Most of us have never found a message in a bottle washed up on the beach. It can seem like such a romanticized fantasy, something made up for pirate movies, that no one really finds in real life.
But Clint Buffington, from Salt Lake City, Utah, knows they’re very real—and can have powerful effects on people’s lives. Since finding his first message in 2007, he’s become dedicated to tracking them down, becoming known as the “Message in a Bottle Hunter.” He’s found more than 80!
“Time after time, I am amazed by the power of these bottled notes,” Buffington wrote on his website. “They may seem silly to some, but messages in bottles have the power to connect people in a profound way. They create real friendships between strangers all the time.”
One message he found in 2011 proved that he was right.
Buffington was vacationing in Turks and Caicos when he found a soda bottle washed up on the sand with a note inside. It wasn’t the first message in a bottle he had found—but it seemed like a particularly old one.
“[I found] this coke bottle half buried in the sand—looked like it had been there since the beginning of time.”
He opened the bottle. He could just barely make out the message:
“Return to 419 Ocean Boulevard and receive a reward of $150 from Tina, the owner of Beachcomber.”
He estimated that the message was about 50 years old.
Of all the bottles Buffington found, he had never tracked down a sender before—but he knew this time was different. It wasn’t about claiming the reward—but given the age of the message, he thought it would have sentimental value to someone.
“I’ve never given one back to someone,” he told ABC News. “But in this case I knew it was the right thing to do.
“Just imagine it was a letter from your parents.”
He thought he had enough information from the note—he had the address, and the name of something called the Beachcomber. However, the search turned out to be more difficult than he thought.
“There is an Ocean Boulevard in every state on the coast,” he told ABC News.
“I didn’t know if Beachcomber was the name of a boat or a restaurant.”
It took extensive research to finally get a lead. But Buffington eventually tracked down a deed of sale for a property at that address—the Beachcomber Motel, operated by Paul and Tina Tsiatsios. Tina, owner of the Beachcomber. It had to be them.
Sadly, it was far too late to return the letter to its original sender: Tina had died in 1980, and Paul had died in 1990.
However, he was able to track down their daughter, Paula Pierce, who was living in New Hampshire. He decided to return it to her—but he had to do it in person.
“I wasn’t going to trust this with the mail,” Buffington told ABC News. So it took a few more years.
In 2016, Buffington finally made it to New Hampshire.
Years after finding out the note was found, it still stunned Pierce to see it in person.
“And it just hit me, it was my father’s writing,” Pierce told WMUR.
“And I was shocked.”
Her father wrote the letter 50 years ago, when they owned the motel. Pierce had no idea the letter existed, but apparently her husband was in on it. She also says it was likely written as a joke.
“The joke part of it was that rooms were going for 15 or 20 dollars a night back then, and that was a lot,” Pierce told ABC News. “So 150 dollars was a lot of money back then.”
But even if it wasn’t meant seriously, Pierce still decided to honor her late father’s promise.
She gave Pierce the $150.
“You have to take it,” she told Buffington.
But getting the letter back was worth far more than $150. Since the Beachcomber was sold a few years ago and her parents had both passed, the letter brought back a ton of memories for Pierce.
“This is special because it brings back a piece of him, a piece of her, a piece of my childhood, a piece of the Beachcomber,” Pierce told WMUR. “All of these things are very hard to lose.”
She’s grateful for Buffington making the trip to make it happen—two strangers brought together by a message in a bottle, just like he had hoped for.
“The significance of the message in the bottle was not lost on him,” Pierce told WMUR.