Saturday, October 12, 2013

Messages in Bottles, Part 1

So there I was, stopped at the lights, humming along to Sting’s/The Police's Message In a Bottle when I became aware how silly and inane the lyrics actually were. I hadn’t paid much attention to them before.

Here are the lyrics:

Just a castaway
An island lost at sea
Another lonely day
With no one here but me
More loneliness
Than any man could bear
Rescue me before I fall into despair

I'll send an SOS to the world
I'll send an SOS to the world
I hope that someone gets my
Message in a bottle [x2]

A year has passed since I wrote my note
But I should have known this right from the start
Only hope can keep me together
Love can mend your life
But love can break your heart

I'll send an SOS to the world
I'll send an SOS to the world
I hope that someone gets my [x3]
Message in a bottle [x2]

Walked out this morning
Don't believe what I saw
A hundred billion bottles
Washed up on the shore
Seems I'm not alone at being alone
A hundred billion castaways
Looking for a home

Even allowing for the fact that the hundred billion return messages is a metaphor for “lots” and that apparently all the people in the world have sent multiple responses (the current world population, according to the US Census Bureau, is 7.116 billion), how did the current return all of the bottles to the one location on the one night? A Dr Curtis once commented on currents that “If two bath toys were dumped, say, from a freighter in the middle of the Pacific at the exact same spot, one may wash up in Hawaii while the other may end up frozen in an Arctic ice flow.” The message sucks too: a lonely castaway, in despair, throws a message in a bottle into the ocean to be rescued. He doesn’t get rescued but does receive a lot of bottles, the implication being that there are numerous people in the same situation, take heart that you are not alone.

But that started me thinking about messages in bottles, whether any had been received and after what period.

My readings brought to my attention some amazing, and poignant, stories.

Here are some of the best and most amazing, part 2 next week.


In 1794, a Japanese seaman named Chunosuke Matsuyama was shipwrecked, along with 43 companions, on a South Pacific island as a result of a storm. Matsuyama carved a description of their plight in coconut wood and put it in a bottle which he cast into the sea. All died. The bottle was discovered 150 years later near the Japanese village of Hiraturemura, finally making known what had happened to the men. The bottle was given as a precious family heirloom to members of his family who still lived in the village. 


In 1914, British World War I soldier Private. Thomas Hughes (pictured above) sailed to the war in France. While crossing the English Channel he wrote two notes, one a letter to his wife and one a note to the finder to please give ithe other note to his wife. He then sealed them in a ginger ale bottle and tossed it into the waters of the Channel. He died in action two days later. In 1999 Steve Gowan, a fisherman, found the bottle in his nets in the River Thames. Gowan investigated and found that Private Hughes’ wife, Elizabeth, had died in 1979. However his daughter, Emily, was alive and living in Auckland, New Zealand. She was aged 86 and had been aged 2 when her father had been killed. The New Zealand government paid for Steve Gowan and his wife to fly to New Zealand to present her with the bottle and her father’s message.

Emily Crowhurst receives her father's message from Steve Gowan

The message to the finder was charming in its own way:

"Sir or madam, youth or maid, Would you kindly forward the enclosed letter and earn the blessing of a poor British soldier on his way to the front this ninth day of September, 1914. Signed Private T. Hughes, Second Durham Light Infantry. Third Army Corp Expeditionary Force."

The message to his wife could have been a bit more fulsome:

"Dear Wife, 
I am writing this note on this boat and dropping it into the sea just to see if it will reach you. 
If it does, sign this envelope on the right hand bottom corner where it says receipt. Put the date and hour of receipt and your name where it says signature and look after it well. 
Ta ta sweet, for the present. Your Hubby."

In 2011 Scottish fisherman Andrew Leaper aboard the Copious was pulling in his nets near the Shetland Islands when he found that he had also netted a bottle in the catch. In the bottle was a message by Capt. C. Hunter Brown of the Glasgow School of Navigation, the oldest certified message ever found in a bottle, according to the Guinness Book of Records. It had been put into the sea in 1914 as part of a scientific study on behalf of the Fishery Board for Scotland, making the bottle message 97 years old. To be precise, it is 97 years and 209 days old. Brown had also cast adrift another 1,889 bottles, of which 315 have been recovered. Funnily enough, the 2011 discovery was only 9.38 nautical miles (15 kilometres) from where it had been deployed.

Even more funnily, the previous record—a message in a bottle dating to 1917—was set in 2006 by Mark Anderson, a friend of Leaper's who was sailing the same ship, the Copious. "It was an amazing coincidence," Leaper said in a statement. "It's like winning the lottery twice."


On 9 September 2013 Steve Thurber, from Courtenay, Canada, found a bottle still sealed on a recently excavated beach at Schooners Cove in Tofino, Canada. Inside the bottle was a note with the name, Earl Willard, the date, 29 September 1906 and the notation that the writer was enroute from San Francisco to Bellingham, Washington. It is not known what is in the note because Thurber refuses to open the bottle, which has a rusted over cap, saying he wants to preserve what has been intact since 1906. That has infuriated a lot of people. The Guinness Book of Records is yet to accredit the 107 year old bottle and message.


In 1959 an article in The American Weekly titled "Love in a Bottle" told the story of true love resulting from a message in a bottle. The article included a few pictures of the happy couple, in one of which (shown above) they were posing at the spot where she found the bottle. 

This is the text of the American Weekly article:

Ake, a Swedish sailor, relieved his tedium at sea one day in 1955 by writing a letter. "To Someone Beautiful and Far Away," he poetically inscribed it. After giving his home address and a brief description of himself, he added, "Write to me, whoever you are," and signed his name. With that, he tucked the paper into an empty bottle of aqua vitae, replaced its cork and tossed it overboard. Two years went by. Then, on his return from another voyage, he found a letter, postmarked Syracuse, Sicily. The message was in Italian, which one of his shipmates obligingly translated. It was from a 17-year-old girl, who wrote: "Last Tuesday, I found a bottle on the shore. Inside was a piece of paper, bearing writing in a strange language. I took it to our priest, who is a great scholar. He said the language was Swedish and, with the help of a dictionary, he read me your charming letter. I am not beautiful, but it seems so miraculous that this little bottle should have traveled so far and long to reach me that I must send you an answer ..." Other letters, consigned to ordinary post, followed the first two. Photographs were exchanged and, finally, vows. Ake set sail for Syracuse and now, together, he and his pretty, if not beautiful, correspondent, who has just turned 18, are embarked on the sea of matrimony.

The Museum of Hoaxes credits this as being a true story, even though that site admits to initial skepticism:

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