A Bottle's Soggy Saga

"Six years, four months, and 13 days!" Glenda cried in a Southern accent as thick as honey. "I still can't believe it!"

Glenda Horton of Roswell, Ga., had been vacationing on Scottland Cay in the Bahamas when she found the bottle. It contained the note that Matt had dropped into the ocean off Massachusetts more than six years before.

The note, though water-damaged and stuck to the bottle's inside wall, was legible enough to make out Matt's full name and ZIP code. From that, Glenda found the small town in which we live. She called one night a month after she returned to Georgia.

"All my life I've wanted to find a note in a bottle!" she cried.

As we talked, we began to realize that the bottle had probably made a complete circumnavigation of the Atlantic Ocean - thanks to ocean currents.

The sea may look like one broad expanse of water, but it's not. It's full of currents that run like rivers through it. In the Atlantic, currents run clockwise around the whole northern half of the ocean, like the spin cycle of an enormous washing machine.

People have been studying currents for centuries. In the 1950s, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) in Woods Hole, Mass., used notes in bottles to figure out how currents moved around Cape Cod. In 1959, I found a bottle from WHOI that had washed up on Nantucket Island. The note inside told me where and when the bottle had been dropped, and asked that I send it back with a description of where and when I found it. (I got a nice thank-you note in return.)

Tracking abandoned ships

More recently, Phil Richardson, a physical oceanographer at WHOI, has been studying 19th-century charts to plot the paths of derelicts (ships abandoned at sea) in the Gulf Stream currents. WHOI tracked the Fannie E. Wolston for three years as it wound slowly around the North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre, the name of the "spin cycle" current system.

Sailors have always studied currents because they dramatically affect how fast a ship can go. In 1513, the explorer Ponce de Leon was trying to sail south from Florida. Although there was a breeze, his vessel nearly stood still, so strong was the current against it. The ship was caught in the Gulf Stream. Wide, warm, and swift, the Gulf Stream runs along the Atlantic Coast from Florida to New England. In some places, the current goes as fast as 4 knots (about 5 miles per hour). In the south, the water of the Gulf Stream is a brilliant aquamarine, easily distinguishable from the darker ocean on either side.

It was the Gulf Stream that caught Matt's bottle after he dropped it overboard on July 17, 1990. We were sailing from Chesapeake Bay to Castine, Maine, to deliver the boat to its new owners. Matt and Abby, then 7 and 5, were bored. So their father, a seagoing tug captain who from the sea has scooped up a ladder (which we still use), soccer balls, boat bumpers, and even a duck blind, suggested they each write a note and put it in a bottle.

From Cape Cod to Africa

Matt and Abby wrote their names and addresses along with the date, time, and our location - Race Point, the northern tip of Cape Cod. They corked the glass bottles and dropped them in the water about five minutes apart.

Two months later, a letter arrived for Abby from Maine. A boy named Sam had picked up her bottle on a beach on Vinalhaven, an island off the Maine coast. Months passed. We assumed Matt's bottle was lost or sunk.

But the current that had taken Abby's bottle to Vinalhaven had separated the two bottles. A different finger of current must have sent Matt's bottle east toward the North Atlantic drift, iceberg territory. Somewhere between 60 and 50 degrees west latitude, the currents divide into broad separate bands, more rivers within the sea. One band goes northeast toward Great Britain, thick with sea traffic. Another feeds into the Antilles Current, which circles the Sargasso Sea in the middle of the Atlantic. Yet another splits off toward northern Africa where it meets the Canary Current that slips along Africa's shore.

Back home, six years later

The Canary Current then sweeps back toward North America. It was probably that current, which scoots past the Bahamas to rejoin the Gulf Stream, that brought Matt's bottle to a beach on Scottland Cay, a small island about 60 miles from Freeport, Grand Bahama Island.

We never dreamed that the bottle Matt dropped into the water six years ago would one day introduce us to a stranger in Georgia. After Glenda phoned, she sent a letter describing where and how she found the bottle. She included what was left of Matt's note. Patches were missing, and it was stained, but we could see how it had led Glenda to us.

Finding a message in a bottle fulfilled a lifelong dream for Glenda. And by contacting us, she had brought the story full circle. Just like the North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre.

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