I’ve been reading about messages in bottles. It’s research for my book, and it has been a lot of fun. Fascinating, creative, poignant, sometimes heartwarming, messages, cast adrift* in the hope that someone, somewhere, will find them. Here are seven of my favourites. (There are loads more, but you’ll have to read about them in the book, wink wink).
The year is 1493. On his journey back to Spain after stumbling upon North America, Christopher Columbus is beset by a storm on the North Atlantic and believes his ship, La Niña, will likely be shipwrecked. He writes a desperate note to the Spanish Queen Isabella, telling her of his situation and that new land has been found, and tosses it into the ocean in a bottle.
Columbus survives the storm and returns home a hero, but his message in a bottle is yet to be found.
The year is 1784. Japanese sailor Chunosuke Matsuyama is treasure-hunting in the Pacific Ocean. He and his 43 shipmates are shipwrecked on a coral reef during a storm, and forced to take refuge on a nearby island with very little food or fresh water. Knowing he is likely to die, Matsuyama scratches the story of the shipwreck onto thin pieces of wood from a coconut tree, then casts them adrift in a bottle.
The bottle is found more than 150 years later, in 1935, on the shoreline of Japan.
The year is 1912. Early in the morning of 15 April, the RMS Titanic sinks in the North Atlantic Ocean after colliding with an iceberg on its way to New York. Before he dies, a 19-year-old passenger named Jeremiah Burke scribbles a note, and sets it adrift in a bottle.
“From Titanic. Goodbye all. Burke of Glanmire, Cork.”
One year later, the bottle washes ashore in Dunkettle, Ireland, only a few miles from Burke’s family home.
The year is 1914. WWI private Thomas Hughes writes a message for his wife and tosses it into the English Channel as he leaves to fight in France.
“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.”
Hughes is killed in battle only two days after releasing his letter. The bottle is found 85 years later, in 1999, in the River Thames, and is delivered to Hughes’ 86-year-old daughter Emily Crowhurst, now living in New Zealand.
The year is 1915. After the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania is torpedoed by a German u-boat during the first World War, one of the 1198 passengers and crew who ultimately perish with the ship hurriedly writes this message, and pushes it into a bottle:
“Still on deck with a few people. The last boats have left. We are sinking fast. Some men near me are praying with a priest. The end is near. Maybe this note will--”
The year is 1985. A man writes a letter, seals it in a bottle, and tosses it off the coast somewhere in Nova Scotia, Canada. The note says:
“Mary, you are a really great person. I hope we can keep in correspondence. I said I would write. Your friend always, Jonathon. Nova Scotia, ‘85.”
The bottle washes up 28 years later on a Croatian beach, but nobody has yet found Jonathon or Mary.
The year is 1990. A message is tossed overboard in a bottle, during a ferry-ride from Hull in England to Belgium:
“Dear finder, my name is Zoe Lemon. Please would you write to me, I would like it a lot. I am 10 years old and I like ballet, playing the flute and the piano. I have a hamster called Sparkle and fish called Speckle.”
In 2013, Zoe’s parents receive a letter at Christmas time, sent from the Netherlands: “Dear Zoe, yesterday on one of my many walks with my wife along the dikes of Oosterschelde looking among the debris thrown by the sea of embankment I found a little plastic bottle containing your message.”
What this research has got me thinking about is that before we had any kind of mobile or satellite technology, which is incredibly recently, there was pretty much no other way to get a message out there from a sinking ship than to trust it to a bottle and the waves and hope for the best.
Those sad and desperate notes, scribbled in literally the last few minutes of people's lives, show just how powerful is the human need to connect, whether it's to reach out to a loved-one, or just to make sure that someone - even a stranger - will know what happened to us. For many of these people, communication was their last deliberate act.
* If you have qualms about the romance of messages in bottles versus the potential environmental damage of tossing something into the ocean, famous Canadian oceanographer Dr Eddy Carmack may be able to put your mind at rest. "Drift bottle science is cheap, fun, and environmentally friendly," he says.
Dr Carmack is the head of the Drift Bottle Project, which launched in 2000 and has so far released more than 6400 bottles, in an important study of ocean surface currents.
Just maybe steer away from the plastic bottles, if you're going to do this. Plastics photodegrade in sunlight, meaning they break down into ever-smaller pieces, and the tiniest pieces release toxins that can poison the entire food chain when they are eaten by marine animals and birds.
On the other hand, glass bottles are relatively benign, says Dr Carmack. "The unfound bottles eventually break down, and become part of the marine environment."
Image credits: Bhavyesh Acharya, licensed for unlimited use under Creative Commons