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Seaborne bottle yields its message, vintage '80


This is the story of a romantic notion and its journey from Antigua to Inagua to Alaska to Pimlico.

Fifteen years ago, Jessica Harrison's name and address began bobbing along the edge of the Sargasso Sea in a whiskey bottle. The note promised a $5 reward to anyone who found the bottle and wrote to the Harrison family on West Rogers Avenue to tell of the discovery.

Last month, a letter arrived from Petersburg, Alaska. "This completes the cycle," said Marlene Ezrine Harrison, Jessica's mother. "It took a little while."

On Aug. 5, 1980, on a trip from Fortaleza, Brazil, to New York City, Joan Gayle Brinch threw the bottle over the side of the freighter Mormacsaga about 375 miles northeast of Antigua.

The wife of the ship's captain, Mrs. Brinch often accompanied her husband on his voyages. Once at sea, she would slip notes into bottles, seal their caps with wax and toss them overboard.

"Long before I married my husband, I read a lot of romantic novels," said Mrs. Brinch, who lives in Harrisburg, Pa. "I always had a love affair with the sea, and sending a message in a bottle always seemed like a romantic thing to do."

To a seasoned sea dog such as Soren Brinch, the son of a captain and the grandson of captains on both sides of the family, the practice seemed a little silly. But, because Mrs. Brinch entertained the dozen or so passengers on board the freighters with her bottle-tossing, her husband "humored" her by going along with the stunts and lending them dignity by marking the exact latitude and longitude.

"On the way home from a trip, we always had a bottle party with cocktails," remembered Mrs. Brinch, who was widowed in 1986. "Everyone would get their bottles and seal them with wax, and before dinner we'd throw them off the side, always in deep water.

"I have four nieces, and I'd throw a bottle for each one of them on every voyage," said Mrs. Brinch, who has no children. "There were 10 voyages, so I threw 40 bottles. Within a couple of years, a bottle was found for three of the girls. But poor Jessica, her bottles never got found."

Until February of 1992, that is, when Alaskan fishery executive and wandering adventurer Patrick Wilson was combing the beaches of Great Inagua, the southernmost island of the Bahamas.

"I used to dive for treasure down there. I like to beachcomb and camp and enjoy the sun," said Mr. Wilson, who has been visiting Inagua for 20 years. "I was camping on the unpopulated side of the island; very few people ever go there. On that side, the current sweeps the island and deposits massive amounts of debris -- boats, wreckage, bales of dope, torpedoes, parts of aircraft and all kinds of garbage."

Amid the flotsam and jetsam, Mr. Wilson "came across this clear bottle that had a typed note in it and the cap still on. The cap says 'James Burrough Ltd. Distillers.' The paper inside was rolled so I could read the message. It was a little faded and crusty, but no water got in."

Judging by the coordinates where the bottle was tossed, the southern Bahamas is the most likely spot for the bottle to have landed, said W. Doug Wilson, oceanographer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Miami.

"An Antilles current may have taken it. It flows northward along the island arc outside the Inagua. Or the North Equatorial current may have taken it. That's a general westward flow through the southern Bahama area," Mr. Wilson said.

"On the other hand, it could just as easily have gone into the Caribbean and come back out. Or it could have gone around the whole North Atlantic once or twice. Did it take 12 years to reach Inagua, or was it sitting on the beach for 10?"

After flying home to Alaska with the bottle, Mr. Wilson let it languish at the back of his closet for three years because of his ambivalence toward people who send messages in bottles.

He had been thrilled by finding a commemorative Guinness Stout bottle thrown overboard by the Irish brewery on its bicentennial in 1959, and he took pains to dry the soggy contents: a booklet about the Dublin brewery, an ad for Ovaltine and a scroll from King Neptune.

And years ago, on the same side of Inagua, he found a bottled message written in five languages by an Israeli crossing the Atlantic from Tel Aviv. "It was so weathered and crumpled and broken into pieces that I couldn't figure out what it said. I wrote to the guy but never heard anything back," Mr. Wilson said.

The silence from Tel Aviv and other nautical dead-ends persuaded Mr. Wilson not to write the Harrison family.

The bottle sat in the dark until Brenda Kleinfelder began putting together an exhibit of ocean debris for Earth Day this year. A research assistant for the Marine Advisory Program in Petersburg, a town of about 3,500, Ms. Kleinfelder decorated an office window with things found on Alaskan beaches.

One day, after happening by the exhibit, Patrick Wilson walked into Ms. Kleinfelder's office "and dropped his bottle on my desk," she said. When friends learned that he hadn't written to the Harrisons, they pestered him until he did.

His letter left Petersburg May 13 and arrived on West Rogers Avenue May 18.

Jessica Harrison, a "free spirit" who has done a lot of traveling, gets junk mail from around the world. When she isn't home to open it, her mother files the excess in the trash.

"But right by the garbage can I decided to open this one," said Mrs. Harrison. "It blew my mind."

And, with a quick call to Alaska, the bottle's 15-year odyssey was nearly complete.

Joan Gayle Brinch was grateful that a bottle had been found for each of her nieces. Patrick Wilson's faith in people who drop notes into the sea was restored. The Mormacsaga sits in the James River as part of the government's ready reserve fleet. And Marlene Harrison is trying to figure out how much interest to pay on a $5 reward offered when Jimmy Carter was president.

But the person whose name is in the whiskey bottle was unaware of it all.

As the connections were being made, 20-year-old Jessica Harrison was camping in the Pacific Northwest with friends, having too much fun to spare a minute to call her family.

When she finally checked in over the Memorial Day weekend, her mother told her to sit down, that she had some news.

"I had just been telling a friend about the bottle as we were crossing over the [Willamette] river to get to downtown Portland. There were ships in the river that looked like the ones my uncle used to work on," said Jessica. "I don't think he believed a word I was saying."

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