ANCHORAGE - On a cold day more than three years ago, Jacoby Angleton was working as a roustabout on a dock at the Tesoro plant in Nikiski when a gust of wind lifted his favorite hard hat off his head and tossed it into the icy inlet waters below.
He watched it drift away, upside down, in the dark water, lost at sea. That was late 2005 or early 2006.
Then, long after he'd forgotten all about his lucky hat, the now 23-year-old oil-services worker based on the North Slope got a recent e-mail on his MySpace account from a California woman whose curiosity was piqued when she found the hat, still bearing his name, while she was walking on a beach near San Francisco.
"There's something about the mystery of finding stuff and you always wonder where it came from," said Sparrow Baranyai, a 47-year-old employee at the Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel in Pescadero, Calif., roughly 55 miles south of San Francisco. "It just was such an unusual thing to find that I had to dig further."
Baranyai Googled Angleton's name, found him through his MySpace Page and shot him an e-mail. After Angleton told her how and exactly where he lost the hat, she went to check it out on a map, she said.
"I just tracked it down and went, 'That's amazing, just amazing,' " she said.
Turns out, it may have traveled even farther than she suspected.
Most flotsam in the North Pacific gets caught up in the Pacific Subarctic Gyre - a 7,200-nautical-mile, swirling ocean current stretching from Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula to Southeast Alaska, said Curtis Ebbesmeyer, a Seattle-based oceanographer who studies currents.
Debris floating on the high seas travels, on average, about eight to 10 miles per day, and it takes an average of about three years for most debris to circumnavigate the gyre, he said.
"The average for many, many hundreds of objects is three years ... to go all the way around, and another half year to get down to California, so it fits," Ebbesmeyer said.
The gyre has famously kicked about all manner of flotsam. Back in 1990, a vessel lost 80,000 pairs of Nikes in high seas between Korea and the West Coast, many of which later washed up on the West Coast.
Then in 1992, a violent storm tossed thousands of rubber ducks, turtles and frogs off a cargo ship between China and Seattle. Some of them wound up in Alaska. Others are still circulating the high seas, Ebbesmeyer said.
Some debris, however, gets kicked out of the rotation when summer winds push south along the West Coast. That flotsam moves down the coast until joining with the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, which circulates from California to the Philippines.
The hard hat was apparently in the right position along the gyre when winds hit it, he said.
"The winds would start blowing from the north in July or August," Ebbesmeyer said. "The winds kicked it out of the Subarctic Gyre and it went down and started to go around the Subtropical Gyre, but somehow it got kicked into California."
Then, on March 30, Baranyai was walking the beach cleaning up plastic when she wandered into a cove only accessible at low tide in which she sometimes finds interesting shells and sea glass.
It was a little before noon when she found the hat, up on the beach and away from the surf, in "amazing condition," she said. Angleton's name was still intact and the stickers he had affixed to it were slightly torn but still legible, she said.
When Angleton got Baranyai's e-mail, he at first didn't reply, thinking it might have been a hat he had lost on the Slope.
Then Baranyai e-mailed him again and he got leery, wondering if it was a scam. He recalled that his lucky hard hat was white, had a label of his name on front and had North Road Racing, Kenai refinery and union stickers affixed. He asked Baranyai to describe it, and she did "to the T," he said.
"It's been a long time, so I was like, OK, it's got to be that hat because there's no other hard hat I dropped in the water," Angleton said. "I was really bummed out about it for a while because it was my favorite hard hat, but I thought it was gone forever."
Baranyai said she plans to send the hat home.