Viewpoints

Messages in a bottle: Mysterious missives to distant strangers

In 1983, a girl in France, Christelle Barraud, found a message in a bottle and made news in her hometown paper.
In 1983, a girl in France, Christelle Barraud, found a message in a bottle and made news in her hometown paper. Special to The Bee

Imagine typing a message, sending it off and waiting months for a reply, even years.

In an age of instant communications, we get annoyed if we must wait 30 minutes for a reply. I’m still awaiting replies to messages I launched decades ago – in bottles.

One day around 1950 on a ferry far off the New England coast, my father suggested we write a note, slip it into a bottle and toss it into the North Atlantic to see what might happen.

That was the first of many times we did that. We called it “doing a bottle.” It became an avocation I continue to this day.

Back at home after a bedtime story, Dad would reach to turn off the light. Just before darkness captured my room, he’d say, “I wonder where our bottle is tonight?”

So I would drift off to sleep, imagining the exotic foreign lands where our bottle might be washing ashore, and who might be finding it at that very moment. The bottles might have to survive fierce storms and rocky shores. They could land on a beach, then be washed out to sea again before someone happened by.

Dad and I got a world map so we might discuss possible landing spots, which, of course, meant researching ocean currents and foreign lands.

It’s not a coincidence that my first career goal was to become a foreign correspondent traveling to far-off lands to witness exotic events and sights, talk to strangers and write newspaper stories to send home – via cable in those days.

Here’s the amazing thing: I’ve received answers to my messages in bottles, many of them, in fact.

I’ve never actually met any message recipients. Which seemed strange until I realized a few years ago that thanks to my active internet life, I have many times more friends I’ve never met than friends I have ever met.

Through my bottle messages, I’ve “met” coastal residents in Japan, beachcombers in British Columbia and Quebec, an Icelandic fisherman who caught one of my bottles in his net, campers near Belgium, and river swimmers in South Dakota and Montana.

One man in a sailboat off Rhode Island found a bottle, read the address through the glass, then relaunched it for yet another journey to somewhere.

My favorite bottle story began on a cold spring day in 1982 flying over the frigid North Atlantic. I was aboard a U.S. Coast Guard plane out of Newfoundland on iceberg patrol tracking those massive mountains of ancient, packed snow that calve off glaciers in Greenland. Silently, they float south to menace unwary ships until melting in the Atlantic’s warm northbound Gulf Stream.

It was April 15. And as the Coast Guard does every year on that date, the flight plan included dropping a wreath over the site of history’s worst maritime disaster, the sinking of the RMS Titanic in which 1,517 lives were lost.

The pilot lowered the craft to 1,000 feet. The entire rear of the plane opened slowly, revealing gray black water not far below pocked by thousands of wind-whipped whitecaps. With the air crew, I was harnessed in against the bitter gusts that blustered through the cargo bay.

A green light flashed. Two crewmen edged toward the gaping gap. They launched a large wreath. It tumbled swiftly down toward the unsinkable ship’s dark tomb nearly three miles beneath the surface.

Before the door closed, I too crept toward the opening. I launched a small glass Pepsi bottle, its cap screwed tight, on a journey to somewhere, if it survived the fall and impact. The tiny object quickly disappeared in the plane’s violent slipstream.

More than a year later, over 2,700 direct-line miles away, an 11-year-old girl named Christelle Barraud was walking with her parents on an island beach off Bordeaux, France. She spotted something stuck in the sand. Her father suggested leaving it.

But Christelle pulled the object from the sand’s wet grip. The object was encrusted with sea creatures. She shook it and heard something inside – my two dated business cards.

Next day, Christelle made an exciting report at school. Her teacher suggested responding. That began a long-term pen pal relationship. She practiced her English asking me why I threw in the bottle, where I did it and all about Canada. Oh, and what TV shows I watched.

In probably poor French, I answered her questions, asked about her school and family life. The exchanges even drew local news coverage about une bouteille à la mer.

I’ve probably launched hundreds of bouteilles à la mer over the years and received several dozen replies. Last year, someone found an ocean research bottle that had been bobbing on Baltic waves for more than a century.

I can only guess how many of my unaddressed missives still float out there somewhere bound for unscheduled deliveries to unsuspecting recipients. I imagine hearing about the next one any day now. Who can say I won’t?

Andrew Malcolm, a writer living in Southern California, can be reached at andrewmalcolmtot@gmail.com, on Twitter at @AHMalcolm, or, somewhat less reliably, via messages in bottles.

  Comments