Fisherman finds 36-year-old message in a bottle and tracks down sender

A blast from the past.

It was June 10, 1981.

MTV didn't exist yet. It was set to launch later that summer. Anticipation was high for the summer blockbuster set to release later that week: Raiders of the Lost Ark. Grolsch beer, in its dark brown bottle and swing top, was riding a wave of summer popularity. 

It was a stifling hot summer day in Fernandina Beach, Fla. As temperatures climbed towards 99°, a brown glass bottle sailed through the air and landed in the Amelia River, just off the Atlantic Coast. Inside, a handwritten letter with a simple request from a simpler time: 

"This bottle was set adrift off Fernandina Beach, Florida on the 10th of June, 1981. To the finder, I would appreciate it if you would respond as to where, when and found by whom. My permanent address is as follows on the back. Thanks, Douglas H. Stephens"

A Chamblee, Ga. address was captured in perfect blue ink on the back side of the ripped-off white paper. It stayed there for 36 years.  

June 17, 2017.

Ryan Burchett was fishing at his favorite spot on Little St. Simons with family and friends. The group was walking along the shore looking for seashells when Burchett saw a glimmer of brown glass.

"I knew it looked a little different," he said. "When I held it up to the sun, I could see a note inside." He popped the top, but the swing top separated from the cork. It fell to pieces, with the note still trapped inside.

"I thought, 'How in the world am I going to get this out?'" he said. But he had to know what that note said. Eventually, he was able to wrap the paper around a stick and pull it out. When he saw the note was more than three decades old from a beach about 40 miles away, he was shocked. 

"I think it probably landed near Little St. Simons years ago and has been sitting at the bottom all this time, " he said. 

He was determined to follow through on that simple request but wasn't sure where to start. A quick search showed the Chamblee address listed had been bought and sold several times since the 1980's. A friend suggested he harness the power of social media.

There was just one problem: Ryan Burchett wasn't on Facebook.

A mutual friend suggested he ask the Southeast Adventure Outfitters in town to post the note. They did. More than 1500 shares and hundreds of comments, tags, and connections later, Burchett made a phone call to the man behind the message: Douglas Stephens. 

Stephens hadn't seen the photos of his long-ago message in a bottle. He too is not on Facebook. 

"Incredible," Burchett describes the conversation he had with Stephens. The two men shared memories of Little St. Simons and Amelia Island, where Stephens had vacationed growing up. 

Every pair of hands that touched this bottle wanted to make one thing clear: it's a great story, but not one they want people to repeat. "Don't throw stuff in the ocean," Burchett said. "It stays there forever. "

The two men connected by a handwritten request, an old beer bottle, and (reluctantly) by social media will meet in person later this summer. Burchett wants to return the piece of memorabilia. 

It takes them both back to that hot summer on the coast. When summer vacations were chronicled by torn pieces of paper instead of Facebook posts. 

© 2017 WXIA-TV


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