A message in a bottle, from Shelter Island to the Bahamas

JO ANN KIRKLAND PHOTO | Connor Corbett-Rice at the Shelter Island Yacht Club this week. Three years ago he wrote a message and placed it in a wine bottle before it was launched on a remarkable sea voyage.

JO ANN KIRKLAND PHOTO |
Connor Corbett-Rice at the Shelter Island Yacht Club this week. Three years ago he wrote a message and placed it in a wine bottle before it was launched on a remarkable sea voyage.

Walking a private, seldom travelled stretch of sand in Cave Cay in the Bahamas in early February, a couple from Bermuda spied a corked wine bottle washed up on the beach. Going closer, Carol and Andrew Gracie saw a message tucked inside.They were able to pull the cork from the bottle, but had to wait until later to break the glass to extricate the note they feared would rip if they tried any other means of removing it.

“My name is Connor,” the message read. “I live on Shelter Island. It is a small Island in between the two forks of Long Island, which extend out from New York City about 100 miles east. Our year-round population is about 2,500 people, but in the summer we have a lot more tourists and summer people who only have summer homes out here . . . I have a younger brother named Mitchell. He is 8. I also have a younger sister named Angelina. She is 5. My dog is a puggle named Boo.”

Connor Corbett-Rice’s introduction had taken three years and thousands of nautical miles to find its way to the Gracies.

“We are avid beachcombers, always looking for that unusual treasure, strange shells, pieces of driftwood, sea beans and maybe one day that buried pirate’s chest,” Mr. Gracie told the Reporter last week.

As with everything in this tale of time, tides, currents and connection, luck was the most important ingredient. The Gracies were able to wander a beach not accessible to most visitors because of the generosity of the dock master at Cave Cay. Following a “crude pathway toward the ocean,” the couple found “one of these remote beaches that we love to encounter.” They came across a double crescent sandy beach strewn with debris and halfway across the first crescent encountered the bottle Mr. Gracie described as “reasonably clean,” with a note on what looked like brown parchment paper.

“At first I surmised it to have been thrown from a passing cruise ship recently,” said Mr. Gracie, a native of Scotland. “I assumed it had arrived within the past few months because there had been no appreciable storms in the area in that period” that might have washed the bottle much farther up the beach.

Back on their boat that day, Mr. Gracie found two notes inside the bottle, both wrapped in brown paper to protect the writing from the sun. The first note was Connor’s and the second was from his Shelter Island School teacher, Jack Reardon, who had tucked his email addresses into the bottle. For security reasons, Mr. Reardon wanted to ensure that an initial contact would be made with him, not a student.

JO ANN KIRKLAND PHOTO |  Connor Corbett-Rice on the beach outside the Shelter Island Yacht Club with teacher Jack Reardon discussing the message in a bottle project.

JO ANN KIRKLAND PHOTO |
Connor Corbett-Rice on the beach outside the Shelter Island Yacht Club with teacher Jack Reardon discussing the message in a bottle project.

It was Mr. Reardon who had launched the message in a bottle from his boat off the waters of Shelter Island in May 2011.

Messaging in bottles is a teaching project he started with students several years ago, borrowing the idea from a story he read about a Mattituck student who tossed a glass-enclosed missive into the water and it had found a port in Shelter Island School.

There had been several shakedown cruises to get the Shelter Island project right, Mr. Reardon said. The best vehicle for oceangoing messages, he found, was the simple wine bottle. “I’m not a wine drinker but my wife is,” he said about what makes it into his stock pile of vessels. He had initially dropped bottles from shore off Reel Point, only to have them drift back to shore.

By dropping them from his boat away from beaches, he found they would travel somewhere other than boomeranging back to his feet. Until the Gracies found Connor’s message, the farthest afield any of the bottles had gone was Rhode Island.

When he heard from the Gracies about the find, Mr. Reardon called Connor’s mother, Michelle Corbett, a fellow Shelter Island teacher. Her first response when she heard Mr. Reardon wanted to speak with her was to worry, as parents sometimes do, that her son was in some sort of trouble. Instead, she heard the tale of Connor’s bottle.

“I was shocked. I was so excited,” Ms. Corbett said. “I ran to tell him.”

“I wouldn’t have believed it,” Connor said.

But how did the wine bottle find landfall in the southern waters of the Caribbean? A more likely place to land would have been Canada, Greenland, Iceland or Europe, like the Mattituck voyager, Mr. Reardon said. Currents from here don’t normally run directly south, but just the opposite, tending to move north.

By Mr. Reardon’s reckoning, Connor’s bottle obeyed the law of currents, launching on a northern course, but was pushed eastward, bobbing in the swells toward Europe, where it apparently was captured by another flow that sent it around the west coast of Africa and then back on a southwest spiral to the Bahamas.

Stormy weather could have contributed to the unusual currents, Mr. Reardon said. Connor speculated the bottle could have been drifting on that northern route when currents from Superstorms Sandy or Irene might have interceded with its trajectory.

Irene barrelled up the East Coast in August 2011 and 14 months later, Sandy released her wrath on some of the same areas.

In a Wall Street Journal story, writer Eric Holthaus wrote: “Strengthening storms do a much better job of mixing higher winds from the upper atmosphere down to the surface in the form of intense wind gusts. Irene recorded one freak wind gust on Long Island that reached 91 mph.” Sandy, on the other hand, crossed paths with two winter systems that gave it an energy boost Irene hadn’t had. While Irene rolled in and out of the area rapidly, Sandy lingered. It took a path that would maximize its winds and storm surge on Long Island.

Could either or both of these storms have created the path the bottle took? Possibly, Mr. Reardon speculated, that with all of furious activities of the two major storms, Connor’s bottle might have travelled 10,000 miles from the point where he dropped it in the water to where the Gracies found it off Cave Cay.

The Gracies discovered that Shelter Island doesn’t have much exposure to the open sea, so they, too, wondered how the bottle had journeyed so far. Mr. Gracie offered another theory about the bottle’s travels.

“I can only surmise that there must have been a very strong outgoing tide to carry the bottle far enough out to reach the Gulf Stream,” Mr. Gracie said. While no one will ever know the course the bottle took, he speculated that it might have traveled north past Nova Scotia, then easterly, just south of Iceland, then south past Scotland and Ireland and farther south towards the Canary Islands where the currents could have carried it west toward the southern Bahamas.

In the ensuing weeks, there have been several emails between Connor and the Gracies. Among the things they’ve shared was Connor’s first job last summer at Reddings. He was pleased to learn that Andrew Gracie had held a summer job with a catering company in his youth that eventually led to his career in hospitality services. The couple currently operates a vacation retreat in Bermuda.

For Connor, he hopes the job with Reddings is more than just a summer gig. He’s planning to enter a BOCES program next year in culinary arts and also plans a visit to the Culinary Institute of America, hoping to eventually pursue a career in the food service business.

As for the Gracies, they hope that Connor’s experience with his message in a bottle will carry forward with other students.

“In today’s world of instant communication, emails, Short Message Service and Facebook, it’s great to hear that some of our teachers are still able to successfully stimulate our youth with some old-fashioned classroom experiments that will further stimulate them to seek answers to time-honored questions,” Mr. Gracie said. “We will always need navigators, explorers, meteorologists, oceanographers and the like and it is this type of simple stimulation that our teachers can achieve with today’s youth,” he said.