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Smithfield, RI Weather

Currents can deliver mysteries of the sea

By Jim Ignasher

The hot weather of August draws us to the seashore where beach combing is but one summer activity, and one never knows what will turn up. Presented here is a collection of strange nautical finds culled from assorted old newspapers.

“Grewsome Diary Of Sea Found On Ship’s Hatch” (Their spelling, not mine.) This intriguing headline is from an August, 1911, newspaper article relating to a ship’s hatch from the ill fated schooner Kate Feare, (Wrecked in 1909), found washed ashore on a Texas beach with a macabre diary carved into the wood with a penknife. The entries told of suffering for lack of food and water, the death of a crewman, and a final goodbye to loved ones.

The following item appeared in an 1843 edition of The Woonsocket Patriot, relating to a large red chest found floating off the coast of Newfoundland by a passing ship. Brought aboard, the crew discovered it contained the body of a beautiful young woman clad in “a rich silk dress, and having three solid gold rings upon her fingers.” It was surmised she’d died at sea, and her remains had been committed to the deep, but that somehow the coffin had floated to the surface. The woman’s identity was never established, but she was given a Christian burial in Newfoundland.

Tales of ghost ships have been around since man first set sail, with perhaps the legend of the Flying Dutchman being the most well known. For those unaware, the Flying Dutchman is a spectral ship doomed to sail the seas for eternity bringing bad luck to all vessels that encounter her.

Yet not all “ghost ships” are mere legend, for more than one vessel has been found inexplicably adrift without its crew. A case in point was the bark Remittent found abandoned near the Azores in 1913. Boarding parties found everything in order with no signs of trouble. The lifeboats were in their place, the galley contained full provisions, yet the entire crew was gone as if they’d simply stopped what they were doing and left. News reports reminded readers of famous schooner Marie Celeste that was found abandoned under similar conditions several years earlier.

Yet it’s not only sailing ships that have been found adrift at sea. On July 27, 1907, a Russian military airship was found abandoned and floating in the sea in the Gulf of Finland. The airship, with a crew of four high-ranking officers aboard, had been missing since July 19. A review of the ship’s logbook told a harrowing tale of courage, self-sacrifice, and duty to country.

At some point after taking off the men found themselves over the water with no way to control the ship as it was blown further and further out to sea. After awhile the ship began to gradually loose altitude, and due to weight considerations, there was no life raft aboard. The only way to prevent the ship from dragging them to a watery grave was to reduce weight any way possible, but there was little to cast off. Finally a grim realization set in that there was but one thing to be done. The men drew lots to see who would jump overboard in hopes of saving the others. Unfortunately, the reduction of one man’s weight, or even three, was not enough to save the ship. Within hours the fourth man found himself alone, and after making his peace, he too jumped into the sea in order to save the ship.

Before the days of ship-to-shore radio, it wasn’t uncommon for someone aboard a doomed ship caught in a raging storm to toss a hastily scribbled note overboard in a bottle giving the ship’s name and approximate location in the hope that their families would eventually learn of their fate. “Message in a bottle” stories are numerous, and while some have turned out to be hoaxes, others were thought to be genuine because they contained verifiable facts.

One heartbreaking “message in a bottle” story revealed the terrible fate that befell a Colorado woman in 1909. According to the note dated March 31, 1909, a woman by the name of Rosaline Rockayn was drugged and kidnapped by a man she’d met just after arriving in San Francisco. She awoke to find herself aboard an ocean going vessel. At some point she managed to write a short note, place it in a bottle, and tossed it out a porthole. Police believed the note to be authentic as the woman listed her brother’s name and address in Denver.

Perhaps the most famous person to find a message in a bottle was former President Richard M. Nixon, who made the discovery in 1974 while vacationing in the Bahamas. The note, dated two months earlier, read in part, “I’m aboard the U.S.S. Guam. I have a watch. I had nothing to do so I’m writing you. If you find it please write to this address and tell them you found this message from their grandson.”

The letter was verified to be authentic, written by a servicemen assigned to a navy helicopter squadron aboard the Guam. President Nixon did as the note requested, but instead of writing, he personally called the young man’s grandparents.

Most such bottles tossed into the sea are usually found within a matter of weeks, months, or even a year or two. However there have been rare instances where bottles containing messages have bobbed about or lain undisturbed for decades. What’s the oldest authentic message in a bottle ever recovered? The record currently stands at 108 years, and involves a “drift bottle” recovered in 2015, that was put in the ocean to study prevailing sea currents by a British researcher in the early 20th century. This find eclipsed the one made in 2013 by a fisherman off the Shetland Islands who found another “drift bottle” that had been at sea for 99 years.

So enjoy the rest of the summer, and if you find yourself at the beach, keep a sharp eye out. You never know what you might find.