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Messages in a bottle chart a lifelong romance with the sea

Ship captain Sean Bercaw

DEBEE TLUMACKI FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Sean Bercaw, a ship captain for 25 years who has sent messages in bottles on many of his voyages at sea, tosses one into the ocean near his home in Falmouth.

Sean Bercaw has thought a lot about why one of the most archaic forms of communication, the message in the bottle, is considered romantic. He has sent more than 250 of them out to sea.

“Anyone launching a bottle is investing his or her hopes and desires in the bottle being found,” he says. “The cool thing about it, is it’s not simply black and white: succeed or fail. Even if no one finds it now, there is always that possibility. That hope always exists that some one may find it a hundred years later.” 

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It is that possibility, rather than the probability of reaching another human that is inspiring says Bercaw. Having tossed bottles into the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, he has gotten 45 responses, about a 20 percent hit rate. But that means four out of every five bottles have not yet been found. “If you knew for sure it would get a response, it wouldn’t be as romantic,” he says.

Although Bercaw, 51, is single, he isn’t looking for love. A former Naval officer and tall ship captain who has sailed 160,000 nautical miles around the globe, he launched his first bottle as a scientific experiment when he was only ten years old.

Bercaw, who grew up in Santa Barbara, became interested in wind currents when he left California to sail around the world with his parents and two sisters on a 38-foot ketch, Natasha. The three and a half year voyage was a unique education that would influence the rest of his life.

Debee Tlumacki for the Boston Globe

Sean Bercaw as a youngster when he first started launching messages in bottles.

There was no official “homeschooling” back then, but his parents brought a 500-book library and made their children read up on every new destination. They all had to help keep the hourly log of location, weather and the course they were steering. Bercaw can’t remember exactly what prompted the bottle experiment, but he is fairly certain it was his own idea. Neither of his parents drank alcohol, so he had to scavenge for wine bottles from bars at various ports of call. The hardest part, he says, was finding the cork.

He launched his first 40 bottles, keeping detailed notes that included latitude, longitude, a description of the location, condition of the seas, and how the bottle floated. The note inside asked for a responder to include the bottle number and the date and location of the find.

His first response came from a boy in Nicaragua who lived with his grandparents and found the bottle on a beach after it had floated more than 1500 nautical miles in less than three months. The second came five months later from a 22-year old woman in Grenada who described her physical features and her hobbies “as if it were a Match.com ad,” he says. He was only thirteen at the time. After a twenty-five year hiatus, Bercaw renewed his message in a bottle project when he started working for the Sea Education Association (SEA) in Falmouth captaining “school ships,” which are semester abroad programs for college students.

In late January one of Bercaw’s former students, Annie Isaacs of Dover, Ma, now a graduate student at Boston College, got a reply from a couple who found her bottle in Spain. She says her heart “did jumping jacks,” when she saw the email. “It’s really is an amazing feeling,” she says.

Sean Bercaw wrote his message to a prospective finder.

Sean Bercaw wrote his message to a prospective finder.

Bercaw maintains detailed notes on where and when each bottle was launched and retrieved, as well as photocopies of each response and the additional information he gets from interviewing the recipient about the condition of the bottle and the traffic of the location. Analyzing the time and location data helps him theorize about the length and likely path of the bottle’s voyage. “

You learn about ocean currents, ” he says, “but the messages themselves are so human.”

Although he primarily launches his own bottles into the sea, Bercaw once, tossed one into the Atlantic for a friend. It contained a love poem she had written. “Love and the Sea” by Alison Howard was not so much seeking romance, but recovering from it. It references “stormy days and broken dreams” and hopes that the bottle “may reach the hands of someone who will appreciate it as much as I.” The heartfelt message traveled 650 nautical miles and was recovered by a woman on Caswell Beach, North Carolina less than eight months later.

Messages inside bottles go back to the ancient Greek philosopher Theophrastus who threw sealed bottles into the sea to prove that the Mediterranean was formed by the inflowing Atlantic. They became controversial in the 16th century when Queen Elizabeth I made it a capital crime for anyone but an appointed “Uncorker of Ocean Bottles,” to open one, and in the 1970s, NASA sent its own version into space. The Voyager I and II probes each have an attached golden disc that carry sounds and images of human life as well as greetings from then-president Jimmy Carter beyond the outer planets.

DEBEE TLUMACKI FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Sean Bercaw tied his note to a pencil.

Messages inside bottles have been romanticized in literature, from Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “MS Found in a Bottle” to Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes, to the more recent Message In the Bottle by Nicholas Sparks.

Seven years ago, a message inside a bottle touched off a minor environmental controversy when the recipient, a man in southern England, scolded the sender, a Mattituck, NY high school science teacher, for contributing to ocean litter.

That science teacher used plastic bottles, which travel faster and farther than glass. But because plastic isn’t biodegradable. Bercaw says he sticks to the classic glass bottle and natural cork.

Robin Lacey, who manages the beach cleanups for the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management, says there are much worse marine issues than messages sent in bottles. “I worry more about plastics and cigarette butts,” he says.

Bercaw’s responses have come from all over the globe, from Bermuda to France to Florida to Tahiti. They have been hand written by small children and old men, texted and emailed from honeymooners and business executives. “One guy called me on his cellphone from the beach where he had just discovered it,” Bercaw says. “I thought that was an interesting juxtaposition of technologies. The most archaic form of communication and the latest satellite cell phone.”

Last September, Robert Ellison of Jamaica Plain and his wife found one of Bercaw’s messages in a bottle during a weekend escape to Cuttyhunk. “I was looking for good surfcasting spots on some fairly remote beaches. I saw a wine bottle on some rocks and actually thought: wouldn’t that be funny if that was a message in a bottle?” Ellison says.

When he picked it up, he knew it immediately. “It was the quintessential message in a bottle,” with the message wrapped around a pencil, and the traditional wine bottle tightly corked. “We didn’t allow ourselves to open it that night,” he says. Instead, he and his wife brought it back to the inn where they were staying and waited until dinner. “We wanted to make a ceremony out of it.”

As it turns out, Ellison is an oceanographer, already familiar with drift bottle experiments, but that didn’t lessen the excitement. “It was the highlight of our weekend,” he says. When he contacted Bercaw, they had a lot in common. Ellison works for YSI Inc. in Beverly, a company that makes submersible instruments to measure water quality. Now Ellison is lending him some of that equipment for Bercaw’s next voyage.

Bercaw has captained a variety of vessels, including the tall ship SSV Amistad, on its historic trip back to Cuba. In his next voyage, he will captain a converted cargo ship from Nova Scotia to the Cook Islands, west of Tahiti. He plans to launch 20 to 25 new bottles on the voyage to the Pacific. Bercaw believes that romance is an important part of the life at sea, When he teaches students aboard the school ships, he likes to begin voyage by having them read the essay by Robert James Waller (The Bridges of Madison County): “Romance.”

That essay makes the argument that real romance must be fostered in a myriad of ways in every day life, and that “If you try to look at romance straight on, you can’t see it.

“A romantic takes joy in the “subtle things,” says Bercaw, whether they are at sea or on land. He recalls once while on night watch at 2 a.m. in the pouring rain, the ship was sailing through a rainsquall. The moonlight came in under the squall, highlighting all the rain above. The ship running lights were glowing green and, because of the raindrops, reflected in the jib (a triangular sail on the forward mast).

Says Bercaw, “It was a powerful, romantic moment, that could easily have been missed.’’

Jan Brogan can be reached at janbrogan
books@gmail.com
. Follow her on Twitter @janbrogan
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