Bottle Message Links Pen Pals Across Atlantic

By MANDY LOCKE

Ten-year-old Dylan Rice has a new pen pal.

This Edgartown school student wasn't exactly looking for an extra hobby; he's pretty busy with school, Cub Scouts and the FARM Institute. But ever since 17-year-old Juan Braìs Garcia Liz had the courtesy to respond to Dylan's message in a bottle, this Vineyard student has been paying extra attention in Spanish class.

"When my dad and I threw the bottle overboard, I thought, ‘I'll never hear back from that,' " said Dylan this week as he read aloud a few sentences from Juan's letter - something he's done at least a hundred times since the airmail note arrived in the family's post office box just over a week ago.

For 15 months, Dylan's bottle - lobbed from the stern of the Martha's Vineyard ferry as the family left the Island on Christmas Day 2001 - floated 2,500 miles across the Atlantic Ocean to Lugo, a province in northwest Spain.

The successful voyage of Dylan's bottle has amazed even the saltiest of Vineyarders. Most bottled messages launched from Vineyard shores make it no farther than Nantucket or the Cape - the rare one drifts to the far reaches of North Carolina. The transatlantic delivery also surprised Juan.

"I would like [to] know you, because it is very unusual to find a letter in the sea," Juan writes in his second-grade-level English. "I'm speak Spanish, but I study English. This letter isn't wrote right because of it."

Philip Richardson, a senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute who specializes in ocean currents, imagines the bottle caught a current that carried it out past Nantucket. From there, the bottle likely floated along the continental shelf, southwest toward Cape Hatteras, where it connected with the Gulf Stream. From there, Mr. Richardson speculates, the bottle meandered eastward, veering north of the Azores Islands. Then Dylan's message floated into the Bay of Biscay, on the northern shore of Spain. A strong wind most likely drove it onto the beach near Juan's small coastal town of Ovaladouro. Fifteen months, Mr. Richardson said, is right on schedule for a delivery such as Dylan's bottle.

This Edgartown boy's entire Cub Scout pack, of which he is now a distinguished Webelo I, dropped messages in bottles off Vineyard shores as part of a task to earn their communications patch. The Scouts filled out cards with their names and addresses, stuffed them in old wine bottles and sealed the tops with candle wax. Only one more of the 20 Cubs in Pack 94 heard back from this barrage of sea mail. His bottle made it all the way to Cape Cod.

Dylan admits he'd nearly forgotten the message in the bottle until his mom, Linda, tossed an piece of airmail into his lap last week after an trip to the post office.

"Eew - I thought, ‘What the heck is that?' Did you know that means United States?" Dylan asks, pointing to his address on the envelope.

Dylan says he's never known anyone who lives in a foreign country before, but his "neighbor moved to Florida" not too long ago.

"I hope [Juan] can come and visit," Dylan said, suggesting that this teenage Spaniard could sleep in the empty bottom bunk in his room.

In the meantime, Dylan's putting some extra effort into his Spanish lessons, a course he's been taking since first grade. The fourth grader's Spanish teacher, Maria Parker, stayed after school with him Monday to craft a reply to Juan's letter. His extra project, Dylan bragged, earned him a golden homework pass - an exemption from at least one other assignment.

"I told him how old I am. I told him I live on an Island in Massachusetts. I told him he speaks very good English and writes well, too. I think his handwriting is really nice," Dylan says.

Dylan mailed both the English and Spanish versions of his letter to his new pen pal. The Cub Scout already has another round of questions for his next letter to Juan - how did the bottle look when it arrived? Does he have an older brother, too? Did he save the bottle?

The next exchanges between Dylan and his Spanish friend will likely not take as long or even cost as much as an airmail stamp. The two have swapped e-mail addresses.