It probably started as an impulse gone wild, coaxed from my inner recesses by all that blue water, an empty wine bottle and the star-strewn lassitude of a midnight watch. Then again, who can say why a grown man would toss a message in a bottle into the waves? The poet Dylan Thomas once referred to something he called “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” Undoubtedly, the mystical spark that flung that green glass bottle toward the stars in a high arc that ended in a little white splash was a sibling to the force that flung me off the dock in the first place.
We were following Columbus’s fourth voyage (with a few squiggles and detours thrown in), and Palma, Gran Canaria, with its flaming deserts, Ferraris and the bare breasts that bookmark this Mecca for “English secretaries on holiday,” was fast receding in memory. Sailors have used our projected route across The Pond so many times since Uncle Chris did it that by now it should be a highway with signs and numbers. “The Crossing,” as we’ve called it since the days of the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria, is still mumbled by salts in tones reserved for the memory of their first storm at sea and virgin mermaids wearing haloes. As I gazed into that vault of yawning blackness to the west, I wondered: Could this be the mother of all metaphors? Nothing could unhinge my conviction that before we glimpsed the palm-strewn emerald isles on the other side, we were certain to sail off the earth.
So throwing that bottle into the sea as Palma sank into the horizon was a plea to Neptune to grant me something more than my pitiful allotment of mortality. The note was brief and mundane: I gave our lat/long and explained that we were following the Great Navigator’s fourth voyage, planning to catch the trade winds somewhere around the 18th parallel and ride them to landfall on St. Bart’s. As an afterthought I jotted down my home phone number, stuffed the message into the bottle and heaved it.
I was suddenly awash with an eerie sensation that I was corresponding with people in an unknowable future. How is my bottle any different than the time capsule Carl Sagan loaded onto Voyager and flung across the heavens on a rocket? Is 18,000 miles per hour through space any different than two miles an hour crossing the Big Blue?
As the little speck drifted out of sight off our stern, it occurred to me that ocean currents could carry that bottle to any of a million landfalls. Or it might get caught in the circulating current of the North Atlantic, drifting round and round for a thousand years before a tempest caught it just right and sent it drifting toward landfall on Cape Cod or New Brunswick or back to Spain or Scandinavia. Would mankind, a species seemingly hard-wired for extinction, be there to catch it? Centuries could pass before it was found by a child out walking her dog in Norway, or by a fisherman in Ireland. I liked that. Something about that sense of surrender to the ages appeals to me. That, after all, is why I’m a sailor. I like the sense of being connected at one end of a thread to the moment-to-moment reality experienced by someone at the other end who won’t be born for centuries to come. Isn’t that a dandy metaphor for life?
The trades did their job, and as landfall approached, giddiness gave way to dread, an ancient story. Too soon, I was back in my cabin in the mountains of western Montana, where two years later I found myself drinking morning coffee and watching the snow fall in the meadow as deer grazed outside my window. It was also lunchtime in Bermuda, and a reporter for the local “Royal Gazette” newspaper was dialing my phone number.
Turns out a tourist from Toronto had gone swimming that morning and saw something flash in the curl of a wave: the bottle I had tossed into the stars off the coast of Africa. I was thrilled to hear it, but then the regret set in. I liked drifting into the mystic, wondering about my bottle’s whereabouts as I went about my life on terra firma. Maybe the act of throwing it, that whimsical leap of faith, was reward enough. Maybe that’s the point of leaping into the mystic.
The tourist who found it was so amazed by his good luck that he took the bottle straight to the newspaper. As the reporter explained in the front page story published the following day (now framed on my wall) the bottle drifted to the eastern edge of the Caribbean where hurricanes pushed it north to the Gulf Stream and carried it to that speck of sand in the Atlantic called Bermuda.
“Isn’t it funny,” the reporter’s voice chirped into the phone. “Today is Columbus Day. Isn’t that just amazing?”
E.T., phone home.