“Theft of this property and/or its contents is punishable by law. A fine and/or imprisonment may result.”
Nothing makes an object instantly desirable like the threat of imprisonment. Quickly clearing the wet sand off this plastic threat, the orange tag was soon concealed in my pocket.
I had come to the Atlantic coast of Cornwall. Staying in a caravan nestled in the dunes, I was desperate to be the first set of footprints walking along the sand each day. The lunar calendar dictated my waking hours and with much excitement, I had the freedom to pick and poke my way along the tideline like a hungry gull.
During the week, my tideline walks had yielded many of the trophies typical of a Cornish beach clean: Lego from a 1997 container spill; shards of pink plastic detergent bottles; a battered HP printer cartridge. Each of these objects had a traceable story but that morning, I had found something altogether more exciting.
I immediately recognised the significance of my orange tag from The Wrecking Season. In this gentle film, the late Nick Darke explores a variety of objects washing ashore on Cornwall’s rugged Atlantic coast, one of which being an identical orange tag. Nick explains that these tags would once have been attached to a lobster trap, enforced by the State of Maine Department of Marine Resources who stress that ‘all lobster traps, both commercial and non-commercial must have current State issued tags installed on them’.
For Nick, every high tide presented an inquisitive challenge. He believed that “the sea decides what you pick up – everything is random, you chase the story – you have to be curious – there is order in the chaos – the sea is telling you something, something very important but you just never quite find out what it is.”
Remembering Nick’s words, I relished the challenge ahead of me. I was holding the name of a real person living on the opposite side of the Atlantic. JARED BERTRAND 2495 was out there beyond the horizon, and probably at that moment, eating his breakfast. I had to make contact with him and explain his tag had travelled some 3000 miles across the Atlantic to the south westerly tip of England. The North Atlantic Current, feeding the Gulf Stream, had brought it to my feet across a vast expanse of water on a warm May morning.
Jared’s lobster pot tag isn’t the only object to have made this epic journey. Educational Passages is a US based company providing schools with small GPS equipped boats. They work with teachers in the hope that ‘students end up connecting with one another and are able to learn a bit about the world as well as their own identities’. Two of these boats have arrived in Wales and Guernsey, crossing the Atlantic from South Carolina. To find something carried by the natural force of the tides from one community to another makes for a very special human connection.
When I was at school, I recall having a penpal in Australia and devouring her evocative letters as she spoke about her sun-filled life on the other side of the planet. These satellite tracked boats seem a more advanced version of a letter bearing exotic stamps arriving on the doormat.
Utilising ocean currents to communicate is nothing new. During the 1890’s, residents of St Kilda, the most westerly islands of the Outer Hebrides, used their resourcefulness to send ‘mailboats‘ to the Scottish mainland on these reliable movements of water.
One such mailboat in the National Maritime Museum Greenwich is described as ‘a boat-shaped block of wood with hollowed out interior, closed by a swing lid.’ The words ‘St Kilda MAIL BOAT LETTERS INSIDE’ are burned onto its surface and the container would have been attached to a float made from a sheep’s bladder. The Museum explains that the mail ‘usually reached the mainland within a day or two but on occasions was picked up in Iceland and even Denmark’.
Like the family who found the US message boat in Wales, I felt an insatiable need to make contact with Jared the Fisherman. There exists a very human desire to find out about other people; a curiosity surrounds how other people live in different places and as we learn about their cultures, we can better understand ourselves.
Trying to track Jared down, I headed to the most obvious global resource – Facebook. Posting a message on the All Things Lobstering group, I waited. After a few messages from people living in his neighbourhood, I had his phone number. Before I could question whether this was a sensible idea, I typed a quick text message explaining I had found his orange tag and hit send. Only then it occurred to me that he may not want to be contacted. What if he was a peculiar individual who wasn’t very friendly?
A phone call and numerous texts later, I had learnt that Jared was born the same year as me. He fishes for crab and lobster out of Cundy’s Harbour, Maine using 800 traps. He has two sons and is the third generation fisherman in his family. And I’m pleased to report, he was glad to hear from me.
Jared and I now exchange messages and can expect a near instant response, thanks to the Internet. Advanced communication networks have certainly made the world seem smaller. However, when I imagine that small piece of plastic coming loose from its lobster pot in Maine, making a journey of thousands of miles through wild, tempestuous seas before finally coming to rest on the soft, Cornish sand, I am in awe of its amazing transatlantic journey. That it should arrive during the week I happened to be in Cornwall reveals a stark truth in what Nick Darke meant when he said ‘the sea decides what you pick up’.
To close with Nick’s words, I had chased the story. I often think of his beachcombing philosophy when walking the tideline and gazing out to sea. In that vast expanse of water, the sea chooses when to reveal its stories. Orphaned objects are washing ashore twice a day, every day, and this will continue long after we have gone. Through considering these future relics, each with a history of how they came to be in the sea, perhaps we are all more connected than we will ever realise. I can only wonder what will happen to these stories when our sandy footprints have been washed from the shore, and all that remains is a flotilla of lost objects.