Message in a bottle hunter Clint Buffington uncorks a mystery

Clint Buffington of Utah has found more than 100 messages in bottles across North America and the Caribbean, and now he’s on a mission to reunite one particular message with its mysterious senders.

Buffington, a musician and former writing teacher who chronicles his maritime discoveries on his Message in a Bottle Hunter blog, said his fascination with messages in bottles stems from his childhood curiosities.

“When I was a kid I had this dream of meeting every person on Earth, and I used to do these ridiculous calculations trying to figure out how long that would take and how long I could spend with each person before I would die,” Buffington told UPI in a Zoom interview. “And you know, it became clear to me that that wasn’t possible.”

Buffington said his hobby of collecting messages in bottles reawakened some of those same feelings.

“Now, I’m meeting these people who I never would have met before, caring about places that I never cared about before. When I hear something on the news about Northeast England or some place in France, it wouldn’t have registered for me at all, but now I have friends in these places, and that never would have happened any other way.”

Family of hunters

Buffington’s obsession with collecting originated with his family of “hunters,” he said.

“I grew up in a family that was very outdoorsy and we called everything ‘hunting.’ So we’d go ‘mushroom hunting’ when we were looking for edible mushrooms. People call that ‘foraging’ now. We called it ‘hunting.'”

The family would go “hunting” for wild-grown foods, wild flowers, geodes, sea shells and shark teeth.

“We would tag that word onto because it, you know, makes it sound cool,” he said.

Buffington said his father became the family’s first successful message in a bottle hunter in 2006.

“He found it with my mom, and it was really freaking old. It was from 1959,” Buffington said.

The bottle was one of 150,000 launched by the Guinness Brewery in Ireland to promote a new type of stout beer.

“And, as they planned, they washed up on shores all over the world, and word spread,” Buffington said. “People are still finding them. I found two of them, and the last one I found was probably three or four years ago. So they’re still washing up.”

Buffington said he hadn’t realized messages in bottles were a real phenomenon until his father’s discovery.

“Growing up, I’d always — anytime we went on these family vacations to the beach — dreamed of finding a message in a bottle. And I don’t know why because I didn’t know about the Sting song, [and] the Nicholas Sparks book hadn’t even been written yet,” Buffington said, referring to The Police’s 1992 song Message in a Bottle and Sparks’ 1998 novel of the same name.

Buffington said he was with his father when he discovered his first message in a bottle on a Caribbean island in 2007, right after he graduated from college.

“I looked over and I saw this bright blue wine bottle lying on the beach,” he said. “I only picked it up because my brother’s favorite color is blue, and he’s always collecting blue sea glass.”

Buffington saw the bottle contained a sheet of paper and a pair of $1 bills. He said the discovery brought back that childhood memory of hunting.

“That same feeling came back to me at that moment. I was like, ‘Yeah, OK, got it. Now I know how to do this, and there’s got to be more,'” he said. “It just kind of went from there. I figured the key ingredient was effort, so I just kept walking and found more and more, and then it was now.”

Looking for two authors

Buffington, whose years of hunting have yielded 104 messages in bottles, is trying to find the authors of a message in a bottle he found on a Caribbean island in February.

The message, dated June 8, 2018, reads: “The finder of this message will be visited by good luck! Put in the Atlantic Ocean by boat many miles out to sea, east of Jacksonville, Florida.”

The message is signed “Becky (Washington, D.C.) & Jim (Portland, Ore.).”

Buffington said he found the bottle on an unnamed key in the British West Indies, and his analysis of ocean currents indicates it would have had to have crossed to European waters and floated south to Africa before crossing the ocean again to end up in the Caribbean.

“There’s so much fallibility in any given bottle — the strength of the bottle, the way it’s closed, whether it’s a cork or a screw-on cap or whatever, it’s really amazing that any of them survive at all for any length,” he said.

“These things, they often arrive pretty beat up. That particular bottle was just very tough and had a real cork in it, so that helped preserve it.”

The message listed an email address for the finder to contact the authors, but Buffington never received a response. He posted about his find on social media and his blog, but even a TV news story that ran in the Portland area failed to turn up any leads.

He said the mystery has captured his imagination.

“Here’s the heart of the mystery to me: One of them lives in Portland, one of them lives in D.C. What are they doing together on a boat off the coast of Florida? The story in my mind is they both took a cruise without knowing each other, met on the boat, and decided to commemorate that happy meeting with a message in a bottle. Or possibly they’re old friends, who knows?” he said.

Success stories

A TV news report previously helped Buffington locate a man who signed his message “Ray from Philly.”

“I contacted the news there and they ran the story,” he said. “He was just watching, kind of dozing off watching the 10 o’clock news, and all of a sudden this story comes on and is like, ‘This man is looking for Ray from Philly’ and he’s like, ‘What? Ray from Philly? Message in a bottle? Carnival [cruise]? That’s mine!’ And so, sure enough, he got in touch with me the next day.”

Buffington’s other success stories include a bottle he found in 2019 that was launched in 2009 by a filmmaker who was accompanying Stephanie Geyer-Barneix, Alexandra Lux and Flora Manciet on their Guinness World Record-breaking paddleboard journey from Canada to France.

“They would paddle, one person on the paddleboard at a time, for two hours. The other two would be resting on the boat, and then they’d switch out the next person for two hours –day and night. They never stopped for 54 days,” Buffington said. “That’s amazing!”

Buffington said his past successes with social media and news reports only have made Becky and Jim’s message more mysterious.

“I don’t know what I’m more surprised by — the fact that this usually works quickly, or the fact that this time it’s not,” he said.

Anyone with information on Becky from Washington and Jim from Portland can contact Buffington on his Facebook page.