Sandia LabNews

Harold Myers gets astonishing rate of return on messages in bottles

Winds and tides toss up retiree’s messages on distant shores

So, what are the odds, would you think? If you were to toss a message in a bottle into the wine-dark sea, do you think you’d ever get a reply? "Nah, not in a million years," the realist in you says.

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MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE — Retired Sandian Harold Myers shows off a sample of the kind of bottle he uses in his unusual hobby: casting messages in bottles into the open sea from the weather decks of cruise ships. Harold has received five replies to the 15 messages he has sent so far. (Photo by Randy Montoya)
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Then there are the optimists. Like Harold Myers. He retired from Sandia in 1990 after a 38-year career that ended with a stint in the Primary Standards Lab.

Harold shares with his wife Lois, also a Sandia retiree who worked in the Tech Library, a lifelong love affair with travel. This yen for travel took on a new dimension during a cruise in 1987. In preparing for the voyage, Harold read up on sea lore, and came across a story about people who throw messages in bottles into the sea.

Something in the romance of that act caught his fancy. He resolved to give it a try. Sailing on the Carnival cruise ship Festival out of San Juan, Puerto Rico, Harold tossed in four bottles over the course of several evenings. Three of the bottles were his; one was for a colleague from work. His were identical 12-ounce wine cooler bottles; each contained a dollar bill, a note in English and Spanish — Harold’s project leader at work, Frank Garcia (now retired), did the Spanish translations — and each was stoppered with a cork and sealed with paraffin. The dollar, the note explained, was to cover postage for a response.

"The guys at work sort of half way laughed at me," Harold recalls. "They told me I was just throwing good money away."

Harold got the last laugh, though. Two of his first three bottles were recovered. Yes, two out of three.

Not long after he returned home from the Caribbean cruise, he received a letter from France. France? Could it be? Already? Harold admits his heart was beating fast as he opened the envelope. It turns out that a French vacationer on the island of St. Bart’s, some 30 miles from where Harold had tossed it in, acquired the bottle from a local woman who found it washed up on a beach. Harold figured the bottle had traveled 30 miles in nine days. Not France, but not bad. "To tell you the truth," Harold says, "I was kind of shocked. I guess I really never expected to hear from anybody at all."

A bigger shock was to come. Another bottle tossed from the Festival bobbed around for almost 2,000 miles before being recovered in the open sea by a kayaking Canadian off the coast of Belize. The bottle drifted for four months and, Harold determined, survived a hurricane.

"That one really blew my mind. It kind of wowed me for a while," he says.

With such stunning early success, Harold was hooked on his new hobby. During a cruise along the Alaska coast in 1989, he threw in three more bottles.

By the way. Harold notes that cruise ship companies don’t much like passengers to throw things from the ship. There’s the litter issue of course, but there’s also the concern that flung cigarettes tossed from one deck could end up on another deck, an obvious fire hazard. As a result, Harold generally exercises his pitching arm late at night.

Back to Alaska: one of the three bottles he tossed washed up on a beach 150 miles away and was found by a couple from Fort Collins, Colo.

"They were practically neighbors," Harold says.

Then there was the bottle tossed in February 1992 from a ship out of Acapulco. It was found months later and hundreds of miles down the Mexican coast by a couple of local teens. Harold and the kids corresponded for a while, exchanged Christmas cards and the like. At one point, the kids even wrote to Harold that they considered him "part of the family."

That correspondence, which ended several years ago, was nothing compared to what was to come. In February 1996, again cruising off the coast of Mexico, Harold tossed in three more bottles, this time from Carnival Cruise Line’s Jubilee. Twenty-two months later he received a letter with Philippine postage stamps on it. A Filipino fisherman wrote to say he had recovered the bottle in the open sea off the coast of the Philippines.

"I assume he picked it up in a fishing net," Harold says.

The bottle had traveled some 7,000 straight-line miles — who knows how far it actually drifted before finding its way to the other side of the Pacific.

The first note from the fisherman sparked an on-going exchange of letters. The notes, written in a clumsy but endearing English — the correspondent apologizes that English isn’t his first language — convey a growing familiarity and comfort level. The first letter, for example, begins "Dear Harold Myers." The most recent letter begins, "Dearest Harold and Lois." In each letter, the correspondent mentions that he is just "a poor fisherman." Indeed, Harold says that after long and hard thought, he tucked a $10 bill into the Christmas card he sent the fisherman last year. In return, the fisherman sent Harold a photograph of himself and his attractive family.

A bit of mystery attaches itself to this letter. Because of their language differences, Harold has never been able to get his Filipino correspondent to explicitly state what the note he fished from the sea actually said. So Harold doesn’t know for sure which bottle the fisherman netted.

"I have to assume it was the most recent bottle [the one dropped in 1996]," Harold says, ‘but I don’t know. It could be one of the bottles from the 1992 cruise. Or even from Alaska [in 1989]."

And even as the mystery of the Philippines remains, Harold has again cast his bottles upon the water. Last February, he tossed two from the Pacific side of the Panama Canal and one from the Atlantic side. No response yet, but if even one can survive typhoons, and ships’ propellers, and sharks’ greedy jaws, if it can survive the rocks and leaky corks, and all the other forces arrayed against it, it may wash ashore somewhere. And maybe, just maybe, someone will pick it up and reach out to connect with Harold.

The winds that blow, the moon-tugged tides, the sun-spun currents of the sea — all of these Harold has summoned to his cause: to carry his words, his unique and singular human voice, out into that great wide world of wonder, over the horizon and beyond, to the far shores of forever, where all dreams dwell.