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Found: A Message in a Bottle

June 2, 2008

In May of 2008, Reid Pannill was walking with his wife in the surf on Fripp Island. The glint of a bottle floating in the tide caught his eye. It was not litter. After prying off the rusted metal cap, the Pannills pulled out notes, handwritten on rolled slips of paper. The clear glass bottle had preserved the messages without damage.

One of the notes read, “I wish for courage to do the things I must do.” It was signed by Linda Goodnight. She had written the note on March 11, 1995, and pushed it inside the bottle on the last day of a spring break trip to Edisto Beach.

The Beaufort Gazette reported that the message in the bottle had made the 13-year journey along the South Carolina coast, bobbing across St. Helena Sound from Edisto Beach to Fripp Island.

Contacted by the newspaper, Goodnight, now 65, was surprised the message had been found. A middle-aged nursing student when she wrote the note, Linda explained, “Life was changing… it takes a lot of courage when you’re past a certain point in life, to step out there and go back to school and recreate yourself.”

Making a wish is only one of the reasons messages are set adrift at sea.

They are also used to study ocean currents.

The first documented messages in bottles were released by ancient Greeks. The experiment showed that the Mediterranean Sea was formed by the Atlantic Ocean flowing through the Strait of Gibraltar.

In March, 2008, Merle Brandell and his black Lab were beachcombing along the Bering Sea. Near his fishing village in Alaska, he spied a plastic bottle on the shore. An envelope was tucked inside with a message from an elementary school student in suburban Seattle.

“This letter is part of our science project to study ocean currents. Please send the date and location of the bottle with your address. I will tell you when and where the bottle was placed in the ocean. Your friend, Emily Hwaung.”

Brandell, a bear-hunting guide, found the bottle twenty-one years and 1,735 miles later. Emily, now a 30-year-old Seattle accountant, was in the fourth grade in 1987 when her message was launched.

Sailors in peril have thrown distress messages into the ocean.

On his journey back to Spain after discovering the New World, Christopher Columbus’ ship encountered a severe storm. Columbus sent a report of his discovery along with a note instructing that it be passed on to the Queen of Spain. The desperate message, sealed in a wooden cask, was thrown into the sea.  Columbus survived. The cask was never found.

A message in a bottle is often associated with people stranded on a deserted island, hoping to be rescued.

In May 2005, eighty-eight South American refugees, shipwrecked and stranded at sea, were rescued off the shore of Costa Rica. The 40 Peruvian and 48 Ecuadorean migrants drifted for three days aboard a sinking boat, waiting for help. They had crammed an SOS message into a bottle and tied it to one of the long lines of a passing fishing boat.

A message in a bottle may be the cry of a broken heart.

“Message in a Bottle” is the title of a 1979 song by a group called The Police. The song is about a castaway on an island, who sends out a message in a bottle to seek help. A year later, he has had no response. Then, he sees a hundred billion bottles on the shore, from people all as lonely and isolated as he.

Micheal Larsen, a rapper known as Eyedea, sings a hip-hop song, “Bottle Dreams.”  It is the story of an abused violinist, who, in her despair, daily tosses a message in a bottle into a river. After her death, more than 500 of her bottled messages are found.

Nicholas Sparks’ novel, Message in a Bottle, evokes this same pathos. Garrett, a seaman, expresses his grief by tossing bottles containing messages overboard. One is found by Theresa, just three weeks after it begins its journey. She discovers the message during a seaside vacation.

The letter opens, “My Dearest Catherine, I miss you my darling, as I always do, but today is particularly hard because the ocean has been singing to me, and the song is that of our life together.”

Enthralled by the mysterious romance, Theresa begins a search that takes her to the coastal town where Garrett lives. In1999, the book was made into a film starring Kevin Costner and Paul Newman.

A message in a bottle is a source of fascination. A glass bottle, floating in ocean waves for years, enduring storms, surviving crashing surf, seems improbable. A note scrawled on paper, preserved in glass, finally found in the sand, is intriguing.

In 1977, Robert Kraske wrote The twelve million dollar note: Strange but true tales of messages found in seagoing bottles. Though I have not yet read the book, I intend to do so, probably during our family vacation at the beach this summer.

I will take long walks in the surf keeping an eye out for bottles.

I also intend to write a note, seal it in a bottle, and pitch it into the waves.

If you find it, let me know.

-Kirk H. Neely

© H-J Weekly, June 2008

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