It was by pure luck that I found the senders of this message in a bottle, which I found in 2011:
It came from this sailboat in 2004:
The bottle had taken up residence in my home as the months and years slid by and I was unable to locate the senders. Finally, after moving across the country and unpacking the bottle from a box, I looked at it with new eyes. I decided to search again, using every piece of information I could glean from the message. The most obvious piece is the name of the boat: Sara II.
Now, you might be thinking: How many Sara IIs can there be in the world? A surprising number, it turns out. Makes you wonder what happened to all the first Sara boats out there!
I googled and googled and did the standard exhausting research of tracking down message in a bottle senders. And, as sometimes happens, one day the clouds just broke, and I found them.
There was a boat called Sara II listed on a cruising club forum, and the owner was looking to take on a small crew for a voyage–so I emailed the given address.
The next day: bam. There was a reply in my inbox! The reply I received was from a woman named Chris, and she explained that her husband John had made the advertisement seeking crew, and that I had indeed found the right owners of the right Sara II. She remembered sending the message–it was the only one they’ve ever sent!
And as for the email confusion? Amazingly, I had emailed the correct address on the first try back in 2011, but Chris never got the message because she changed her name and her email address when she married John (before I found her bottle). Here’s how it went down–check out this timeline:
2002: Chris and John begin cruising together.
2004: Chris sends the message on a transatlantic voyage.
2007: Chris and John get married! Woo! And she changes her name (and thus, her email address changes).
2011: I find the bottle. By this time the contact info listed was obsolete.
2014: I stumble into John’s advertisement and finally connect with them!
Chris explained that Sara II was their own boat, and went on to tell me about John and his history with sailing, writing that: “John is a life long sailor who first sailed single handed from Plymouth UK to Newport Rhode Island in the OSTAR in 1980.”
So, yeah–John is a pretty impressive guy. Can you imagine sailing alone across the Atlantic? John doesn’t have to imagine it. He did it! I mean, when I inquired further about this, Chris wrote: “John was in a trimaran called ‘Spirit of England’ which was dismasted a long time ago, and he has done numerous offshore races, including 3 OSTARs. Now 72, he just wants to complete a circumnavigation.” Oh. Just a circumnavigation. You know, just a wee little circumnavigation at 72. Not bad if you ask me! Actually John would turn 74 before finishing it. You get the idea: this man is not slowing down.
Together, they have sailed “several circuits of the north Atlantic” and more. Of this particular trip, from Maine to the UK, when Chris launched the bottle to “while away the hours,” she wrote “We did have four big gales on that passage, watched amazing bird life and once a large group of pilot whales followed us for about an hour, surfing through the waves.” Amazing, the things that can be observed during a lengthy sea voyage. Seems a healthy thing to be reminded of both the power and danger of nature (the gales) as well as the beauty (the whales).
In fact, just after spending a few days with Kelvin, following the route of Chaucer’s characters in the Canterbury Tales, my next stop was to visit Chris and John on England’s southern coast.
As always when I am in England, I traveled by train. I could never drive in England because I am constantly transfixed by the enchanting English countryside. I’d drive off the road. I mean, that’s the Shire out there! Safer for me to be a passenger…
And when the train rolled into the station where I was meeting Chris and John, I stepped down onto the platform and found Chris flagging me down with a sign with my name on it. I felt like a celebrity! I’d been searching for these people for four years and now here we were!
Next thing, we jumped in their car and headed back to their house. On the way, we hopped out at the coast just to take in the view for a moment. They pointed out the coastline and how it was eroding. In this video, you can see both the eroding coast and the Isle of Wight, with its white cliffs, out in the English Channel.
Yes, this is THE Isle of Wight. The one where the Isle of Wight Festival happens (in 1970, it was the largest rock ‘n roll event ever); home to Swinburne and Tennyson, summer home to Queen Victoria–you know, the one the Victorian era is named after? Like, when you see a Victorian house, and you’re like, “That’s pretty. I like that!” THAT’s the Victoria we’re talking about. She summered on the Isle of Wight, and died there in 1901. This is where they made the world’s first hovercraft. It’s home to some of the richest dinosaur fossil deposits in Europe. Ptolemy wrote about this place back in the day, and there are Roman ruins on the island. Henry VIII, the one who beheaded all his wives? He fortified the island. The place is just oozing with history, and to see it in person, even across the channel, was like seeing a history textbook come alive. Totally wild stuff.
If that’s not English enough for you, guess what happened next? Chris and John drove me to their home where we had actual English tea, complete with a small cake. They were amazing hosts!
While enjoying our tea and cake, we talked about some of their sailing adventures. They showed me some of their maps and sailing snaps.
Here’s Sara II, underway:
And here she is at anchor off the vibrant and mysterious coast of a forgotten land which looks to me like it could be an island from Greek myth. Gotta watch out for Charybdis at these times.
Sailing is famous for having it’s own vocabulary–a language the rest of us non-sailors cannot decipher. It is the same with maps. In an age when many of us manage to get lost even using GPS, it is a wonder to me that the following map is intelligible to anyone. Chris tells me it’s called a “routing map” and shows prevailing wind strength & direction as well as currents for a given month. I choose to believe it is a wizard map, well out of grasp for a muggle like me.
I was reminded, as I am every time I meet message in a bottle senders, how much lies beneath the surface in each of us. When you look at a person, rarely can you guess the depths of their knowledge and experience. So it is with Chris and John. Walking past them on the street, you would never know the wild journeys they have undertaken, braving the savage sea and sailing all over the face of this world.
After we’d gone through the maps, we went for a drive to the coast where John and I went for a little walk along the water, with beautiful views in every direction.
John told me about his love of paragliding. When he was younger, his family went on holiday to the Swiss alps where he first saw paragliding–and he was hooked. Sailing? Check. Paragliding? Check. I was beginning to wonder if there was anything adventurous John hadn’t tried.
We met up with Chris and walked to a nearby pub called The Gun Inn.
I’d estimate The Gun Inn to be about a million years old, and it embodies probably just about everything you would expect from an English pub: English ciders on tap, many kinds of “pies,” i.e., fish pie (yep, it’s real), cottage pie, shepherd’s pie. And, of course, according to the website, it functioned as a mortuary once upon a time, so it might just be haunted.
On this night, though, it was packed with the living. The ceilings were low, the room dark and cozier than a scene from Harry Potter.
Chris and John had the fish pie, adventurous souls, and I had the cottage pie. It may not look like much, but I had never had cottage pie before, and I instantly fell in love. This meal was delicious!
Luckily there was plenty of “tomato sauce” for my fries. Really, who would want “ketchup” at a time like this?
Before long we were joined by a couple we’d met outside while admiring the sailboats. Soon, Chris and John and our new friends were swapping sailing stories one after another. They discussed their mutual love for the sense of freedom and independence sailing offers. I learned that the hull and deck of Sara II were built in Stratford on Avon, which is Shakespeare’s hometown. I was immersed in such a deeply English experience at this point that this didn’t even surprise me.
I was surprised to learn how downright gruesome sailing can be.
Our new friends told us a story about a couple who were sailing together. In a storm, the man climbed the mast to free something that had gotten caught. While up there, he died of a heart attack. For days, the wife had to sail with him caught up there, dangling.
In a low voice, Chris said to me, “When you sail long enough, you hear the worst stories.”
Lithe, bright, quick, John seems so much younger than 73. The morning after our night at the pub, John and I walked into town, and he bought the Saturday paper. He told me about racing, which he has done forever and still does in dinghies like these:
You wouldn’t guess it at first, but it seems John has a bit of a competitive side.
“It’s like driving a car,” he said, “you see the guy next to you and want to know if you can go faster.”
We spent the rest of the morning on a small adventure to the Lymington market, where we simply walked along, checking out everything on offer: everything from genuine, honest-to-goodness art to the standard booths full of tchotchkes that must, somehow, get bought by people sometimes.
Below the market was what appeared to be the old part of town. That’s John in the center with the backpack disappearing down the street. I’m amazed by Chris–because even at 30, I found John formidable to keep up with!
We stopped by a seafood stand, and I was intrigued by the price tags on the crabs and lobsters. They wrote right on them with chalk! Talk about waste-free packaging!
Then we had some ice cream and sat on a bench to admire and assess the boats moored here.
John explained to me something about the flags on the boats. The flags tell you about the boat–could be where it’s from, what kind of boat it is. To the uninitiated, this looks like a cacophony of meaningless flags flapping in the breeze of the harbor. However, as John explained, the boat we were looking at flew a type of flag called a “courtesy flag” at a part called the “crosstrees” (that part to the left of the flag below that looks, well, like a cross). This flag is the Red Ensign. When Chris and John fly it at the stern of Sara II, it designates their vessel as being a British vessel, but civilian rather than military. However, when a visitor from a different nation flies it at the crosstrees (like the photo below), it’s considered a “courtesy flag” because they are flying it out of courtesy for the country they are in. Got all that? There will be a quiz!
Meanwhile, British Navy ships fly the White Ensign:
And ships in public service of some sort fly the Blue Ensign:
John and Chris, of course, fly the Red Ensign at the stern of Sara II:
After our morning at the market, it was time to drop me off at the train station. It hit me like a ton of bricks that I hadn’t yet gotten a single picture of us all together. We asked a family on the platform to photograph us–they were en route to a Bette Midler concert, and their teenage son was going with them! Wonders never cease.
When I boarded the train and sat down, I felt as if I needed to catch my breath. What kind of whirlwind had just happened? I was with Chris and John less than 24 hours, and in that time, learned more about sailing than I’d ever known, ate in an ancient English pub looking out at the Isle of Wight, wandered through an English market, and had honest-to-goodness English Tea. I felt as if I were well down the path to citizenship!
What I took from meeting Chris and John aligns with what I have taken away from every meeting with message in a bottle senders.
Life is about momentum and inertia (the idea that resting objects stay at rest and moving objects stay moving unless stopped by some force). Many people in their 70s have other things than sailing around the world in mind, and in fact, most of them would think the idea nuts. With John, I don’t know what came first–the energy or his perpetual motion–but both are there now. In fact, John has now completed his circumnavigation of the globe. The planet Earth. John, at 74, has now sailed all the way around it. Just think on that for a minute.
So when I find myself feeling lethargic, lazy, uninspired to do the things I know I need to do, I think of John and Chris, out there sailing the high seas together.
Sitting still is not an option, friends. We have to take action, pursue our own adventures, work every day toward our goals. We want to be the Sara II, sailing free over the ocean–not the Sara I, buried in muck at the bottom of the sea.