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Bottle Overboard : Couple Toss Messages on World Cruises and Have 17 Far-Flung Replies

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Excitement isn’t kept bottled up when Harry Wolff Jr. goes to the mailbox.

“It’s wonderful! You never know what you’ll find!” he exclaims. “You don’t know where the next letter is going to be from. They just keep coming.”

An unusual high-seas hobby causes the flotsam in Wolff’s mail.

He tosses messages in bottles into the ocean when traveling on tramp steamers with his wife, Virginia. So far, 17 beachcombers have sent replies to their Century City high-rise apartment.

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The messages are carried by gin bottles that have been emptied during long and often uneventful freighter voyages.

“It’s not like a vacation on a cruise ship. You don’t always know where you’re going, or how long you’ll be gone,” said Wolff, a retired salesman. A trip scheduled for 43 days last year ended up lasting 4 1/2 months.

Added his wife: “They don’t have cruise directors on freighters. You have to make your own entertainment for days on end.”

So they stock up with cases of beverages before boarding cargo ships. By the time the trip is over, other thankful passengers usually have helped them polish off the contents.

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Wolff was idling away the hours on a ship heading from South Korea to San Diego in 1975 when he stuffed his first hand-written message into an empty Beefeater bottle. Thirty months later, it washed up on a deserted beach on the west coast of British Columbia’s Vancouver Island.

“I was hunting on the top end of the island. No game, so I started to beach comb. I found your bottle with your note in it,” wrote bottle-finder John Stearn of Victoria, Canada.

That letter hooked Wolff. On his next vacation voyage, he and his wife prepared more elaborate messages that included the name of the ship and the latitude and longitude from which the bottle was thrown. They also glued vintage dimes to each as a souvenir from the United States.

“Whoever finds this bottle would you please write to us,” the messages asked. They closed with a plea for happiness and peace in the world.

Since then, they have thrown about 200 messages into the sea and have heard from bottle-finders in Turkey, South Africa, Madagascar, Morocco, the Bahamas, Germany, Jamaica, Grenada, Egypt, Spain, the United States and Libya.

The letter from Libya was accompanied by a dollar bill-sized “quarter dinar” currency note from the “Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.” Also included was a hand-drawn map of Libya’s coast that showed where the bottle was found and where the chemical worker who found it lives and works.

The letter was smuggled out of Libya and mailed from London “because of the international relations between the USA and Libya,” as the intermediary put it.

Along with the Wolffs’ messages, many of their bottles are set adrift carrying leftover jalapeno peppers. Wolff uses them to “add some zing” to his gin-and-tonic drinks. Oddly, none of the bottle-finders have commented on the peppers, he said.

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The recovered bottles have floated an average of about three months. Although some ocean currents can carry a bottle 200 miles a day, Wolff has not attempted to calculate how far his have traveled.

Oceanographers say most bottles thrown into the ocean sink soon after becoming weighted down with marine growth.

“But if he empties a Beefeater bottle completely, as I’m sure he does, it’s probably quite buoyant,” said Joseph Reid, professor of physical oceanography at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, a branch of UC San Diego.

That means enough glass is exposed to air to keep the bottle from crusting over and sinking, Reid said. It also means the wind can help push the bottle along.

The Wolffs, meantime, are writing to thank each beachcomber. Then they plan to catch a slow boat to China, or perhaps South America.

They don’t plan to put a cap on their bottle-tossing adventures.


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