I was 22 and on a family holiday in the Turks and Caicos Islands when it first happened. My dad and I had got a boat to an uninhabited island only for rain to start pelting down the moment we arrived. As we strode along the beach, I saw a glint of blue glass on the shoreline. I realised it was a wine bottle – and that there was something inside it. A jolt of excitement ran through me.
I’d always dreamed of finding a message in a bottle and my hands were shaking as I uncorked it. It turned out the bottle had been dropped eight months previously, in October 2006, by a couple on board a cruise from the Portuguese island of Madeira. It wasn’t a treasure map or a cry for help but to me, it was a miracle. The bottle had survived its journey across the Atlantic and I’d found it.
I emailed the senders as soon as I got back to the hotel. They were happy to know someone had got their message, but perhaps were disappointed it had been found so soon after they’d dropped it overboard. For me, however, it was a profound experience. It sparked a sort of obsession and I started spending every spare cent and every spare moment looking for more bottles. My family and I had always beach-combed for shells on vacation and when you figure out the knack of looking, you start finding more. I figured – crazy as it sounds – that I could do the same with messages in bottles.
Since that holiday, eight years ago, I’ve found more than 80 messages in bottles, mostly on the Turks and Caicos, which oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer calls a “flotsam magnet”. Bottles have been washing up on the islands since at least the 1800s; the Turks and Caicos National Museum features a large collection that belonged to its late founder. I’ve picked up bottles from senders in the US, Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Spain, the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Switzerland. It’s not just messages either. I’ve found artwork, business cards, dollar bills … even a crumbling piece of wedding cake.
I try to make contact with the senders if I can. The internet has made that easier than it would have been in the past and I often get help through my blog – Message In A Bottle Hunter – and Facebook page. I travelled to Düsseldorf last summer to meet Sabine Roy, a German travel agent whose message I found back in 2011, and Thorston Falke, the man who put the two of us in touch. Sabine’s message had deteriorated badly by the time I’d found it; all I could make out was a cruise ship letterhead, her name and “Düsseldorf”. I tried tracing her for four years before I thought of posting a call-out on social media. Within a day Thorston had tracked her down.
It’s almost like going on a blind date when I meet a sender. We’ve been brought together entirely by chance and there are no guarantees we’ll have anything in common. I guess it could be awkward but that hasn’t been my experience so far. People who send messages in bottles tend to be adventurous types and are often as excited to meet up as I am.
British folks are especially welcoming. When I told one sender, Kevin Euridge, I was heading to Europe, he invited me to spend a couple of nights at his place in Kent. We hiked from his back garden all the way to Canterbury Cathedral. To walk through land I’d only read about when studying Chaucer as an English major … that was incredible to me. Meeting people this way allows me to see and engage with places in ways I’d never experience under other circumstances.
Sometimes I’m too late. One of the oldest messages I found was in a Coca-Cola bottle from the 1970s. It was from a woman called Tina who said she was the owner of the Beachcomber motel in New Hampshire. She offered a $150 reward for the bottle’s return. I did a lot of detective work; I went through the local chamber of commerce, I contacted the tax assessor to figure out who owned the land … I eventually found out Tina had died but I met her daughter, who was astonished when I showed her the message her mother had sent decades before.
A lot of people forget they’ve sent these messages and when you present them with these pieces of their past, it’s almost like time travel. Sometimes it’s funny, like when I found a note from a guy who claimed he had been taken prisoner “by a grumpy old man” and gave his coordinates and his mother’s address in Baltimore. When I called her, she told me her son must have sent the bottle while on a boat trip with his dad in the 1990s. At other times, it’s moving.
In 2008, I found a bottle containing a message from a woman called Janet. She had dropped it in the Delaware river in 1981 to commemorate her marriage and it had made its way to the Atlantic where it spent 27 years bobbing about. When I made contact with her and read her message down the phone to her, she started crying. The couple had divorced a few years previously and the message took her straight back to a time when they had imagined they would be together forever.
I can’t see myself giving up my hunt anytime soon – I’m hooked on the pure adventure of it all. Although I now know more about oceanography and currents than when I started, you never know where bottles will wash up, so every find is still a treasure. On a deeper level, I guess it’s about finding connection. There’s such a business in fear these days but when someone tosses a bottle into the sea it’s in the hope that someone they’ve never met, in a place they may never have visited, might one day find it and say hi. That’s beautiful to me.