Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Message in a (Wine) Bottle

Wine bottles have more uses than just holding wine. For centuries they, along with beer bottles, have been used to send messages into the future. Writing a message and sealing it in a bottle before casting it out to sea sounds romantic, and a bit adventurous.  Where will it go? Who will find it? When will it be found? Will anyone reply? 

The first known messages to be sent out in bottles occurred around 310 BC by the Ancient Greek philosopher, Theophrastus. He was intent on proving that the Mediterranean Sea was formed by the Atlantic Ocean. (There's no record as to if he received any answers.)

Queen Elizabeth the 1st
During the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth created the official title of “Uncorker of Ocean Bottles” for the person designated to open bottle from the sea, which contained messages from the Navy about enemy positions on the high seas.

Coconut Wood
In 1784, forty-four Japanese seamen set sail in search of buried treasure on various Pacific islands when their ship was blown off course and stranded on a deserted island. One of the castaways, Chunosuke Matsuyama, carved their story into thin pieces of coconut wood then inserted them into a bottle and tossed it into the sea. In 1935, over 150 years later, the bottle washed ashore in Hiraturemura, Japan – the village where Matsuyama had been born.

To launch a message in a bottle, the sender usually writes a note or request, seals it in the bottle and then tosses it into the sea or river to see where it might end up. It appears that 1913 and 1914 were good years to send out messages in bottles as these three stories show.

Thomas Hughes
One hundred years ago, on September 9, 1914, 26-year-old Private Thomas Hughes, a British soldier on his way to fight in France, cast a bottle into the English Channel that contained a letter to his wife. The message read:

"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."

Granddaughter Emily Gowan
Hughes was killed in action two days later. In 1999, 85 years after the event, a fisherman found the bottle in the River Thames. Hughes’ wife Elizabeth had died in 1979, but the letter was delivered to his 86-year-old daughter, Emily Gowan who was living in Auckland, New Zealand.

Bottle & Post Card
Crew of Maria I
Another interesting find was in the Baltic Sea, near Kiel Germany: The skipper of the Maria I netted a brown beer bottle while fishing. A crewmember noticed a paper inside which turned out to be a postcard from Denmark. Dated May 17, 1913 the card had been written and released by 20-year-old Richard Platz, a German living in Berlin.  He requested that the finder forward the postcard back to him in Berlin.

Maritime Museum in Hamburg
Platz died in 1946, but his granddaughter, Angela Erdmann, now 62-years-old still resides in Berlin and was amazed at the find. The bottle and its message went on display at the Maritime Museum in Hamburg this spring, but is now being studied by researchers as they try to make out the remainder of the message which has been badly smudged over the years.

Glasgow School of Navigation
Again, in 1914, a scientist, Captain C. Hunter Brown of the Glasgow School of Navigation cast 1,890 clear glass bottles into the ocean as a way to study local ocean currents around Scotland. The notes read:

Note Found Inside Bottle
Please state where and when this card was found, and then put it in the nearest Post Office. You will be informed in reply where and when it was set adrift. Our object is to find out the direction of the deep currents of the North Sea."  One of the bottles was found east of the Shetland Islands by a fishing vessel – 98 years later, in 2012.

Zeppelin L 19
It was during WWI, on February 1, 1916 when the crew of Zeppelin L 19 of the German Imperial Navy was returning from their first bombing raid on England. Engine trouble and malfunctioning radio equipment led to the Zeppelin flying off-course into Dutch air space where it was fired upon. The damaged airship was then blown offshore and landed in the North Sea.

King Stephen and Sinking Zeppelin
The next morning a British fishing vessel, The King Stephen sighted the L 19's distress signals. When the captain and crew arrived, they found Germans aboard the sinking ship: the captain refused to rescue them and left them to die. As the weather worsened, Zeppelin crewmembers wrote personal messages and an account of what had happened before placing the notes in several bottles and tossing them into the roiling sea. When the Royal Navy made a search of the area, no airship or crew were found. It was four months after the incident when a crewman’s body washed ashore, and six months until bottles began washing up on shore to tell the story.

And what “message in a bottle” tale would be complete with out the requisite love story. In 1956 a young Swedish sailor, Ake Viking wrote a letter addressed “To Someone Beautiful and Far Away.” In it he gave his address, a description of himself and closed with these words, "Write to me, whoever you are." Viking then placed the note in a bottle and tossed it overboard to see what, if anything, would happen.

Two years later, Viking received a letter in reply from a 17-year-old girl, Paolina, in Sicily.  She 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 ..." The two began corresponding and in 1961 Ake moved to Sicily to marry Paolina, his message answered. An article was written about the couple in The American Weekly in 1959 titled "Love in a Bottle."

Message in a Bottle
Bottles are still being found today, around the world. In April 2013 a bottle washed up on the beach near Dubrovnik, Croatia.  It had been thrown out to sea in 1985 from Nova Scotia, Canada and made a journey over 4,000 miles.

"1906" Message
The oldest note in a bottle was discovered in April of this year, bearing the date of September 29, 1906. A Canadian man, Steve Thurber found the bottle near Schooner’s Cove in Tofino, British Columbia. Inside was a note signed by Earl Willard. Unfortunately, Thurber doesn’t want the bottle opened so independent verification hasn’t been done.

All told, only about 350 bottles have been recovered and reported around the world. Maybe it’s time to finish that bottle of wine, write a message, and send it off with the current, into the tides of history.

~ Joy