The little bottle that could

Emma Graney
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St. Anthony man’s letter washes ashore in France

St. Anthony — Joy Nash and her friend Jean Pierre walk along a beach between Kerity and Le Guillvenec in Brittany, France. It’s a relatively warm day for the 25th of February; a slight breeze tickles the sand in the sunshine and brings the sharp smell of salt drifting in off the ocean. Joy’s giant schnauzer, Zac, bounds along in front of her.

Joy sees a bottle lying on the beach and throws Jean Pierre an offhand remark about littering, shaking her head and adding “there’s not even a message in it.”

Further down the beach, as she scans the sand for interesting pebbles, shells and other bits and bobs, something catches her eye — a plastic soda bottle, its neck a quarter-inch thick with sea grass and the bottom half encrusted with mollusks.

Intrigued, Joy picks it up and turns it over in her hands.

She pulls off some of the seaweed and peers through the dingy plastic.

“I think there’s a message in here,” she calls out to Jean Pierre, trying to twist the top off the bottle.

It’s taped shut, but she breaks the seal and holds the bottle up.

Inside, rolled tight, is a note.

Eighteen months earlier ...

Francis Patey finishes a two-page letter in his neatly curled script. It’s about the devastation of the cod moratorium, the work of Dr. Wilfred Grenfell and the history of St. Anthony — his home.

He adds his email and postal addresses and rolls it up tight until it’s small enough to slide into the bottle he rinsed out the day before.

He wedges the note inside, screws the bottle cap tight, and twists a length of electrical tape around the cap and neck. Then he places the bottle on a shelf and waits for a favourable wind.

That wind comes on Aug. 10, 2009, and at around 6 p.m. it’s blowing a gentle 30 kilometres an hour from the west.

He gets into his little blue car and drives around St. Anthony harbour to Fishing Point, then walks down the hill towards Haul-up Cove; gentle waves lap at the shore and gulls circle overhead.

Giving his bottle a final, cursory glance, he lobs it out into the water as far as he can.

“You’re going for a long trip,” he says.

He watches the bottle until a gust of wind catches it, lifting it out of the undertow and into a smooth sailing zone. Then he walks back up the hill to stand by the lighthouse at Fishing Point, using binoculars to watch the bottle bobbing steadily out to sea.

When it’s about 200 yards off the coast, he turns and heads home.

A journey of epic proportions

The bottle is, by all accounts, an ordinary soda bottle; it probably still smelled slightly of cola when it was thrown into the Atlantic.

But it’s an extraordinary bottle, too.

In 544 days, it bobbed its way 3,520 km across the Atlantic Ocean from St. Anthony to France — in all likelihood weathering storms, being tossed in heavy seas, baking under a beating hot sun, and, as Patey points out, was “lucky not to be swallowed by a whale.”

The journey is a lonely one, but at some point it’s made less so by the seaweed which grows around its neck and the mollusks that sucker to its base.

Inside it carries a message about Newfoundland and the small town on the Northern Peninsula it once, however briefly, called home.

That message is slowly bleached by the relentless weather, but is still visible enough for Joy Nash — a retired Englishwoman who lives in France — to read the address and contact Francis Patey.

Between two lands

“I don’t often pick up bottles because one hears the nasty things truck drivers do with plastic bottles, don’t they?” Nash says, quiet laughter in her voice as she speaks from her home in France.

“But this one just looked so beautiful and so, well, interesting.”

Did she ever think she’d find a message in a bottle? She pauses, mulling over her words.

“That’s an interesting question, but now that you mention it I suppose I must have thought I might find something one day, because I do look — I’m always looking,” she says.

Nash is infatuated with archeology — so much so that she returned to university as a mature student to complete a bachelor of science, with a major in archeology, as well as a bachelor of arts in history and archeology and a master’s degree in the same subjects.

She’s been to digs in Scotland, Ireland, Bavaria and Czechoslovakia.

Nowadays she scours freshly dug fields near her home in France, hoping she’ll stumble across a piece of history.

“That’s the thing, isn’t it? You never know what’s going to turn up,” she says. “It’s always disappointing when it’s nothing but it’s thrilling when it’s something, and that’s why I was just so excited about this bottle.”

Nash contacted Patey by email after reading his letter.

“Years and years ago, after a picnic on the beach in Gran Canaria, I put a message into an empty wine bottle, then put the stopper back in and threw it into the sea. But I never got a reply, so I really wanted to get in contact with Francis and let him know someone had found it,” she said.

As for Patey, for those 544 days he seesawed between conviction that someone would find the bottle in a far-off land, and the thought it had ended up just around the harbour in St. Anthony Bight, or down in Twillingate.

As a boy growing up in St. Anthony, Patey was enamoured with boats. Once, he made a little vessel from a piece of flat lumber, put a spar in the centre, rigged it up with a cardboard sail and set it sailing across Aunt Maryann’s Cove, making believe it was headed to another country.

This time, decades later, his vessel made it.

“I’ve always had an interest in letting other people know who we are and where we are,” he explains, “and I’ve always thought one way to do that is put a note in a bottle, throw it in the ocean and let it drift to a far-away land.

“I knew the odds of it being found were about one in a million, but that didn’t dampen my idea.”

Patey said the bottle and its final resting place were always in the back of his mind, but after a few months, then a year, he figured it wasn’t going to turn up.

But on Feb. 25, just as he was settling down for a nap in preparation for watching a late hockey game on television, his wife Agnes called out from the other room.

“She said, ‘Come here, come here — they’ve found your bottle,’ and I started to read the email thinking it would be somewhere else in Newfoundland,” he says, “but to my amazement it was found in France. If it had gone a little further east it would have gone through the English Channel.”

He says his first feeling was satisfaction.

“I let two more people know who we are and why we are, and as soon as the lady looked at the note she said she looked St. Anthony up on the Internet right away and said, ‘What a beautiful place.’”

Patey hopes one day there might be a sign to mark the spot where he threw the bottle all the way to France, but for now it’s a tiny rocky outcrop, covered in several feet of snow.

As for the bottle, it’s sitting on a shelf in Jean Pierre’s seaside home, a large slit in its side where Nash cut it to get at the letter.

The seaweed has dried and receded, but there’s still 544 days worth of sand and salt cementing the mollusks to their plastic home.

“I don’t know if Jean Pierre will keep it — I’d have liked to have kept it but I’m one of these people who keep far too many things as it is,” Nash says.

“Finding this bottle was just one of those strange things that happen — I’m just glad it happened to me.”

The Northern Pen

Geographic location: France, St. Anthony, Brittany Newfoundland Atlantic Ocean Northern Peninsula Scotland Ireland Gran Canaria English Channel

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Recent comments

  • Newfiegirl
    March 17, 2011 - 20:26

    Truck drivers everywhere have been known to urinate in plastic bottles rather than take time out of their schedules to stop their rigs at rest stops for that purpose. A trucker friend told me this. Lovely story though. I've always thought about sending a note in a bottle.

  • PEK
    March 16, 2011 - 00:38

    What nasty things do truck drivers do with bottles in France??