Riding the Waves: Glass Floats from Around the World
By John Herreria
It all started in the Fall of 1997.
I was on my second year of my military tour of duty in Misawa Air Base, Japan, accompanied by my wife, Joyce. The base is a joint Air Force and Navy installation located in the Aomori Prefecture, the northernmost region of Japan’s main island of Honshu.
I had heard about the glass floats from my master chief at that time, Tim O’Connor, who was an avid collector. Apparently, if you wanted to find them, you would have to walk the beach before dawn, preferably after a storm—the windier the weather, the better. The idea referred to as “beachcombing for floats” did not hold any appeal to me. It was just plain crazy. I preferred to sleep in, cocooned in my warm bed. But curiosity got the better of me.
My buddy, Gerry Sanmillan, and I got curious enough to give it a go one early fall morning. We were beachcombing the shore of Mutsu Bay. It was still dark when I noticed the blue glass orb on the shore. It was 14 inches in diameter. My first glass fishing float. Wow! The feeling was exhilaration. I was hooked. Every weekend after that, Gerry and I would regularly beachcomb in Northern Japan. Once in a while, my wife would join me, but she usually sits in the car reading a book while I beachcomb.
I got interested in the history of these glass fishing floats so I would “fish” for information wherever I could get it. Floats come in different sizes, colors, and some have curious markings embossed on them. There was no Google back then, but somehow I found some fellow beachcombers in the Pacific Northwest and started corresponding with them. I soon realized that two of the gents I had been talking to, Stu Farnsworth and Walt Pich, had each written books about floats. My go-to manual back then was Amos Wood’s book, Beachcombing for Japanese Glass Floats, which cataloged the different markings in his book. Soon after, I found out that other countries, especially Norway, also manufactured glass fishing floats.
After Misawa, we received orders to transfer to Yokosuka Naval Station in southern Honshu in the summer of 1999. Prior to this move, Joyce and I drove our 1991 Toyota Hi-lux (called the 4Runner in the U.S.) to Hokkaido via the Aomori-Hakodate ferry. The plan was to camp and beachcomb the entire island of Hokkaido. We brought our camping gear and decided to “rough it” throughout our two weeks of beachcombing along the pristine coastline.
We walked the sandy beaches as early as four o’clock in the morning at sunrise. For the first time, the adrenaline rush was unstoppable. Why? Glass floats could be seen hundreds of feet around, peppering the beach and in the tall weeds. You could literally kick a glass float like a soccer ball and it would hit another glass float. That was our second day.
As we drove up farther north the next day passing fishing towns and searching for our next camping site, we decided to drive onto a solid-looking beach. It wasn’t that solid! In a matter of minutes, my rear tires couldn’t move from the sand. For the next five minutes we worried that the sea would soon swallow our car, so I asked my wife go ask some surfers a few hundreds yards away for help. I began to unload the bags of floats we’d found the day before.
Young Japanese surfers to the rescue! I wasn’t fluent in Japanese language but they were able to get us out of danger. Sign language and broken Japanese kept us losing our vehicle. That was day three. We ventured all the way up to the northernmost tip of the island into the town of Wakkanai where the road signs and street signs were written in Japanese, English, and Russian. On a clear day, you can see the southern tip of Sakhalin Island.
By end of June that year, we had moved south to the Kanto Plains, near Tokyo. Although Yokosuka Naval Base to this day is the largest U.S. Naval shipyard in Japan and close to big cities like Yokohama and Tokyo, the thought of finding these old fishing buoys seemed far fetched. I enjoyed my tour in Japan, where food and festivals kept us busy on weekends and I was no longer deployed on a ship. However, I was traveling a lot, including trips to South Korea, Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore, and Guam, which is my home.
Beachcombing came to a halt.
On break from my hectic military duties in 2000, we found ourselves exploring and camping on the remote island on a four-day weekend for Memorial Day. This time, we brought our neighbors, a nice couple with their 11-year-old son, on a four-hour drive from the base, and three-hour ferry boat ride to Sado Island, located on the west coast of Japan in Niigata Prefecture. It was our first official beachcombing weekend for the year. It was a trip of a lifetime. We filled our rented 12-passenger van with huge glass floats. The van was so full, we had to throw away some of our camping gear to make rooms for more floats. Beachcombing became a true passion after this trip.
The use of glass fishing floats can be traced as far back as 1840 in Norway, and their use spread to Asia around 1910. Information on the early history of glass fishing floats is in the reports from World Exposition and the 1861 Fisheries Exposition in Amsterdam, Netherlands. In 2019, author and float collector Olaf Raabe published European Glass Fishing Floats, their Makers and Marks, which has been the source of information about rare and uncommon floats in my collection.
After leaving Japan in September 2002, I was assigned a military tour in Sicily, Italy, and so began my quest for European glass floats. In 2004, my wife and I went camping in the Scandinavian countryside for three weeks, using the same camping tent we’d used in Japan all over the Scandinavian countryside. We started in Norway, not knowing that this was the mother lode of glass floats. I had only been collecting Asian and American glass floats, and this trip made me realize how little I knew about the use of fishing buoys throughout Europe.
Unlike Japan, glass floats found here are mostly stored in boathouses, barns, cellars, attics, and sheds. We scoured antique stores and made an unscheduled stop at a flea market near Gothenburg, Sweden. Priceless. Regrettably, I had rented a small car and had to toss out our sleeping bag to make room for our newly acquired floats.
For every collector of European floats, there are ten collectors of Japanese floats. However, I have met collectors of European floats who have years of experience and massive collections and they have graciously given me guidance and introduced me to other collectors who have sold, traded, and given me European floats. I’ve had the opportunity to welcome fellow float enthusiasts to my home in Las Vegas, do some trading, and share stories. I’ve been fortunate to have met fellow collectors at the Ocean Shores Beachcomber’s Fun Fair — now called the Beachcombers and Glass Float Expo — in Washington state, and I’ve expanded my hobby through the help of beachcombers from the Pacific Northwest region.
I spent over 23 years in the U.S. Navy, 17 of them spent stationed overseas. After retiring from the Navy in 2007, I moved to Las Vegas, Nevada, then to San Diego, California, and then back to Las Vegas, where I now live.
Nowadays I spend time painting some of my rare floats with nautical and historical scenes. These old glass fishing buoys are difficult to paint—my very first one, 18 inches in diameter, took me three weeks to finish—a challenge that keeps me focused during the sweltering heat in the Las Vegas summer. I’m landlocked here in Las Vegas, but I only have to drive five hours if I want to smell the salty water of the Pacific Ocean.
Read more about Glass Fishing Floats
- Beachcomber Interview: Alan Rammer
- American-Made Glass Floats
- The Glass Floats
- Washington: All in a Day's Work: Japanese Glass Fishing Floats
- Boat & Float Day
- Beachcombing Adventures in Japan and the Pacific
- Japanese Fishing Float Factory Tour (video)
- Floats of the Pacific (video)
- Japanese Sea Glass (video)
- The Eclectic Beachcombing Collection of Tina Terry (video)
- The Mystery of Sea Glass Strength
- Beachcombers and Glass Float Expo
- Finders Keepers
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine January/February 2022 issue.