Life's a beach to comb

Fancy a beer? A new pair of trainers? A Lego set? Just go to the beach and keep your eyes open.

Joseph Gallivan
Friday 21 August 1998 23:02

Remember those drifting hockey gloves? In December 1994, 34,000 fell overboard in the mid- North Pacific from the fire-stricken container ship Hyundai Seattle. Now in their fifth year at sea, they continue washing up. On 18 April 1998, Art Sowls found a battered orange glove in Cook Inlet near Homer, Alaska." (Beachcombers' Alert, Spring 1998.)

In Oregon five years ago, people started holding what they called "sneaker clinics". After a vessel holding 80,000 Nikes went down in mid-Pacific Ocean in 1990, the shoes were still washing ashore on the west coast of the USA three years later. Intact and wearable - but not in pairs. Enterprising seaside dwellers organised "meet and match" days where finders could compare finds and maybe come away with a workable pair.

Running shoes aren't the only surprising things drifting around the oceans. Beachcombers have found oil workers' hard hats, random bales of rubber, flip-flops, Japanese fishermen's glass floats, yellow rubber ducks, empty survival suits, the odd aeroplane tyre, sea beans, and mysterious buoy- like objects that not even the US Navy can identify.

We know all this because beachcombers all over the world send their found objects to Curtis Ebbesmeyer of Seattle, Washington, either for identification's sake, or just so he can keep track of what's gone where. In his spare time he runs the Beachcombers' Alert newsletter and website, and brims with enthusiasm as he talks about his finds: "I feel I am teaching people how to use their eyes," he said. And the good doctor likes to get into the details.

For instance, on 31 March 1997, on a voyage between Boston and Baltimore, storm waves rolled the 816-foot long Pol American about 11 miles off the Cape Cod National Seashore. Twenty-three steel boxes went overboard, spilling household goods, shoes, glassware, a vehicle, department store merchandise, and confectioneries. Within days, and 40 miles southward, US Coast Guard personnel began reporting chocolates and sweets beached on Nantucket Island: Hershey's Kisses, Tootsie Rolls, Reisen dark German chocolates, and Werther's hard butterscotch candies. Beachcombers were warned by the health authority to eat only from unopened packages. Ebbesmeyer calculated the buoyant properties of chocolate (none), and surmised that the packaging kept them afloat. Again, when a Chinese cargo ship capsized in June 1997, spilling 500,000 cans of beer into the seas west of Hong Kong, he followed up with an experiment at home.

"Curious, I immersed an unopened 12oz aluminum can. The positive buoyancy of the beer and trapped air are sufficient to overcome the negative buoyancy of the metal, causing the can to barely float. The beer, having been aged for a few years afloat, may thus be served to diligent beachcombers around the Pacific Ocean. Please report your taste testing."

Shades of the Ancient Mariner live on - Ebbesmeyer notes that from 1991-1996, sailors reported 116 derelict vessels afloat in the North Atlantic. The Pacific has its junk craft too: he writes of a yacht called FellowShip sailing in bad visibility from New Zealand to Tonga and narrowly missing a semi-submerged barge and the abandoned German yacht Taurus.

Yes, there's an awful lot of stuff out there. Take, for instance, the black flip-flops. Hundreds of thousands of rubber sandals have littered Australia's Cocos and Keeling Islands in the Indian Ocean. Australian Senator, Julian McGauran, blamed Indonesian manufacturers for dumping their rejects into the sea. One of Ebbesmeyer's star spotters Steve McLeod, from Oregon, noted that a few thousand pairs went down with the ice hockey equipment on the Hyundai Seattle. Flotsam theorists are on to it.

The paths that floating objects take in the sea particularly fascinate Ebbesmeyer and the global beachcombing community, which has boomed in the last three years, thanks to the Internet. When 29,000 yellow plastic ducks and bathtub friends (blue turtle, red beaver, green frog) fell overboard in a container in May 1992, near the International Date Line, halfway between the Equator and the North Pole, he got his friend Jim Ingrahams to make a computer simulation to forecast when the toys would be washing ashore in Washington. The prediction proved to be right to the nearest month. Now, they are tracking 100,000 floating toy cars that went down on 21 January 1998, 100 miles south of Japan. He expects them to hit the USA around the Millennium.

"We can't yet model the Atlantic, but we do know that an object floats about 10 miles a day. I often wonder what happened to the bodies in life vests from the Titanic. Many of them weren't recovered. A lot of stuff from that disaster must have ended up in the British Isles - Cornwall, Ireland and the Hebrides are the likeliest places. The same with TWA Flight 800 debris. Brits ought to be looking out for it," he says excitedly.

It's no coincidence that he mentions bodies - Ebbesmeyer specialises in tracking floating corpses. The Seattle police often turn to him in cases of drowning and suspected suicide in the waters of Puget Sound. "It's not easy because not a lot of people know that humanity divides 50-50 into floaters and sinkers. Try it next time you're in the pool."

Causing excitement on two continents this year is the great "Lego Spill" of 1997. A container ship, the Tokio Express, en route from Rotterdam to New York on 13 February 1997, was hit by a rogue wave about 20 miles off Land's End. She tilted 60 degrees one way, then 40 degrees back, and lost 62 HGV-sized containers overboard. One of them held 5 million Lego pieces. Ironically, millions were destined for toy kits depicting sea adventures. Children in Cornwall found octopuses, dragons, diver flippers and sea grass pieces washed ashore and, thanks to an inventory provided by a Dutch shipping clerk, beach walkers in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas are now looking out for the arrival of other elements, such as tiny plastic yellow rafts, swords, pistols, hats, flippers and spear guns.

The traffic might then get complicated. "The currents may also carry Lego elements northward past Norway into the Arctic Ocean, following the fabled Northeast Passage through the coastal waters of northern Siberia, arriving in Alaska after 12 years," says Ebbesmeyer. "From Alaska, currents may carry a few southward to Japan and then across the North Pacific Ocean to British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and California."

There's an active sub-group within the beachcombing community who collect sea-beans. These are hard, polished seeds like striped pebbles, that are washed into rivers, and then into the sea, from rainforests, or after hurricanes. Cathie Katz of Melbourne Beach, Florida (e-mail: can talk about them for hours: "None of the leading malacologists [shell specialists] were interested in them, so I decided to find out all I could. They can survive at sea for hundreds of years," she told me. "They're the great unexplored area of botany."

Katz has written four illustrated books about the marine life. She also helps arrange the Annual Sea Bean Symposiums. It seems beachcombers like nothing more than to gather together and poke around at foreign objects.

Britain has its own sea bean fans too. Alma Hathway of Sancreed, Penzance, takes Caribbean sea beans, breaks their protective coating and germinates them in fresh water in her conservatory. "We get all sorts of interesting ones" She seems to typify the genteel militancy of beachcombers everywhere. When she found a drifter from a Nova Scotia fishery with a "Please Return if Found" note attached, she rebelled. "These fisheries use non-filament nets that catch dolphins and birds as well - so I didn't return it," says Hathway, a botanical illustrator. "I didn't want to contribute to that sort of thing."

`Beachcomber's Alert' on the web:

Report finds to: Curtis C Ebbesmeyer, 6306 21st Ave NE, Seattle, Washington 98115, USA. Please include photos of yourself and drifters, written accounts, locations and dates. Factual descriptions, concerning the drift of the water body fronting your shore, are welcome

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