May 21st 2011 was a great day. I got to do some beachcombing with my awesome mom, and I found this message in a bottle!
Right off the bat, this message was intriguing. Notice in that photo above how you can’t see any writing on the paper? And yet, there was this clear image:
I knew it must be cruise ship stationery—so that was a lead! Cool! I knew there was hope for this message because I had found others where the writing had become invisible. Time for some forensic work!
Since I was worried about the fragility of this message, I decided to take it home before opening it. I was hanging out with my family—we often gather for bottle openings—and I brought this thing out onto the deck in the sunshine where I could see what I was doing. I got out a pair of scissors, but they really weren’t helpful, and the crazy thing was that the plastic was so brittle, I ended up just kind of tearing it apart with my hands instead of cutting. It was like that scene from Indiana Jones where the guy reaches into peoples’ chests to pull out their hearts—you know what I’m talking about? I just kind of pushed into the bottle to extract the message. Look:
Some families ski together, some play badminton. What can I say? We find and open messages in bottles together!
When I got the paper out, the good news was that I could see impressions left from the writer’s pen. But…they were illegible. Just random indecipherable fragments of dents from a pen tip. But the key to messages in bottles, from start to finish, is patience.
As the afternoon wore on, and the paper dried out a bit, and my eyes adjusted to the bright light, I could see…well…kind of…just barely… A name! Sabine Roy!
More time passed. I could see lines, dots, parts of letters. Nothing intelligible.
But wait! That’s another word! It looks like… “Dusseldorf”!
Whooa…now I had a name and a city. That’s it, I thought—that’s all I needed.
But oh how wrong I was. What happened next is too tedious to describe in detail.
Basically, I tried to find Sabine on the web. Simple enough, right? Who’s not on the web these days?!
So I searched her full name in Facebook; whole name plus Dusseldorf; whole name plus Germany; found many Sabine Roys, only one somewhat promising; wrote Facebook messages to dozens of Sabines; searched the web for various formulations of her name and Dusseldorf and Germany; results in German which I can read but not well enough to understand detailed information and nuances between this Sabine and that Sabine. Days passed. Weeks. No responses from any of the Facebook Sabines. Finally one wrote back to say it was NOT her. I was running into walls. I simply couldn’t find this particular Sabine.
As I looked for Sabine, I even researched the cruise ship featured on the stationery. It didn’t help me find her, but it was interesting! You can read about the ship on Wikipeida here, but basically, she was built in Germany in 1969 and had a bunch of different names over the years, and finally received the name Maxim Gorkiy (after a poet!). She was sold a couple times, and in 2009 ended up in India and apparently is in the process of being scrapped (or maybe she’s totally scrapped by now?). Furthermore, quite apart from Sabine’s message in a bottle, this ship experienced some serious drama in its time. According to Wikipedia, it struck an iceberg in 1989 and began sinking quickly. Folks were evacuated from life rafts and ice floes by helicopter. A ship called the Senja arrived to help. According to Wikipedia, “the crew of the Senja had managed to stop the Maksim Gorkiy ’s sinking, by which time her bow had already sunk down to the level of the main deck”. The ship was towed in this condition back to port! Can you imagine?! A massive cruise liner snaking through the water with the main deck at water level… So creepy! Just a few months later in the same year, George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev met aboard the ship at Malta. The Maxim Gorkiy had quite a colorful life!
I would do the Facebook thing all over again; I would search the web and get results in German too nuanced for me to understand. I wrote to a newspaper or two asking for help—no dice. Ugh. Failure does not feel good.
Which is why I refused to give up. There came a day in early 2015 when I simply asked for help. I posted on my Facebook page asking for help finding Sabine, and the most beautiful amazing thing happened—people took this post and shared it like crazy! I watched as the “reach” of the post climbed through dozens of people (yay!), then hundreds of people (woo-hoo!), then thousands of people (holy crap!), finally reaching something like 5,000 people! Right away, people from all over the world started emailing me with tips, like, “Hey, check out this LinkedIn profile! Could this be her?” and stuff like that. But within that first day, I received one message that gave me chills. A man named Thorsten Falke wrote to say that he had found her, beyond a shadow of a doubt. In fact he had even contacted her to verify she was the right Sabine before passing along her contact info to me.
Whoa. I spent 4 years looking for Sabine, and simply couldn’t make the connection. But then, in the blink of an eye—I simply asked for help, and got it! Amazing! Sometimes I feel like I am totally alone in the quest for MIB senders, but you guys keep proving me wrong. Thanks to everyone who sent in leads, and thanks especially to Thorsten and to the always lovely Lunar Maria Sea Glass, on whose Facebook page Thorsten saw my post and took up the challenge.
Suddenly, I had to think of what to say to Sabine! My message to her was very straightforward–basically like: “Here’s who I am, here’s what I found, it appears to have your name on it… is this you?”
And then the clock started ticking. Each minute that passed felt as long as the years I’d searched for her. 5 minutes. 10 minutes. 15 minutes. 20 minutes. Still no word. Now, remember, Germany is 8 hours later than Utah, so I started to think I wouldn’t hear from her until the next day, which would have felt like eternity after so much searching!
And then BAM! 23 minutes after I wrote her, there it was in my inbox—a response from Sabine! She said, “Yes it’s me!” then proceeded to tell me a bit about the bottle. The first mystery she cleared up was the bottle’s age. As you can see in this close up, it’s a bit hard to read the date:
On the left, you can see the month and day, which looks to me like 06.10.200… Then there’s the year on the right. The first three numbers are easy: 200. But that last critical number…it all came down to handwriting, and I didn’t have a big enough sample of that to know whether that last number was a 4, a 7, or a 9. Looked like a vertical line on the right side, and something floating off to the left. But what? Well, I had to turn to context clues.
This message was in a plastic bottle, and at this time, the oldest plastic MIBs I had found were maybe 1.5 – 2 years old. Plastic just breaks down in the ocean and plastic MIBs don’t live long. So I felt pretty sure that this was from 2007 or 2009, and more likely 2009 because 2007 would mean the bottle was 4 years old when I found it—extremely old for a plastic MIB in the harsh Caribbean environment. Of course, Wikipedia had led me to believe the ship was out of service by 2009…but Wikipedia’s not always right, right?
And what did Sabine have to say? “I [took] a cruise in October 2004 from Germany /Bremerhaven to Mexico / Cozumel and I threw the bottle into the sea around the Bermuda Islands.”
WHAT! 2004?! I couldn’t believe it! At 7 years old, this was truly ancient for a plastic MIB in the Caribbean.
Right away my brain was sent reeling by another piece of information in that sentence: the starting point for the bottle. Since the Bermuda islands are significantly north and east of the British West Indies where I found this bottle, there is no way it just floated straight down. The currents simply don’t work that way. This bottle must have traveled a little north and then way over towards Europe, then south, then west to where I found it. Quite a journey for a plastic bottle! Another possibility is that it got stuck in the doldrum-y area in the middle of the north Atlantic where floating trash accumulates (roughly, the orange circle on the map, but bigger). Perhaps it floated in that stuff for a while, then got kicked out by a storm? Hard to say. But one thing’s for sure: this bottle didn’t just float straight to where I found it. It had a harrowing journey to get there. And then, when it arrived, it sat baking in the sun, the plastic starting to crumble…
This is a perfect example of why I think age is not the best way to assign “value” to a message in a bottle. Sometimes people are surprised to hear that I once found a message in a bottle sent by Guinness that was 49 years old when found. I was surprised too! But Guinness put a massive amount of time, energy, and resources into sealing their messages in thousands of sturdy glass bottles specifically to last a very long time. Mission accomplished.
Isn’t it more surprising and fascinating that an individual could send a single message in a flimsy plastic bottle—the kind that often break down in a year or so—and that this bottle should float around the whole north Atlantic, wash up on a remote beach, and survive for 7 years? To me, this is far more impressive than the Guinness bottle, just because it’s far more unlikely!
Sabine’s message is the oldest I’ve ever found in a plastic bottle, before or since, and I don’t actually know of anyone who’s found an older message in a plastic bottle. If you do, I’d love to hear about it! Leave a comment with a link or something!
The point is, every message in a bottle has its own story to tell, its own lessons to offer, and age is only a small part of the whole. In that first email, Sabine told me this was the only message in a bottle she’d ever sent. In the following emails, we shared more stories and learned a bit more about each other. For example, her travels around the world had shown her that there was too much plastic junk floating in the sea. She didn’t want to contribute to the oceans’ “plastic problem” ever again.
But one more question was burning in me, and I was a little nervous to ask, as I always am. I wanted to know if Sabine would be willing to meet with me if I came to Dusseldorf?
I spent probably half a morning trying to write the perfect email and broach the subject in an appropriate way. It’s an exhilarating question to ask a sender, but crushing if they say no! Finally I pressed the send button. And then the clock started ticking again…
When Sabine wrote back, she simply said, “When you visit Dusseldorf we can meet, of course.”
Of course! Well! My budding plans to tour Europe and meet MIB senders were shaping up.
I used to pull up Dusseldorf on google maps and wander virtually through Sabine’s town, wondering where she was, if I would ever find her. And now, not only had I found her, but I was going to meet her! I felt like I was preparing to meet a celebrity. Sabine’s message in a bottle had reached the end of its journey. My journey, however, was just beginning.