Casting Hopes And Dreams To Sea In A Bottle

Oct 9, 2012
Originally published on October 10, 2012 12:37 pm

Capt. Sean Bercaw has thrown hundreds of messages in bottles into the ocean, and received dozens of responses. It started when he was just a child.

"I was born into a family with this crazy dream of sailing around the world," he tells NPR's Neal Conan. At age 10, he and his family set off on a three-and-a-half-year voyage around the world. It was on that trip that he got the idea to put notes in bottles.

"It was a little challenging because neither of my parents drinks," says Bercaw. So he'd sleuth around the backs of bars to find suitable vessels for his sea-bound missives, then cast them into the ocean. He estimates he sent off about 40 bottles during that voyage, and heard back from two people who found them.

The first one floated in the Atlantic Ocean for several months before winding up in the hands of a young boy in Central America. And the second floated to Grenada. "A young woman found it, and her response ... was funny because I was only 13 at the time, and her response [was] almost in the form of a love letter. ... She described herself, and her height and I like to dance and so on. So it's quite amusing."

Later in life, Bercaw joined the Navy and kept his messages-in-bottles experiment alive, throwing more than 250 into the ocean. His notes became a bit more formal, mentioning that he was working on a school ship and conducting an experiment, and promising a reward to anyone who responded.

Once, on two consecutive days in the Atlantic, Bercaw released bottles less than 50 miles apart. A year-and-a-half later, one made its way ashore in France. The second took more than 10 years, but also landed in France. "That's one of the things I really enjoy about the project," says Bercaw. "The ocean is very fickle at times."

Tell us: Have you ever released a message in a bottle, or found one?

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This year, a Scottish sailor dredged up a bottle from the bottom of the North Sea with a 98-year-old message inside and the promise of a reward. The find established a Guinness world record for the oldest ever found in a bottle. And we're sorry to disappoint romantics, but the note inside came from Captain C.H. Brown of the Glasgow School of Navigation as part of a project to map ocean currents. And the reward: a promise of sixpence to the lucky finder.

If you've ever sent a message in a bottle or if you've received one, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION. More recently, Captain Sean Bercaw started a drift-bottle project of his own. He's launched more than 250 so far and joins us now from member station WCAI in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. And nice of you to be with us today.

CAPT. SEAN BERCAW: Oh, thank you. Glad to be here.

CONAN: I understand you actually started sending off bottles when you were just a kid.

BERCAW: Yeah, I was very fortunate. I was born into a family with this crazy dream of sailing around the world. And so as a 10-year-old, I was a grade school dropout. I've sailed off a for 3 1/2-year voyage and circumnavigating under sail. And on that voyage, I got the idea of putting notes in bottles. And it was a little challenging because neither of my parents drinks, so finding empty bottles, I had to sort of sleuth behind bars to find them. But then, you know, I'd put the notes in. And I sent about 40 bottles off during that 3 1/2 years and heard back from two of those.

CONAN: And what did the notes say?

BERCAW: The first one I heard back from was - it floated for about 3 1/2 months in Atlantic and floated into Central America. A young boy found it. And the second one that was found was also in Atlantic and actually floated to Grenada. And a young woman found it, and her response - it was funny because I was only 13 at the time, and her response - it was a very nice response, but it's almost in the form of a love letter a little bit, you know? She described herself, you know, and her height and I like to dance and so on. So it's quite amusing.


CONAN: Well, there's a lot of romance attached to messages in bottles.

BERCAW: Oh, exactly. And that's why later on in life, I was in the Navy. And then when I got out, I started working on school ships and taking college students out to sea. And when I started doing that, I sort of got that project going again. And that's when I threw the over 250 bottles in.

CONAN: And what did those notes say? What did you put in the bottles?

BERCAW: Those - just since I was captain and I - sort of busy, so it was more of a formalized note. But I said that I was, you know, working on a school ship and doing this drift-bottle experiment. And this is where it went in and, you know, I'd love to hear back from and that there would be a reward. And of those 250, I've heard back from about 50 of those, and they've ranged anywhere from a few weeks to over 10 years that they floated in the ocean.

CONAN: I read, in fact, in an article in National Geographic that you sent two bottles on consecutive days into the Atlantic and both made their way to France.

BERCAW: Yeah. That was - that's one of the things I really enjoy about the project is that the ocean is very fickle at times. And so these two bottles went in only less than 50 miles apart. And the one floated to France took about a year and a half, and the other one floated to France took over 10 years. But both responses from the folks in France, they are just - almost universally, people who found the bottles have just been really thrilled to find them.

CONAN: And so what reward did you offer them? A sixpence?


BERCAW: Well, the organization I work with usually would send like a hat or a T-shirt or a mug. Twice, I've sent money, but that's just twice I've had little kids find it, you know, where one was a 7-year-old and one was a 9-year-old where I sent them that. And one time, it was a very cute couple found it, and they said, oh, we hope the reward are chocolate chip cookies. So I've had a broad range of responses.

CONAN: And in all that time at sea, have you ever found a note in a bottle?

BERCAW: Once. I was actually walking on the beaches of Black Island and found a note. And that's how it was actually funny. I didn't realize I'd found it. I was just collecting plastic trash. And so I had a whole bin full trash. And then when I was putting it in the trash can, I happened to look at one of the plastic bottles and realized there was a note in it, and that had been thrown in from Long Island. So that's my one recovery.

CONAN: A plastic bottle is that what you would advise if somebody wanted to send a note in a bottle?

BERCAW: Well, there's a lot of, you know, plastics in the ocean. It's a big topic this days, and so I always do - use wine bottles partly because it float nicely. They're hardy bottles, but also it's - I'm a little bit of a romantic. And, you know, with wine bottles, you can put a cork in the end and all of that. And so the plastic bottles - I mean, in some ways, plastic's hardy, but I just would have a real problem, you know, environmentally, throwing in a plastic bottle in.

CONAN: And doesn't the cork fell - work its way out?

BERCAW: So far, I've had pretty good luck. I've discovered that paper is much hardier than we think. So I've had message that were found and talking with the people who found them. They said, you know, the note that had been soggy, but they were able to unroll it. And one of the things I've done is I often put my note in a small, little plastic bag inside the bottle.

But surprisingly, I had one bottle discovered in Bermuda where talking with the guy who found it, he realized that - the only way he realized there'd been a plastic bag was when he found the zipper of the Ziploc, that the rest of plastic from the UV sun had actually broken down. But the note - the paper note had survived.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Sally(ph) in San Francisco: In the early '90s, I found a message in a bottle on the beach at Fort Funston in San Francisco. There had been a big storm. A bunch of sake bottles from Japan had washed up. I saw a piece of paper in one. And my heart was pounding as the bottle opened with a hiss, and I pulled out the crumbling paper. It said, send more beer. It was signed by a bunch of guys from USS Constitution in Okinawa, dated 1986 at 2 AM.


CONAN: So I guess, that's a little connected to your experience as a naval captain.

BERCAW: Oh, yes. No. I mean, in - that's one of the things I enjoy about the project is, you know, the notes range from, sort of, you know, fun lark like that one into the scientific experiment to, you know, of course, you know, the romance like the book by Nicholas Sparks, you know, "Message in a Bottle." So the whole - both the finding is - has a broad range and also the people who sent the bottles. And then, of course, there's also historically issues about bottles sent by people who are shipwrecked or about to sink on their vessel.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email us: Natania(ph) joins us from Philadelphia.


CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

NATANIA: Hi. Thank you so much for taking my call. Well, I was calling because when I was a little girl, I lost a beach ball out in the ocean. The tide carried it away too quickly. And I was absolutely distraught. And so my grandfather suggested that I write a message in a bottle. And I did. And he and my mom woke up really early in the morning - this is in Virginia Beach, Virginia - and they took it down to where the fishing boats leave in the morning. And they gave it to someone on a boat, and they took it out, threw it in the ocean somewhere. And maybe not even a month later, I got a letter from this little boy who found it on a barrier island outside of Virginia Beach. And I just thought it was the coolest thing in the world. I took my letter to show and tell on the first of first grade, and no one has ever been as impressed by the story as I thought they ought to be. So I thought this is such a great topic, and I just want to share that story.

CONAN: Not the same little boy who's there with you now?

NATANIA: No. No, not the same one.


CONAN: All right. Natania, thanks very much for the call.

NATANIA: Thank you so much. It's a great show.

CONAN: Thank you very much. Here's an email from Ray(ph). In the early '90s, I lived in and worked on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, for those don't know. Kwajalein is halfway between Honolulu and Darwin, Australia, halfway between Peru and the Philippine Islands - I will insert parenthetically - in other words in the middle of nowhere. One day on the east side of the atoll, I put a message in a bottle in the lagoon. I half expected the current to carry it to an island on the west side, thought one of my co-workers over there might very well find it. Several months later, I received a letter from a college student in the Philippines. The bottle had traveled 1,500 miles west and less than 50 miles south. We knew the currents were east to west, but we had no idea how straight they actually were.

And, Sean Bercaw, a lot of the studies of ships - the drift bottle studies, those are precisely to study currents.

BERCAW: Oh, exactly. Yeah. You know, and the scientists at WHOI, you know, the Oceanographic Institutions, have done a lot of work with...

CONAN: Woods Hole Oceanographic, yeah.

BERCAW: Yes, sir. Ways of studying. And actually, they've discovered one of the best items to help study are grapefruit because they float, but they're just right at the surface, whereas bottles could be push by the wind a little bit. So for the scientists, you know, now they often - if they bottles, filled - put a little bit of sand or weight in so they float right at the surface and not too high up on the surface.

CONAN: Coconuts, of course, are great messages in bottles. The seeds spreads across the Pacific, and indeed, then across the Isthmus of Panama, one coconut at a time.

BERCAW: Exactly. And, you know, and I found that the message, you know, different items float, you know. And also the ocean - like one time when I was a young lad, I was out sailing, and I saw a light bulb go skirting by. We're in a huge storm out in the Indian Ocean. And the light bulb had been out there so long that the screw on the bottom of the light bulb had actually corroded a lot, but the globe - the glass globe, which we think of as very fragile - here we're out in the middle of this horrendous storm, and it was just fine. Just sort of skipping along over the waves.

CONAN: Let's go next to Rob. Rob with us from Denver.

ROB: Hi. I was - my wife and I were cruising in the Caribbean, and we were in the, yeah, southern Abacos Islands of the Bahamas on Lanyard Cay. And we typically used to like to walk the windward side of the island because that's where all the debris pile up. Well, one - and my friends and my used to look for seashells, and I used to look way, way up on the banks of the - where the surf was. And I was walking along and lo and behold, I found a letter in a bottle. It was a wine bottle. We had a bit of a ceremony and opened the bottle over a glass of wine with some friends. And it was from a German woman. It was a young lady at that time that she sent the quick the letter in the bottle and put it out to sea. And she was on a cruise.

And we tried to contact her, and she left in an address, but she - we sent her a letter. And fortunately, it was a small German village because the post office there knew exactly who it was. And they sent it to her son, and her son answered to her. And it was quite a story. So we took the bottle, wrote a letter of our own, told them that story, exactly as we - I told you and put it out to sea. And to this day, we haven't received any phone call from anybody - so.

CONAN: Have you warned your children and grandchildren to stand by just in case?


ROB: Yeah. Everybody knows about it, and we've forewarned everybody. But that was a real special time for us. Who would ever thunk we'd find a letter in a bottle on a beach in the Bahamas?

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Rob.

ROB: You bet.

CONAN: Here's an email that we have from Sarah: We spent summers on the Bay of Fundy in Maine. The first message we found came from Quebec via a helium balloon. The second was launched locally by a boy visiting from Pennsylvania. Three of our bottles have been found. One made it to southern Maine, and the other two washed up on nearby beaches. Next summer, we're hoping to hear from France.

And Gayle(ph) from in Lantana, Florida: While the message was not exactly in a bottle, we did find a message. About 25 years ago, our young daughter found a balloon in our yard with a laminated note attached. It was from a school in Washington, D.C. The students asked the finder to let them know how far the balloon had traveled on the air currents. We lived in Old Westbury on Long Island, about six-hour drive away. And I guess, Sean Bercaw, the balloon is pretty much the same equivalent.

BERCAW: Oh, yes. And it's interesting that the ocean is a great interface there. When I've been out to sea, especially here in the North Atlantic off the Eastern Seaboard, I've come across many Mylar balloons. And often when we're sailing, Gary stopped to pick them up, but you see, you know, they're very hardy once they land in the ocean.

CONAN: And as much of a problem as plastic bottles can be too. But are you planning to launch more notes in bottles?

BERCAW: Yes. I found - I launched one this summer - I was off on another vessel - it was just found a few days ago in Cuttyhunk, and it had floated for about three months. You know, and one of the things I found out about the project is that, you know, it's fun to throw them and also the responses. They just - they're sort of that positive ripple effect. I mean, everybody I've found - who found the bottles, you know, they'll write back and to say, hey, you really made my day.

And I had one bottle found in Cape Verde Islands ,where it was found by an older gentleman who had cancer. And he said, you know, I don't have many days left and finding your bottle, you know, has really given me a positive day here.

CONAN: Sean Bercaw, thanks very much. Sean Bercaw is a tall ship captain. He joined us today from member station WCAI in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.