ANCHORAGE - Enough soggy Nike basketball shoes to outfit every high school team in the state are drifting through the Pacific Ocean toward Alaska after spilling from a container ship off Northern California.
There's just one hitch to finding a free pair.
"Nike forgot to tie the laces, so you have to find mates," said Curtis Ebbesmeyer, an oceanographer who tracks sneakers, toys and other flotsam across the sea. "The effort's worth it 'cause these Nikes have only been adrift a few months. All 33,000 are wearable."
A beachcomber told Ebbesmeyer about the shoe spill after finding two new blue-and-white EZW men's shoes washed up on Washington's Olympic Peninsula in January.
Unfortunately for the finder, they were sizes 10 1/2 and 8 1/2 - and both were lefts.
A little research by Ebbesmeyer confirmed that a ship lost cargo Dec. 15 during a storm off Cape Mendocino, including three 40-foot containers each carrying an estimated 5,500 pairs of shoes.
"Nikes will be soon in your neck of the sea," Ebbesmeyer said in an e-mail message to the Anchorage Daily News last week.
The Washington scientist studies currents by charting the paths taken by lost cargo. Over the past decade, Ebbesmeyer has tracked 29,000 duckies, turtles and other bathtub toys; 3 million tiny Legos; 34,000 hockey gloves; and 50,000 Nike cross-trainers that went overboard in the Pacific in 1999. He and federal oceanographer Jim Ingraham have published their results in academic journals as well as Ebbesmeyer's newsletter Beachcombers' Alert.
Though fun, the endeavor has a serious side, offering oceanographers insight into sea and wind patterns over a given period.
Last fall, Ebbesmeyer and Ingraham analyzed the drift of the derelict squid boat Genei Maru from the middle of the Pacific Ocean to its grounding on Afognak Island. They found evidence that currents were veering much farther north than normal.
This time, Ebbesmeyer took the serial numbers off the shoes to trace the shipment. Nike officials told him the shoes, made at an Indonesian factory last fall, were being shipped from Los Angeles to Tacoma, Wash., when the vessel hit 25-foot seas about 30 to 40 miles offshore. On Dec. 15, the vessel rolled hard and at least 10 containers tumbled into the sea, Ebbesmeyer said. Once the containers broke open, the shoes were bobbing in the Davidson Current, which runs north along the Pacific Coast during winter and fall.
After two shoes washed ashore on the Olympic Peninsula in January, Ebbesmeyer calculated they had moved more than 450 miles in a month - up to 18 miles a day.
If the shoe flotilla keeps advancing north at the same pace, Ebbesmeyer calculated, the Nikes could bob and weave another 1,600 miles by the time the current eases in mid-April.
That might sprinkle basketball shoes into tidal gunk along Gulf of Alaska and Aleutian coasts.
"It mystifies me why more have not shown up," Ebbesmeyer said.
The Beachcombers Alert newsletter is on the Internet at www.beachcombers.org.