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On January 30th, 1895, a German steamship called Elbe was in the North Sea, making her way from Bremerhaven to New York carrying 354 passengers.

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SS Elbe

In the predawn hours of January 31st, she was accidentally rammed by a British steamship called Crathie. The Elbe went down within 20 minutes, and out of her 354 passengers, only 20 were rescued. Of the 20, all were German or Austrian, except one English pilot.

A few months later, on June 5th, 1895, a man named Walter Turner found a bottle with a note inside on the beach at Whitestone, Long Island–just south across the Long Island Sound from Manhattan. The note read:

Stranded in midocean from steamship Elbe. I have been drifting about in an open boat for forty-two days, with nothing to eat but cake and beer to drink. The finder of this will please advertise in papers. Yours, in hope, Adam White.

“Beer and cake”! I love it!

This note has a “stranger than fiction” quality that just about wins me over! But you know what the problem is?

Well, the Elbe sank in the North Sea. That’s here–north of Germany, east of the United Kingdom:

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Thus, if the writer of the note is “stranded in midocean” he must mean in the middle of the North Sea.

However, the message in a bottle was found in Long Island Sound:

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Here’s the difference, including relevant ocean currents:

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See how the Norwegian Current (purple line) goes straight northeast past the mouth of the North Sea? If the bottle exited there, it would have traveled north and east, not west.

But what if the bottle snuck out of the north sea to the south, through the English Channel? Well, then it would have headed south for months and eventually west. My friend Curt Ebbesmeyer, an oceanographer who specializes in tracking drifting objects, estimates that it takes 2-3 years for something to circle that north atlantic loop (green line). That means it would take a bottle from the North Sea at least 1 – 1.5 years to reach New York, IF it managed to exit the North Sea–a process that would likely take months in itself. In other words, the bottle was found in New York waaay to early to be authentic.

So, no. This bottle is not genuine. It was not sent by a stranded Elbe survivor.

Even if you reeeeally want to believe this bottled note is genuine, and sent by a lighthearted, drunk, cake-eating castaway, there are other problems with the story.

The note is in English, but most of the Elbe’s passengers were German. Only one of the rescued folks was English. Furthermore, eyewitness reports clarify that only one of Elbe’s lifeboats made it away safe. One capsized, and others were frozen to the ship–they could not be released. There was no second “open boat” for this guy.

The 20 survivors were picked up about 5 hours after the sinking, and the captain who rescued them said they could not have survived much longer in those freezing, January, North Sea conditions. So, the idea that one guy, alone, survived 42 days? Well, it just didn’t happen, folks. It’s nice to think it did–I mean, the image of this castaway munching cake and swigging beer while waiting to be picked up is pretty great, I admit.

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But there’s just no way it happened.

So there you have it: another 19th century message in a bottle hoax. Another prank pulled by someone who wanted to make it into the local paper. And they did.

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