Flickr photo by Kraftwerck
This story starts on a Friday night just before sunset somewhere in the middle of the Caribbean. The year is 2003, the month February, and Sausalito, California-based sailor Rick Hastie is alone at the helm of the First Home, a 54-foot sailboat headed for the Virgin Islands. Rick and his two crewmates have recently cleared the Panama Canal, and in this moment, Rick is steering north toward Jamaica to escape some heavy weather blowing in from the east. He is feeling the solitude of the sea, feeling very far from everyone and everything, and all this makes him remember a promise he’d made to a bartender buddy back home the night before setting sail.
Rick puts the boat on automatic pilot, and he leaves the helm. He heads for the cabin where he retrieves a $43 bottle of Bunnahabhain single malt Scotch whisky—the bartender’s bon voyage present, now polished off. Empty bottle in hand, Rick grabs a piece of paper and a pencil, and he heads back to the helm.
What Rick pens in the cockpit is not the profoundest of posts, but it does fulfill his promise to the bartender. Rick writes: “Whoever finds this is entitled to a bottle of free Bunnahabhain Scotch at the Cat ’N Fiddle.” Rick includes his name and address, the name of his vessel, the date, the longitude and latitude. He rolls his message up and slides it down the slender neck of his green Bunnahabhain bottle. He encases his envoy in electrician’s tape, throws it into an enormous aqua-green wave, and then promptly forgets about it.
Many thrown, few found
Although such immediate amnesia might seem strange at first, all it takes is a brief look at the history of message-in-a-bottle communication to realize that Rick’s response is really rather logical.
Historians have compiled extensive records of people throwing messages in bottles—from the Greek philosopher Theophrastus testing out water currents in the Mediterranean in 310 BC to Columbus announcing his arrival in the New World in the late 15th century to present-day scientists conducting waste route research. Yet, the accounts of such bottles being retrieved are few and far between.
Even when the perfect combination of water currents and wind patterns and pure luck all come together to enable a bottle to reach an inhabited shoreline, the journey is often so lengthy as to render the message moot. Such was the case with explorer Evelyn Baldwin’s bottle, which he dropped into the Arctic Ocean in 1902 with a request for more supplies for his troubled North Pole expedition. The bottle was found by a fisherman in Russia, but not until 1948, nearly half a century after Baldwin’s epic failure had become explorer legend.
Rick’s bottle doesn’t take nearly as long. Just four months after he tosses it, his Bunnahabhain bottle washes ashore onto an inhabited island where a seven-year-old girl finds it on a birthday trip to the beach. Fast forward a few weeks and Rick has a letter from the girl’s mother in hand. The only problem is that the letter is written in a language Rick can’t read, and it comes from a country to which Americans are forbidden to travel, an illegal island, which the U.S. government has recently added to its “Axis of Evil” list of terrorist nations.
While Rick ponders what he should do about this letter, another one arrives. And then another. And another.
And then one day soon after the arrival of this fourth letter, Rick runs into his sailor friend Steve. Steve is a counter-culture sort of guy, a fifty-six-year-old self-described “frustrated revolutionary” who has ridden out the wave of the sixties revolution and its subsequent disillusionments, and now aspires only to live a simple, honest life in the 23-foot tugboat that he built in 1970s, and which he has worked out of—and lived in—ever since.
Steve also, as Rick now recalls having heard recently, has been studying Spanish. Rick asks him if this is true, and Steve nods his head and smiles.
“Well,” Rick says, not quite sure how to present his proposition. “I’ve been getting these letters that I can’t read from a woman in Cuba.”
“Tell me the story,” Steve says, his voice eager, his expression open and ready for whatever comes next.
The implied promise
“When I heard the story, I knew immediately that I had to respond,” Steve says, standing on his dock, just feet from where he ran into Rick on that fateful afternoon in the summer of 2003. “I felt that there was this implied promise in the bottle—that for this little girl who’d found it, her world would become bigger. And I wanted to honor that promise.”
Steve stayed up all night translating the letters Rick had received, and through them he discovered other, more personal reasons to pursue this connection with the little girl and her family.
“I didn’t participate much in my own daughter’s upbringing,” he says. “Her mother and I never married and she grew up with another father, but even so I always felt guilty about not having been a better father. I had this late life desire to do a good deed, and here it was staring me in the face.”
The day after he finished reading the mother’s letters, Steve started writing his first letter.
“I sat down on my bed and disconnected my telephone,” he says. “Then, to get in the Spanish-writing mood, I put on some tango music. I put my cutting board, which I use as a table and a desk, on my lap. I got my Spanish-English dictionary, and a pad of paper, and I wrote, ‘Querida Gardenia.’”
In her first four letters, Gardenia had written about her family—her construction-worker husband, Livon; her four-year-old daughter Arelis; and her seven-year-old daughter Arletis. Just after sunrise on the morning of June 3, 2003, Arletis had found the Bunnahabhain bottle at Playa Bailén, a beach near the family’s home in the northwestern village of Pinar del Rio. At Arletis’ urging, Gardenia brought the letter into the local hospital where she worked as a nurse and had a coworker translate it.
It took Steve an hour to get just the first page of his translated thoughts onto paper, but he persisted. He explained his relation to Rick, he wrote about his life and work on the boat, and he asked Gardenia to tell him more about her family.
In her first letter to Steve, Gardenia wrote, “We were so surprised to get your letter. We had nearly lost hope.”
Letter after letter, month after month, as the seasons shifted from late summer hurricanes in Cuba to fall forest fires in California, Gardenia and Steve continued to write, inquiring about each other’s health and jobs, and asking after their friends and families. Gardenia sent Steve photos of her family, and he sent her one of him and his boat.
Steve sent the girls colorful animal stickers, which they used to decorate Gardenia’s letters to him, and Gardenia wrote that the girls had taken to calling him Tio Esteban, Uncle Steve. Steve’s story of his connection with the family spread throughout Sausalito’s mariner community.
In turn, Gardenia told all her friends in Pinar del Rio. “Some people say it’s hard to believe,” she wrote Steve. “They say it sounds like the sort of thing that only happens in the movies.”
Stranger in a strange land
Even more movie-like was when, after fifteen months of Steve's correspondence with his Cuban family, the promise of the Bunnahabhain bottle transformed once more, this time into a promise to visit Cuba.