Why lobster buoys end up in Europe

First published in Landings, June, 2015.

Everyone has read stories about the castaway sailor who writes a message in a bottle, then tosses it in the sea in hopes that the currents will take it to some distant shore and he will be rescued. While there aren’t too many castaway sailors in the cold North Atlantic Ocean at the moment (thankfully), a number of lobster buoys and other gear are heading across the Atlantic to make landfall in Europe.

A buoy of Boothbay lobsterman Mark Jones (lat. 43.87 N., long. 69.63 W.), managed to make its way across the ocean to Scotland. On April 26, a beachcomber on Scotland’s west coast found the buoy, which had its license number still visible, in the Bay of Skaill (lat. 59.35 N., long. 2.95 W.). He posted information about it on his Facebook page where Jones’ daughter eventually found it. The Scottish man offered to return the buoy to Jones, who declined.

MJones FB Buoy

This Facebook page led to the identification of Mark Jones’ buoy.

In 2012, Gerard O’Malley, proprietor of a ferry service on the west coast of Ireland, found a buoy which bore the name and phone number of Stephen Robbins Jr. of Stonington (lat. 44.04 N., long. 68.62 W.). O’Malley tossed the buoy in his shed for a year or so, then unearthed it to serve as a fender on his ferry running to Inishturk and Clare Island (lat. 52.84 N., long. 8.98 W.), where he had first found it. A local fisherman took a picture of the buoy and posted it to a Facebook page. Robbins was surprised when he learned of the find, given that the phone number on the buoy was 13 years out of date.

It may seem that there’s an invisible pipeline carrying buoys from the Gulf of Maine to the British Isles. That hypothetical pipeline is actually the Gulf Stream, explained Jim Manning, an oceanographer at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Massachusetts. “It is not surprising at all that buoys end up there. Given both the Gulf Stream and the prevailing winds, the trip is typically less than a year,” he explained in an email. “That time is quite variable, however. It can be on the order of a few months to a few years.”

Other people are taking advantage of the eastward drift to help students understand oceanography. Retired physical therapist and life-long sailor Dick Baldwin of Lincolnville started Educational Passages in 2008. His goal was to encourage interest among children in the complexities of the world’s oceans. Through Educational Passages, students build and rig four-foot model ships, which are then launched from volunteer vessels into the Atlantic from Maine, Florida, Bermuda, and the Canary Islands. The boats are equipped with GPS units that broadcast their location twice each day.

Since the program’s start, 40 boats have been built and launched. Most were tracked via GPS and recovered after they landed in Europe, the Caribbean, Cuba, Bahamas, Panama, Newfoundland, and Nova Scotia. In April one model, called the Mighty Spartan, was found on the northwest coast of Ireland. The model was built by the fifth and sixth grade class at Lake Forest Central Elementary School in Felton, Delaware and launched by a freighter headed to Bermuda in mid-November, 2014. From there it managed a speedy four-and-a-half-month trip to Ireland, where it was found on a beach in Strandhill (lat. 54.27 N., long. 8.95 W.), near Sligo, on March 31. Its sail had been damaged, but otherwise the boat was in good shape. Manning credited the quick voyage to the facts that the sail stayed in one piece and that it started its trip right in the Gulf Stream.

Another student-built boat model, called the Crimson Wave, was launched from the same freighter. This boat found its way further north, landing somewhere on the Orkney Island of Papa Westray (lat. 59.35 N., long. -2.90 W.) on April 25.

You can see the tracks of the model boats deployed last year and in previous years at the Web site http://www.nefsc.noaa.gov/drifter/drift_ep_2014_3.html.