Letters from the Sea

By Rebecca Ruger-Wightman

message in a bottle

There’s something indisputably romantic about finding a message in a bottle upon the beach. Tossed adrift by some dreamy traveler, hopeless seaman, sometimes by climate researchers, or maybe even a starry-eyed searcher of love, the ocean and its accomplices—the currents and the winds—play deliverer of fate and drop the missive into the hands of a hopeful recipient. Messages in bottles are found all over the globe, one of the most iconic images in a nautical world,telling tales of long-gone persons or connecting people from across the sea.

Drift Bottles

It’s thought that the first known message in a bottle was tossed by the Greek philosopher, Theophrastus way back in 310 B.C. as a way of testing his supposition that the Atlantic Ocean flows into the Mediterranean Sea. Other so-called ‘drift bottles’— a bottle purposefully set adrift in the ocean, with a recorded time and place to aid in the study of ocean surface currents—have been employed for centuries. In 2015, Marianne Winkler was on vacation and found a bottle floating near the island of Amrum, Germany. The glass bottle had spent an implausible 108 years and 138 days at sea from its release in the North Sea by the Marine Biological Association (UK) in November, 1906 and its eventual discovery by Winkler in 2015. Guinness World Records, after careful investigation, confirmed it as the longest at-sea message in a bottle. The message within asked the finder to return the enclosed postcard to the Marine Biological Association to aid their research, and receive a one shilling reward. When Winkler did as instructed, the Marine Biological Association was determined to fulfill the reward, but as shillings hadn’t been used in the UK for decades, they had to procur one on eBay. Drift bottles are still employed today, and some estimates put the total number of these data-driven sea-notes into the tens of thousands over the last few hundred years.

post card from message in bottle

The record holder message from the found bottle, courtesy the Marine Biological Association.

Looking for Love

But (yawn) scientific research is not exactly the stuff of romance. Luckily, before Match.com and Tinder, apparently a message in a bottle was the lonely man’s method for finding love. From an article in The Corpus Christi Caller-Times dated Feb 22, 1959, reporter Charles Van Deusen wrote of “Love in a Bottle”, telling the story of Ake Viking, a Swedish sailor, who in an effort to find love, tossed a bottled note overboard one day in 1955. The note read, “To Someone Beautiful and Far Away. Write to me, whoever you are.” Simple, but apparently effective, for when 17 year-old Paolina Puzzo found the bottle two years later near her home in Sicily, she did indeed write to him. Puzzo’s response told of finding the bottle, and having to implore her priest to translate the “strange language”. She added, “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.” More letters followed between the pair—these now consigned to good old-fashioned snail mail—and they were married soon after Ake travelled to Sicily in 1958. Van Deusen’s headline for the story: “Dizzy Things Happen when Cupid Sends ‘First-Glass’ Mail”. 

Sadly, not all bottled-up love affairs turned out so well. In December 1945, Frank Hayostek, a young medical assistant was returning from the war with thousands of other soldiers. Their ship was hit by a rough storm only a few days out from port, and found itself still at sea on Christmas day. Sad to be away from home for yet another Christmas, the disheartened Frank gazed out from the deck across the choppy waves. Something clicked in his memory and he rushed to the sick bay and fetched an empty aspirin bottle. Unlike most hastily scrawled or brief messages in bottles, Frank’s note included these thoughtful words:

Dear finder,

Probably this bottle, or note, shall never be found, but I’ll just send it out anyhow. I got this idea from a fairy tale when I was just a little boy. Today I am twenty-one years old, but my conscience has guided me to do this. I have no reward to offer the finder of this bottle, as I am just a plain American, with just enough to appreciate life and happiness. However, friendship is the only reward I can guarantee you. God bless whoever should find this letter. Frank Hayostek.

Kinnard Strand Ireland

Kinnard Strand, Ireland, where Breda O’Sullivan found Frank Hayostek’s bottled message in 1946.

Eight months later, in August 1946, the aspirin bottle washed up on Kinnard Strand near Dingle, County Kerry where 18 year-old Breda O’Sullivan found it while out walking her dog. Breda wrote to Frank, which was the beginning of a trans-Atlantic friendship that lasted many years. Finally, by 1952 Frank had saved enough money to fly to Ireland.

message in a bottle pen pals

Frank and Breda, looking perhaps cozier than was true in 1952. Photo credit Documentary On One, RTÉ Radio 1

But he wasn’t alone when he arrived at Breda’s home. The press, both in the States and in Ireland, had gotten hold of the story and were near frothing at the mouth to see a romance blossom between the pen-pals. Peter Mulryan, of RTÉ Radio 1 in Ireland described the ensuing media coverage as part-circus, part tragedy, but many agree it killed any chance for romance. Frank visited Breda and her family for two weeks, but their relationship never recovered (or blossomed) and Frank returned home alone.

letters breda wrote to frank

Breda’s letters to Frank, which he saved. Photo credit Documentary On One, RTÉ Radio 1

Years later, asked how she recalled her days in the spotlight, Breda answered, “If I had known that I would get all that publicity by answering the letter, I would have left the bottle lying there.”

Frank went on to find love closer to home and married in 1958. The following year, he received his last letter from Breda. His wife died in 1965. In a 2004 interview with The Democratic-Tribune, Frank was 80 years old and admitted that he still thought of the Irish milkmaid every day. “I sent a final letter, but never got a reply,” he’d said. “I heard she got married, too and we just lost touch over the years. I often wonder if she is still alive.”

Frank and Breda died only a few months apart in 2009, but before Frank died he had made arrangements for his own tombstone, obviously still thinking on his long-ago Irish colleen. His tombstone reads, “Frank Hayostek met in Tralee, Ireland, with Breda O’Sullivan who found a message-laden bottle he had tossed from a Liberty ship seven years before.”

Postscript. Documentary On One, RTÉ Radio 1 of Ireland produced a marvelous podcast/radio documentary by Peter Mulryan and Liam O'Brien which first aired in 2012; it tries to discover what happened to Frank and Breda, since the potential of so many years of letters did not blossom into a romance.

Ill-Fated Voyagers

Some letters from the sea carry with them a more tragic tale. In 1784, Chunosuke Matsuyama, a Japanese seaman, embarked on a voyage to find buried treasure with 43 other seafarers. A storm tossed their ship onto a coral reef in the Pacific and they found refuge on a nearby island. Without available fresh water, and subsisting on a diet of mostly crabs and coconuts, the entire group eventually perished, but not before Matsuyama carved a message into thin pieces of wood from a coconut tree, explaining their ordeal and fate, which he secured in a bottle and tossed out to sea.

The 1977 book, The Twelve Million Dollar Note: Strange but True Tales of Messages Found in Seagoing Bottles by Robert Kraske, claims that the bottle washed up 150 years later in the very village where Matsuyama grew up, in the pre-Guinness World Records year of 1935.

Another sad tale ensconsed in a bottle at sea is of Frances Wilson Grayson. She was the niece of President Woodrow Wilson, and in 1927 hoped to be the first woman to make a transatlantic flight. However, in December of that year, her plane disappeared somewhere between Long Island, NY and Newfoundland, and no remains of the plane or the four passengers were ever found. But in January of 1929, a young boy in Massachusetts discovered a bottle washed ashore.

final words in message in bottle

The Daily Notes of Canonsburg, Pennsylvania article of Tuesday, January 29,1929. Photo courtesy Newspapers.com

The Daily Notes of Canonsburg, Pennsylvania reported on Tuesday, January 29,1929 that a bottle had washed ashore in Salem Harbor, Massechusetts, found by little Charlton Hatfield, purportedly carrying the last words of Frances Grayson, scribbled in pencil, claiming: “1928. We are freezing. Gas leaked out. We are drifting off Grand Banks. Grayson.”

frances grayson

Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection

In June of 1928, Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic with a time of 20hrs 40min. Sadly, her fate was similar to Grayson’s, when in July of 1937, she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, vanished over the South Pacific en route to one of the last stops on her historic flight around the equator.

Curious and Curiouser

Sometimes there is no illustrious explanation for a message to be tossed into the sea. Some stories speak only of bored travelers aboard passenger ships, inquisitive children at the beach with their parents, or promotional marketing campaigns. Other tales remain only possibilities, as the fabled messages have never been found. Research has found several sources that claim even Christopher Columbus resorted to sea note communication. Apparently in February of 1493, Columbus and his crew found themselves at the mercy of a violent sea on their return voyage from discovering the New World. In the book, The Worlds of Christopher Columbus, William D. Phillips Jr and Carla R. Phillips explain that Columbus was frantic that his exploits and discoveries might never be known if he were lost at sea.

“In his desperation to claim the credit that was his due, Columbus wrote as much about the voyage as he could on a parchment addressed to (Ferdinand and Isabella). He prepared the message secretly and then wrapped the parchment securely in a waxed cloth. Ordering a barrel brought to him, he placed the packet inside and had the barrel thrown into the sea.”

The Atlantic Ocean covers an area greater than 41 million square miles. Columbus’ note has yet to be found.

A September 2012 National Geographic News article declared that in the 16th century Queen Elizabeth I created an official position, “Uncorker of Ocean Bottles,” presumably believing her own English Navy might be using bottled messages to transmit information about the enemy. Only the Uncorker was allowed to open any found messages in bottles, as it was a capital crime for anyone else to uncork one.

For all these stories told, and for all the ones yet to be found, the message in the bottle will no doubt remain one of the most time-honored and intriguing methods of communication.

Messages from the Sea

book about messages in bottles

In the northeast of England, Paul Brown founded the Messages from the Sea  website, and compiled the book Messages from the Sea, a collection of letters and notes from a lost era, found in bottles and on beaches around the world, which was published in September 2016. Brown explains that the found missives “tell of foundering ships, missing ocean liners and shipwrecked sailors, and contain moving farewells, romantic declarations and intriguing confessions.” Asked to identify his favorite entries, Brown quickly offered these picks.

I Know I Cannot Escape

Found July 1861

Western coast of Uist, Outer Hebrides

In a bottle, the leaf of a pocket book, three inches by two inches, written on both sides in pencil:

On board the Pacific, from Liverpool to New York. Ship going down. Great confusion on board. Icebergs around on every side. I know I cannot escape. I write the cause of our loss that friends may not live in suspense. The finder of this will please get it published. Wm. Graham.

The Collins Line steamer Pacific left Liverpool for New York on 23 January 1856, and was lost with all 141 crew and 45 passengers. The ship could accommodate 280 passengers, but was carrying a relatively low number on this winter crossing. It was thought to have sunk off Newfoundland. This note, found more than five years later, is the only record of its fate.

William Graham was a British sea captain travelling on the Pacific as a passenger. “The writer was evidently some person accustomed to the perils of the sea,” commented the Shipping and Mercantile Gazette, “for it is difficult to understand how any person whose nerves had not been hardened by the presence of frequent and appalling dangers could have written with such manifest coolness in the immediate presence of death.” 

The Body in a Well

Found October 1896

Near Shakespeare Cliff, Dover

In a small box, found floating at the foreshore by a lad named McKeen:

I, Charles Pilcher, murdered Margaret Hutchinson on November 23rd, 1870, afterwards putting the body in a well at Norwood, which, I believe, has never been found yet, and of late I can’t sleep. I can always see her waiting for me at her pantry; that was our meeting place. To-night I have made up my mind to end my miserable existence by jumping over-board. My body will be good food for the fishes. I am not fit for anything else. So good-bye to everybody. I have no friends to weep for me. I am forsaken by all.

Enquiries at the police station in Norwood, southeast London, some 26 years after the alleged murder, found no recollection of a Margaret Hutchinson being reported missing, nor of a body being discovered in the district. “It was pointed out by the old inspectors that Norwood had entirely changed in character during the last quarter of a century,” reported the Canterbury Journal. “Thousands of new houses had been erected, new roads made, and wells built over. Most wells had entirely disappeared since that time.”

message in a bottle

This article appeared in the Glassing Magazine January/February 2018 issue.

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