Nearly 20 Years Later, Message In A Bottle From Nantucket Found In West Indies

Jason Graziadei •

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Cassidy Beach and Pennel Ames on Nantucket last Friday holding the letter Beach sent to him after discovering his message in a bottle on South Caicos in the West Indies.

University of Michigan senior Cassidy Beach was studying on the remote island of South Caicos in the West Indies in April when she stumbled upon a message in a bottle. It was lodged in a pile of marine debris on a deserted cliff. When she returned to her school on the other side of the island and smashed the bottle open, Beach and her classmates were astonished.

Inside was a letter dated Sept. 30, 2004, signed by Nantucket fisherman Pennel Ames. The bottle had been tossed into the Atlantic Ocean nearly 20 years ago. It had been floating with the letter inside it and stranded undiscovered on West Caicos for almost as long as Beach had been alive.

She and her classmates, of course, immediately started Googling to try to learn more about the man who wrote the letter, and they discovered what many on Nantucket already know: Ames is something of a serial message-in-a-bottle thrower. For a six-year stretch during his career as a commercial fisherman, Ames and his wife Sharon threw hundreds of bottles off his boat into the waters off Nantucket. And those bottles have traveled all over the vast Atlantic Ocean. They have been discovered in such far-flung places as Ireland, France, England, Cuba, Bermuda, and Louisiana, and he’s received dozens, if not hundreds, of responses from those who have found them.

So Beach did what the letter asked: she wrote back to Ames to tell him his message had been found. As chance would have it, Beach had accepted an internship in Woods Hole, MA with NOAA this summer. When Ames replied to her letter with a phone number, Beach called back. Naturally, the Ameses invited her to come out to Nantucket for a visit.

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Cassidy Beach holds the message in a bottle she found on South Caicos.

And so Beach found herself on the island last week, the guest of the Ames family at their cottage in Surfside where she learned more about the island and Pennel’s unlikely hobby that led to their chance meeting.

She told the Current how she discovered the bottle three months ago on South Caicos.

“I rode by myself to the other side of the island, the windward side, so I knew there would be a lot of garbage and marine debris there,” Beach recalled. “No one ever goes over there. There are random cliffs, and I was walking through all the shrubs. I noticed a big pile of marine debris down on the ledge of one of the cliffs, so I climbed down there to sift through it. Sometimes I pick stuff up to make art or whatever. I saw a bottle, it was still corked and perfectly clean with no barnacles on it. And then I could see there was a letter in it.”

She got on her bicycle and rode back to her school as quickly as possible to show the 30-plus students and staff at her school.

“Everyone was super excited,” she said. “I went out front and cracked it open. It was right before dinner so everyone was congregated there. I read it aloud and everyone was asking questions and looking it up. We eventually found an article about Pennel and Sharon.”

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Cassidy Beach holding Pennel Ames' letter, dated Sept. 2004.

For Pennel and Sharon Ames, getting a response back from one of their messages in a bottle was not unusual. But what made this one special was the age - nearly 20 years old - as well as the distance it had traveled, and the fact that they had the opportunity to meet Beach. It was one of the oldest in terms of time lapsed since he dropped it in the ocean, and it was only the second time he had the opportunity to meet the person who found one of his messages in a bottle.

At their cottage last Friday, Pennel and Sharon told Beach how they started throwing messages in bottles off his boat in 2000.

“There were so many trials and errors,” Sharon said, as Pennel described how many of them didn’t make it or were discovered with moldy letters inside the bottle. And so they decided to raise the bar by purchasing a professional corker and synthetic corks. Those investments paid off, as the Ames started to receive numerous replies from the bottles they dropped off Pennel’s boat offshore from Nantucket.

But how and why did they start such a hobby? Pennel said his former mate told him about a high school kid throwing a message in a bottle off the Steamship decades ago.

“One of the kid’s bottles went long - somewhere other than Massachusetts,” Pennel Ames recalled. “I said ‘Oh, that sounds like fun’!”

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The remote South Caicos beach where Pennel Ames' message in a bottle was found by Cassidy Beach in April 2023.
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