signs of marine growth, to retrieve the message that couldn’t be extracted through the neck. What was it going to be about? A treasure? A shipwreck? A desperate damsel in distress, perhaps? With the suspense at its peak, I sat down by the dim light of a gas lantern, unfurled the dry, clean paper and read what was written in blue ink:

This was the first of Brian Hilderley's messages that brought a response.

“Greetings my friend and congratulations on finding this message in
a bottle. This note was placed in a bottle and thrown into the Pacific
Ocean from the deck of the ship Chelan while crossing from Anacortes,
Washington, to Sidney, British Columbia, on Wednesday June 24, 2009.
When I threw the bottle in the ocean I couldn’t help but wonder if my
note would ever be found or how far it actually would travel.” Signed Brian Hilderley, Orangeville, Ontario, Canada.

PS: Please write to me.

How nice. Even though this thing only had floated for two days, it made everyone feel special for being part of such a rare and fun moment. I sat down to write Mr. Hilderley to inform him about the short, but successful voyage of his missive.

I thought about how different we perceive this ancient way of reaching out in an age of instant gratification, instant communication and instant insanity. And like Canadian scholar and media philosopher Marshall McLuhan, I concluded that the medium is the message. Just imagine if that same content had come to me unexpectedly from an unknown sender via e-mail. You know exactly what would have happened — if it had made it past the spam filter, that is.

Fascinated by my stroke of luck, I began to research the topic. One such bottle washed up July 18 on a shore in Cornwall, England. Tony Hoskins, a beachcomber, picked it up. He, too, made an event of the opening for the kids’ sake. Here’s what he read to them: “Hello, my name is Daniel Knopp. I am on a cruise ship. I hope whoever reads this finds great joy. God bless. I live in the Baltimore/DC area.” Knopp, 19, it turned out, was 14 and on a cruise to the Caribbean with his parents when he tossed the message overboard five years before. “I never thought of it again,” Knopp told the Baltimore Sun when he heard his bottle had arrived someplace. “I completely forgot about that day. I thought it would be unreal if it were ever to be found, but I figured it would be destroyed by the ocean environment.”

Of latitude and longitudes

Two questions were of specific interest to me: How long have recovered bottles been at sea and how far did they travel? In 1992 a shipping container with 30,000 rubber ducks went overboard in a tropical storm in the Pacific. Since then, these toys have been found on Atlantic and Pacific beaches, carried there by the intricate network of ocean currents. Today, oceanographers use high-tech bottles for research and forecasting. Several thousand of these “floats” are circling the globe, equipped with state-of-the-art instruments and transmission technology. After deployment, they sink to a predetermined depth where they remain and drift for two weeks. Then they surface, measuring temperatures and salinity in the water column on the way up, before transmitting data and position to orbiting satellites. Then they sound again to commence another two-week cycle.

The oldest incident of a recovered message I could dig up dates back to July 14, 1864, when Georg Ritter von Neumayer, the first director and co-founder of the German Hydrographic Office in Hamburg, launched a note overboard from the ship Norfolk, which was en route from Melbourne, Australia, to London. The given position was Latitude 56.40 S, Longitude 66.16 West, which is right off Cape Horn. It was found at 38º 19’ 45” S, 142º 10’ 35” E (which later seemed to have been corrected to 38º 25’ 45” S, 142º 2’ 35” E) on June 9, 1867 by Michael Donohue, a laborer. Google Maps puts these coordinates near Port Fairy, on the coast of Victoria, Australia. With the eastbound current, that’s a 10,500-mile drift at an average speed of 0.41 knots per hour, if my math is correct. Based on this calculation, the bottle nearly went full circle, back to where the Norfolk had left nearly three years before.

For the longest time a bottle spent traveling, I offer two incidents: One is the note in the Guinness Book of World Records, claiming “The oldest message in a bottle spent 92 years, 229 days at sea. A bottom drift bottle, numbered 423B, was released at 60º 50’N 00º 38’W on 25 April, 1914, and recovered by fisherman, Mark Anderson of Bixter, Shetland, UK, at 60º 50’N 00º 37’W on December 10, 2006.”

However, this incident might soon be sharing the spotlight with a bottle picked up by Darin Winkler, far from an ocean shore, on the banks of the Spokane River in eastern Washington, according to an Associated Press report from April 4. “Winkler grabbed the bottle and took it back to his house. He carefully teased the note out of the bottle. The paper was a little damp, flaking in places, but mostly intact. The first thing he saw took his breath away: ‘March 30, 1913.’” Some parts of the pencil-written note remained legible: “Dear friend, Who ever finds this bottle, please write in ... at Rockford, within the next two years ... and let me know it... Will put it in ...Spokane ... North East ... state of Wa ... Yours truly, Emmett Presnell, Rockford, Wash. RFD #1 Box 5.” That’s 96 years and change, not at sea, but still under way.

Becoming pen pals

Back to Mr. Hilderley in Ontario: I dutifully sent a handwritten note to the address provided and put it out of my mind until late in August when his reply came, also fashioned with pen on paper. It turns out he is a notorious bottle tosser, launching messages from the decks of ships on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Mine was the first anyone has ever found; at least I was the first to send a response. So the success rate is pretty slim, but he’s undeterred.

Still, it’s good to have dreams and share them with pen pals that come about because they pick up a message in a bottle. Thank you, Brian Hilderley, for being a romantic and an optimist to boot. And thank you for sharing your story, which makes me hope I will find more such bottles while I keep messing about in boats.

Dieter Loibner is sailing editor at Soundings. He invites readers to share their stories and thoughts about a message in a bottle. Strictly nautical, of course. Send your submissions to:

This article originally appeared in the December 2009 issue.