Couple finds, answers 9-year-old message in bottle

Posted: Monday, July 12, 2004

ANCHORAGE - The bottle, a small squat one with a short, narrow neck and a screw-on cap, was wedged in a knot of drift logs high on a beach on Afognak Island.

Through the clear glass, Sue Salvoni could see a rolled paper inside. Printed lines and numbers suggested a page from a day planner. The small characters were probably Japanese, Salvoni thought. On its reverse side, she could make out faint handwriting, also Japanese.

Salvoni didn't know it, but she had closed a loop, a connection across nine years and thousands of miles of ocean to a 19-year-old Japanese fisherman.

Maybe out of boredom as he stood watch one night aboard a vessel in the Pacific near Micronesia, the fisherman sealed notes inside 10 bottles and threw them into the sea.

Months after her discovery on Afognak, Salvoni would learn that she had found the only one of the 10 so far known to have reached human hands. She and her boyfriend, who walked elsewhere on the beach that day, were thus the only ones who could answer the questions of Kiyokazu Miyashita: "I wonder who will find this letter, when will this letter be found, years later or months later?"

The note in the bottle led to an exchange of correspondence. Miyashita sent a photograph of his family. His son, he said, was born July 14, which chanced to be one month after Salvoni found the bottle. The boy was named Kaito, or "ocean voyage."

In an age when strangers across the globe can hook up in an instant through e-mail, Salvoni and Miyashita connected on the whims of timeless sea currents.

Salvoni, 30, and her boyfriend, Dave Sarafin, 41, have an Anchorage home but stay often in Glennallen, where they are building a cabin. She's a massage therapist, he's a fisheries biologist. The two met seven years ago while weightlifting in Kodiak.

Sarafin keeps a 25-foot sailboat there, and the two spend time on it whenever they can. They explore old wrecks, "just things that have some age," said Salvoni, and go beachcombing. They've found small glass balls and "lots of Asian things, hats, flip-flops, lots of plastic things with Japanese writing," she said.

Last summer, the couple took a few days around Salvoni's birthday, June 15, to sail around Seal Bay, on Afognak's northeast coast. They spent one night anchored in a small inlet just west of the bay. The next morning, in fog, they rowed a Zodiac to shore to search the beach. The inlet opens to the northeast, so nor'easters have thrown lots of stuff up onto the shore at its head, Sarafin said.

He was combing another part of the beach when Salvoni found what she calls a saki bottle, "kind of small and squatty, no bigger than 6 inches." The aluminum cap was corroded, she said, and the bottle held about a teaspoon of liquid. The sheet of paper was half wet and yellowed.

"I thought we'd have (Sarafin's) sister-in-law translate," Salvoni said.

Sarafin's older brother, Jim, is married to a Japanese citizen. Setsuko Sarafin, 53, works as a cultural affairs specialist for the Japanese consulate in Anchorage.

Five months would pass before the two couples could get together at Sarafin's and Salvoni's Anchorage home where they had kept the bottle. Salvoni had no strong interest in removing the note, so the bottle had stayed shut in a closet.

But on Nov. 22, everyone was finally gathered in Anchorage for the televised football game between Michigan and Ohio State, the Sarafin brothers' alma mater. Two grown children of Jim and Setsuko Sarafin also were present for the pre-Thanksgiving dinner.

Salvoni brought out the bottle and opened it. But she couldn't remove the note. It was still damp and tore easily. Each of the six people gave it a try, using chopsticks. But when they pulled, the note would tear. Salvoni didn't mind leaving it be.

"I thought it was neat the way it was," she said. "I didn't have to read it."

But Setsuko and the others were too curious. Dave Sarafin asked if he could break the glass, and Salvoni said OK. He put the bottle in a box and tapped the box with a hammer. The bottle cracked open without damaging the paper. Most of the unrolled note was unreadable.

"We could see the word 'Japan,' but half the address was missing," Salvoni said. "I was very skeptical about being able to read it," Setsuko said.

The day-planner side was legible. The narrow sheet included a notation for Father's Day, so the month was June. As the paper began to dry, however, the handwriting on its opposite side started to appear.

"It keeps coming up," Setsuko said. She got excited, she said, telling the others: "I think I can read this part, I think I can read this part."

Eventually, the entire message, a short one written in pencil, lay before them, including a full return address. Based on the penmanship, Setsuko figured it was written by a boy or a man.

She translated: "August 1994.

"If you find this letter, please write me back. My name is Kiyokazu Miyashita. I wonder who will find this letter, when will this letter be found, years later or months later. If you find this letter, let me know where you found it."

Salvoni wanted to reply but feared a letter would not find Miyashita at the same address. More than nine years had gone by. But Setsuko Sarafin thought otherwise.

She figured the man's mother or another relative would still be living at the same home and would find Miyashita.

Or even better. "If he's the eldest son," Setsuko said, "he'd be staying with his parents. So I was confident."

Salvoni and Sarafin spent the next week Outside. On the flight back to Anchorage on Nov. 29, she took a note card with a cover photograph of the aurora and wrote a short message to Miyashita, telling him they lived in Glennallen and liked to go sailing often, which is how they found his bottle.

Setsuko added a Japanese translation of the message and added to the outside of the envelope a plea to forward it if needed.

In mid-January, a letter from Miyashita arrived. Again Setsuko translated.

Miyashita was surprised, he wrote: "I never dreamt that I would receive a letter from a person who found one of my bottles. It's amazing that my bottle reached you after a long journey."

He said he was now 29 and included a photo of himself, his wife and Kaito, the child whose name means "ocean voyage."

He added a map showing roughly where he had dropped the bottle and a map of Japan with an arrow pointing to "my home."

Based on the maps, he had been in the central Pacific about 1,600 miles from home when he dropped the bottle, and it had traveled northeast at least 4,000 miles.

Miyashita also sent a clipping from a Japanese newspaper about a bottle placed in the water by an American. It had wandered the ocean for four years before a Japanese child found it.

"A few weeks ago I just happened to be talking with my wife and my father about the bottles. I was wondering what happened to them." He was feeling a sense of mystery, he wrote.

He said his father is a fisherman. Miyashita had attended a marine school and, after graduating, worked on a fishing boat for two years. He was on the boat one night with "spare time" on his hands when he filled the bottles with messages and sent them off.

"Do you work, Ms. Salvoni?" Miyashita wrote. "Is sailing your hobby? Please let us know about yourself. It would be wonderful if we could write to each other."

Salvoni said she and Setsuko Sarafin had had too little time together since January to work on another letter. But she recently wrote Miyashita a letter and was going to give it to Setsuko for translation.

The plan was to send him the letter, its translation and a package including maps of Kodiak and Afognak islands, photos of Salvoni and Sarafin and the boat, and a photo of the boat at anchor in the inlet where they found his bottle.

Salvoni had much to say, because Miyashita's letter is filled with questions.

"Did you receive my bottle on the beach, or in the ocean? If you found it along the coast, I wonder how long it had been there. If you found it on the ocean, the bottle would have been floating for 10 years."

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