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Message in a bottle: Enigmatic messages from the sea

Ab In 1887, the Hamburg Naval Observatory gave the captains of German merchant ships forms for messages in bottles to take with them on voyages, which they were supposed to throw overboard at previously determined longitude and latitude positions. The finders of the bottle were “requested to send the note inside to the Deutsche Seewarte in Hamburg after the information requested on the following page has been completed”.

In his book “Bottlenpost. Distant messages, early surveys and a legendary experiment” describes Wolfgang Struck, Professor of Modern German Literature at the University of Erfurt, the undertaking – and how messages in a bottle helped to unravel the oceans.

WORLD: The experiment of the Hamburger Seewarte was planned with German thoroughness. Had the authorities given the captains standardized bottles in addition to the forms?

Wolfgang Struck: No, the captains used the bottles that were on hand. There were discussions about optimal bottles, but bottles were still quite rare in the 19th century and the effort to provide large numbers of uniform bottles was obviously too expensive. But this lack also had an advantage, because people who supplemented their livelihood with beachcombing paid particular attention to intact bottles.

WORLD: In addition to the coordinates, did the captains also write personal things on the bottle message forms, say a greeting to loved ones?

struck: The captains themselves hardly, at most once “Everything is fine on board”. But those who found and passed on messages in bottles often scribbled something else in the margins of the forms, a few words about the circumstances of the find, or about themselves, or about the excitement of helping to unravel the oceans.

WORLD: Could the routes taken by the items in the bottle be traced?

struck: This could only be conjectured, based on knowledge gained elsewhere about currents, such as by calculating the displacement of ships, by measuring the salinity and temperature of the water. If these findings then matched the locations where the messages in a bottle were found, this was regarded as confirmation of the theory. However, there were now and then surprises, i.e. bottles that had really mysterious journeys behind them.

WORLD: For example?

struck: The “most remarkable event” – I quote the Hamburg oceanographer Gerhard Schott – are two messages in a bottle that the captain of the three-masted schooner “Dona Evelina” released in the Atlantic in 1893 at the same time. Both were found relatively quickly, one after 196 days, covering 984 nautical miles; the other after 377 days and a distance of 3421 nautical miles. What was unexpected, even mysterious, was that both bottles were drifting in diametrically opposite directions, one toward the coast of Sierra Leone in Africa, the other toward Nicaragua in Central America.

WORLD: How is that possible?

struck: Schott, who was working at the Hamburg Seewarte at the time, found an explanation difficult because, as he said, both bottles were of the same construction “and should have been subjected to the action of wind or current in the same way”. That they weren’t is a puzzling anomaly.

WORLD: Didn’t that mean the experiment by the Hamburger Seewarte failed?

struck: On the contrary, the inexplicable drifts fueled the interest of those involved.

WORLD: Was it finally possible to document the ocean currents using the message in a bottle?

struck: Yes, but only when bottles or other drift bodies were released and found in such large numbers that statistically analyzable data were available, i.e. from around 1900.

WORLD: You write in your book that an estimated 6,000 captains responded to the call from the Hamburg Naval Observatory. That means over 6000 bottles were given to the sea. In the end, 662 of these letters were found, about ten percent of all bottles. So there is a real chance of being shipwrecked on a deserted island and using a message in a bottle to draw attention to yourself?

struck: Well, if you think ten percent is a good chance. However, the chance is significantly lower if shipwrecked people release the bottles directly from the coast where they are stranded. Because the bottle probably won’t make it over the oncoming waves to the open sea. But only there would wind and currents be able to carry them away. It is therefore always better to hand over calls for help to the open sea.

WORLD: From then on, we have to keep our fingers crossed and hope that the bottle is one of the ten percent that is found.

struck: Something like that, but fate can be influenced a little: If you weigh the bottle down with sand, it lies deeper in the water and offers the wind less surface to attack. Ideally, a sand-weighted bottle is then carried away by ocean currents. And if you know these, you can sort of address your mail.

WORLD: Did the German captains complain about their bottle posts back then?

struck: The forms had the pre-printed sentence “The bottle was weighted down with sand”. But a cross was never found there, the captains apparently sent the bottles on their voyages without any problems, and this is also confirmed by notes from the finders, who often wrote that there was no sand in the bottles.

In 2018, an Australian woman found a message in a bottle from a German captain on the beach:

WORLD: Returning to potential shipwrecked people, how many cases do you know of where people have asked for help in a bottle and received it?

struck: I did not come across such a case in my literature research. But that’s exactly why it’s still a nice idea. The fascinating thing about messages in a bottle is that they are not under control while they are drifting, that they become part of the natural environment in which they move and which they can therefore document. This is also what literary fantasies about the message in a bottle are based on again and again.

WORLD: Speaking of fantasies, to your knowledge, has anything of value ever been found in a message in a bottle, such as a treasure map?

struck: All the stories I came across turned out to be legends upon closer inspection. But I think for many of those who have sent or found Messages in a Bottle, the feeling of connecting with other people, of entering into an actually completely improbable communication, was of great value in itself.

Just one example: those who found and forwarded the messages in bottles from the German captains often wrote something about themselves – about themselves, about the circumstances of the find, about their enthusiasm for helping to unravel the riddle of the seas. In 19th century Europe, science had a fairly high identification potential.

WORLD: And how is it today, do bottle posts contain more positive or negative news?

struck: I can only speculate, I believe that the message in a bottle can be a way of turning negative news into positive news, i.e. getting rid of something incriminating by entrusting it to the sea, i.e. not so possible finders.

WORLD: A message in a bottle can be a kind of time capsule if it’s on the road for a long time. How should a message in a bottle be designed so that it only appears after decades?

struck: Well, I’m not an engineer and I’m not an oceanographer. But here, too, what is fascinating is precisely the unpredictability. Especially since with the increasing pollution of the oceans the chances for messages in bottles to be found at all are getting worse and worse. A bottle that has arrived in the Pacific Garbage Patch, that gigantic garbage field in the middle of the ocean, would have little chance of ever being fished out again.

WORLD: Litter in the seas, good keyword – wouldn’t messages in bottles in wooden or earthenware containers be more environmentally friendly than glass and plastic bottles?

struck: Definitely today. In the oldest literary story about messages in a bottle, in the 12th century Japanese epic “The Story of Heike”, the texts were engraved on small wooden tablets. To date, this is the easiest and most efficient way to leave a message to the sea.

WORLD: Have you ever thrown a message in a bottle into the sea?

struck: No. If I do it, then probably not to communicate something, but to get rid of something. Just like the writer of a message in a bottle that Karen Liebreich traces in her book “The Letter in the Bottle”. It is a kind of letter from a mother to her son who had died years before, with which she wants to free herself from the trauma of the loss. She entrusts to the sea what she can no longer or never could say to her son, hoping that what has been written will not be out of the world, but somewhere else – and that it will be in good hands there, in the sea .

The book “Message in a bottle. Distant Messages, Early Measurements and a Legendary Experiment” by Wolfgang Struck has been published by Mareverlag, it has 224 pages and costs 36 euros.

This article was first published in September 2022.

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