Friday, January 22, 2010

Message in a bottle: Romance or rubbish?

By Michael Cary
Manuel Janchezan wrote a message in broken Spanish, stuffed it into a bottle, and set it adrift in the Gulf of México.
"I am lost at sea. I am a fisherman on the ship Norvis Beatris. I am going to the Port of Sabancuy, Campeche. I am about to die. I have been lost for 12 days. Adios."
Whether Janchezan was really lost at sea or whether he was playing a joke has never been documented.
But his message was received when it landed on the beach at Matagorda Island.
It was found and translated by employees of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the caretakers of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.
Matagorda Island is one of the barrier islands that protect the Texas coastline, with 38 miles of beach and bayside marshes, jointly owned by the Texas General Land Office and the U.S. government, preserved as a major wildlife management area, and winter home to the endangered whooping crane population.
It also collects mountains of trash floating in from the Gulf.
Among that trash occasionally floats a message in a bottle, frequently found by volunteers who perform turtle patrols along the beach.
Janchezan's eery message about being lost at sea was likely taken seriously by the U.S. Coast Guard when it was found on the beach on Aug. 24, 1996, but Tonya Nix, environmental education specialist with the U.S Fish & Wildlife Service, has no knowledge that anyone found him and returned him safely to shore or left him committed to the deep in the Gulf of México.
"If there is a cry for help we treat it as such, we would contact the Coast Guard, but that's the only one I've ever seen," said Nix, whose tenure at the refuge began after the message was discovered.
And, she said, putting a message in a bottle would be a desperate final act for someone who was actually lost at sea.
"That would be something to do if there were no other options," Nix said.
Messages in a bottle, romanticized over the centuries and put into song by The Police on their second album in 1979, have been discovered several times over the years on Matagorda Island.
"Most of them come from cruise ships," Nix explained.
One such message was much more upbeat.
"Dear Finder, you have just found a drift bottle," wrote a Kansas fifth grader, Maggie, who was on the Norwegian Sun on March 24, 2007, when she dropped a bottle into the sea.
"I hope you can read English. My name is Maggie and I'm 11 years old and in the 5th grade," she printed.
Maggie included her email address on Norwegian Cruise Line stationery and requested an answer to her message, which was found on the island later that summer.
"Please tell me your age, grade and when and where you found this. Please also tell me the city and country you live in," Maggie wrote in legible print. "P.S. I hope you have a computer."
"Hay, I'm working onboard a Norwegian Chemical tanker (Trans Scandie). Last port was Varna, Bulgaria, next port is New Orleans, write me some words," penned Anders Jan Kyoennoe, from his position at sea on June 11, 1999 somewhere between Key West and Cuba.
His message was found on Matagorda Island – it included a line drawing of a man with spiked hair, stubble and a cigarette in his mouth.
Some messages in a bottle could have a nearer point of origin, such as from a shrimp trawler that might be cruising parallel to the beach in the summertime.
"The shrimp god is being summoned. If anybody finds this before the shrimp god does, please send it back on its merry way. Good luck to all shrimpers, and God bless us all. P.S., tell Hope Bowen I love her," wrote an unkown author, who could have been working on a shrimp boat out of a nearby harbor.
Nix said that when she taught aquatics science at Austwell and Tivoli ISD near the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, one of her student groups laid hands on a message in a bottle that had floated ashore.
"Some sailors had bet $100 on where the bottle would go, and the girls got excited, and the boat was at least 160 miles offshore," Nix said.
The students wrote back to the sailor, seeking to take him up on his promise of half the $100 if they would answer. The girls answered the letter but there was no reward forthcoming.
"James Mishelek owes $50 to the junior and senior class (of 2005) at Austwell-Tivoli High School," Nix said.
Another message in a bottle, found on Matagorda Island in June 1994, was considered by the examiner as containing "a most curious note.
"It begins in English and then lapses into a Philippine dialect called Tagalog. We had to have intelligence experts translate the last half of the message," wrote the person who cataloged the discovery for viewers at the refuge's visitor center.
"Darling Mommy, how are you now? I hope that you are not worried now ... Mommy I still love you," the message reads in English.
"Ang gusto ko lang sana na ikaw pa-ang lana na kanilala ko noon," it continues in Tagalog.
Translation: "I just want you to be the Lana (mother) I knew before."
The message was not signed, and therefore was not answered.
U.S. Fish & Wildlife agents Nix and a colleague, Amanda McLaughlin, however, have answered some of the messages in a bottle.
"I answered one letter, and it's beautiful what he sent me back," McLaughlin said without elaborating on her correspondence.
"You can't read them all the time. Some of them are just poems. Most people throw them off the side of the boat to see if someone finds them," McLaughlin explained.
One message that McLaughlin answered was dropped into the water by Jutta Schumann of Lemwerder, Germany. She had accompanied her husband, Hans, who captained a container ship from Europe to Miami, Houston, New Orleans and Veracruz, México.
"Today this bottle was thrown into the water, June 30, 1994, near New Orleans. I am the wife of the captain of the ship and enjoyed the trip to USA (and) México. Soon we will be in Europe. Good luck to you, Jutta Schumann. Please write to me and tell me where you found it," she wrote.
Once she received a letter from McLaughlin regarding her message in a bottle, found on Matagorda Island, Jutta responded with a three page letter dated Aug. 19, 2005 in Lemwerder.
"Your answer was the 43rd and was found after 11 years. She was the longest in the water. Before (that) one was found in France five years after sending. I got all kinds of letters, even one from a young man in Taiwan and he wrote in Chinese characters," Jutta wrote to McLaughlin.
Jutta revealed in her letter that her husband was retired and the couple (ages 67 and 65) "live in a small house near the city of Bremen in Northern Germany known for bad and rainy weather in the winter."
Her husband had settled into a hobby of building model whaling ships, but they retained an interest in "things around the world."
Jutta included a photograph of herself and Hans at their home in Germany.
"I would love to hear from you and about your work. I can see you – or some of you – going onto a beach and walking along the beach at Matagorda Island which is totally quiet and only sea turtles come ashore and I hope not so much junk and trash from ships (I feel bad about my bottle)," Jutta wrote, after consulting a map to locate the Texas barrier island.
Ryan Fisher was a 22-year-old, single, Austin resident who worked for Dell Computers when he penned a message and set it out to sea on April 26, 2000, while he was on a deep-sea fishing trip.
Obviously, he wasn't thinking that he was about to pollute one of the Gulf of México's more pristine barrier islands when he listed a couple of return email addresses and wrote a brief description about himself.
"I'm a very nice person. I think I'm a good human."
More likely, when Fisher launched his message in a bottle, using a method of communicating as random as waves on the sea, he was just trying to get a date.
Messages in a bottle are periodically found on the practically deserted beaches on Matagorda Island. Many of them are retrieved by volunteer turtle patrols that discover them among the other flotsam that washes ashore.
Some might consider messages in a bottle a romantic method for communicating with strangers across the seas, and others might consider them part of the heaps of trash that frequently pollute the beaches along the coastline.
"The bottle you have found is one of a wide row of bottles which I cast into the sea during the last several years," wrote Krzysztof Podgorniak, a 33-year-old Polish officer aboard the Philine Schulte, which sailed under the Isle of Man flag from Cartagena, Colombia to Houston.
"These bottles are my own way, how I try to find the ways of old seafarer's mail system. I will be very glad, if you can send me a letter or postcard only with number bottle, place, and date where you discovered it," wrote Podgorniak on a sheet of paper.
He listed his home address in Olsztyn, Poland. The bottle was found on Matagorda Island on April 20, 2005. The bottle was numbered 169-01-04-PHS, suggesting that the Polish sailor did not consider the impact of his chosen way of coping with the tedium of shipboard life.
"The bottles are considered beach debris," Nix acknowledged, but she also concedes that the idea of a message in a bottle conjures mysterious and romantic notions, much like the words "I'm sending out an S.O.S.," as sung by Sting of The Police, in 1979.
A legendary seafarer's mail system, or just more litter on the beach?

Article originally published in the Aransas Pass Progress and the Ingleside Index

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