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Messages in Bottles Featuring Women – International Women’s Day 2018

I was listening to Salt Lake City’s best radio station, the aural treasure known as KRCL, when I learned of their upcoming celebration of International Women’s Day 2018 (March 8th)–an event called Amplifying Women’s Voices–and it dawned on me that I should devote a post to some of the amazing messages in bottles featuring women. Why? Because some of the best message in a bottle stories of all time feature women. These ladies are awesome, and you should know about them, and that’s all there is to it!

Women Have Found Both the Oldest and Second Oldest Messages in Bottles

When retired German postal worker Marianne Winkler found a 108 year old message in a bottle in 2015, she became the world record holder for finding the oldest message in a bottle of all time, and the first woman to do so. The previous three record-holders were men.

Messages in Bottles Featuring Women - The Winklers with Schilling and Message

Marianne Winkler and her husband with their schilling reward and a copy of the message – Winkler Family Handout.

It had been sent in 1906 by George Parker Bidder, a scientist at the UK’s Marine Biological Association. Bidder studied the ocean back when messages in bottles were the most sophisticated technology available to study ocean currents.

George Parker Bidder - Marine Biological Association Archive

George Parker Bidder. Photo: Marine Biological Association Archive.

Imagine that for a second: You are on vacation in your golden years, strolling along the beach. Out of nowhere you find an impossible treasure that vaults you into the Guinness Book of World Records. Incredible! But that’s what happened.

Messages in bottles featuring women - The Second Oldest Message in a Bottle

The message promised a reward of one schilling to the finder, and the Winklers dutifully mailed the message as requested to the Marine Biological Association in the UK where Bidder had worked. The folks working there today were a bit baffled by the arrival of the message, addressed as it was to the long-dead Mr. Bidder. But, in keeping with the wonder of the whole affair, they managed to find and buy an old British schilling online (the schilling went out of circulation in 1990), and mailed that back to the Winklers.

A New World Record for Oldest Message in a Bottle

Marianne Winkler’s incredible discovery set a record that seemed unbreakable until January of 2018, when Tonya Illman stumbled upon a breathtakingly old message in a bottle from 1886, making it 132 years old. Let that sink in. 132 YEARS OLD!

Messages in bottles featuring women - The World's Oldest Message in a Bottle Kym and Tonya

Tonya Illman with her husband, Kym, holding the 132 year old message in a bottle she found. Photo: Kym Illman – used with permission of Kym Illman Photography.

Tonya’s message was also sent overboard in a long-gone era to study ocean currents. In this case the message was dropped into the Indian Ocean in 1886 by the Deutsche Seewarte, based in Hamburg. The Deutsche Seewarte, like many institutions in Germany, morphed around 1945. Whatever is left of it is now housed in the Bundesamt für Seeschifffahrt und Hydrographie, or BSH. The BSH has incredible records going back hundreds of years. When I visited in 2015, I saw messages from the 1860s and 1880s that were similar–some even identical–to the one Tonya found. These are from the 1890s.

So there you have it–the top two oldest messages in bottles were both found by women!

WWI and a Determined Stowaway

Of all the messages in bottles featuring women, perhaps the most inspiring is the story of Maud Butler. On New Year’s Day 1916, several bottled letters washed ashore near each other in Australia. They all shared the same surprising tale. The gist of these messages, sent by Australian soldiers sailing to the western front on Christmas Day, 1915, was that a woman had been discovered aboard their ship (the SS Suevic). She had been hiding in plain sight–not tucked away in some broom closet. Maud Butler, who was just 16 or 18 (depending on which old-timey newspaper you consult), cut her hair, bought an old soldier’s uniform off some guy in an alley, and acquired everything she needed to look like a soldier.

Messages in bottles featuring women - Maud Butler

Maud Butler, wearing the soldier’s uniform she bought and the black boots that gave her away.

Then, she boarded the Suevic before it set sail, and escaped detection for two days at sea. But then, one day, someone noticed her boots were black instead of the regulation color: tan. She was found out. Maud was transferred to another boat and sent home, totally against her wishes. She told the Bendigo Independent that she just wanted to help the wounded men at the front. “I learned first aid and was reckoned very good at it,” she said, and vowed to make it to the front. It seems she never did, but that’s one hell of an admirable spirit for Maud to have had, being willing to put herself in harm’s way specifically to help others. (Click here for the full story of Maud Butler).

The Inspiring Women I Have Met Through Messages in Bottles

Finally, I just want to acknowledge the many women I have been lucky to befriend through messages in bottles. There’s Carol, who is kind and brilliant and dedicates so much of her time to the wellbeing of others; There’s Janet, who is likewise wonderful and adventurous and creative (click here to check out her art); there’s Chris, kind, generous, and adventurous (are you sensing a theme?), who switched gears midlife and began sailing the world with her husband, John.

Janet's painting, Fathom. More work available through www.MoonkusserArt.com

Janet’s painting, Fathom. More work available through www.MoonkusserArt.com

For me, International Women’s Day is an opportunity to reflect on the countless women who have inspired me, from my awesome sister, Ryan, in whose footsteps I have followed since I could walk, to my mom, who is of course the best mom in the world (sorry everyone else!), to my brilliant wife, Kate, and our many big-hearted, loving, hardworking, bright female friends. May they all flourish and prosper, may they live long and well, and may they one day receive equal pay for equal work.

***If you liked this story, click here to find me on Facebook and like my page for more message in a bottle stories! You never know when YOU could be the one to solve a message in a bottle mystery! Click here to learn more about messages in bottles, and you can always contact me with questions, ideas, or stories.