Walter Schafran Tracks Current Events by Throwing Bottles

updated 10/29/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 10/29/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

Most mornings when Walter Schafran heads for his mailbox in Port Ludlow, Wash., he rounds up the usual suspects: bills, catalogs and Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes offers. But every once in a while he receives an envelope plastered with exotic stamps and an often indecipherable postmark. The letter is invariably from someone he has never met, but Schafran knows exactly what it contains—"a note," in his words, "from Neptune's post office."

Ever since Schafran was a boy canoeing up and down the Hudson River, he has loved the sea. And ever since he was the master of a cargo ship in 1946, Schafran has been tossing bottles into the sea. At first he heaved them as part of a government program designed to track ocean currents. When the government switched to more sophisticated methods of measurement, Schafran, now 74, was unable to give up the habit. Over the years, he estimates, he has tossed more than 500 bottles, each containing a note with his address and a request for information about when and where the flask was found.

Schafran gets responses from just 5 percent of his drifting data-seekers. His best-traveled bottle bobbed from Costa Rica to Malaysia—more than 10,000 nautical miles. "Remarkable," says Schafran, tracing on a chart that he keeps tacked to a wall at home the path that he thinks the bottle took. "It had to cross the Pacific, then dodge the Philippines to get there."

Schafran retired from the Coast Guard in 1971, but still takes at least one cruise aboard a freighter every year. In 1984, while he and his wife of 35 years, Mary, were en route to England, they pitched a bottle overboard off the West Coast. Three weeks later Mary had a heart attack and died. Last November, 5½ years later, Walter received the form from that bottle, which had washed up in the Philippines.

Two advantages of his mailing method, Schafran notes, are that he doesn't need stamps and that, aboard a freighter, he's seldom at a loss for one of his oceangoing envelopes. "I use empty wine and whiskey bottles," says Schafran. "There are enough of those on board to float the ship."

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