If I had any hope of finding a message in a bottle during my lifetime, my odds were best on Texel. That's what I figured, anyway, after reading about what washes up on the island's shores. Airplane propellers. Jars of money. Mammoth bones. Lots of messages in bottles.
Beachcombing is a longstanding tradition on Texel, the largest of Holland's West Frisian Islands, which unfurl along the Dutch coast like floats on a fishing net. The nearby shipping lanes, strong currents, and steady winds make Texel a magnet for anything adrift in Northern Europe.
Islanders once scoured Texel's beaches for firewood. They made rafters from the masts of wrecked ships. Even today, jutters, as beachcombers are called in Dutch, are local folk heroes: thrifty, practical types who rise early and brave the elements to scavenge the unpredictable gifts of the sea.
But I keep thinking about the messages in bottles. "Won't it be wonderful if we find one?" I ask my wife, days before we travel there with our year-old son. She gives me a charitable smile. It's a lot to ask of a family holiday.
Even before we begin treasure hunting along its beaches, though, Texel charms us. The windmills, thatched roofs, and grazing sheep look like pages ripped from a fairy tale. It's sublime. We disembark the ferry and take a bus to De Koog, a sleepy village where an old lady walks her letters to the postbox and a tall blonde woman painting a wall steps down from her ladder to direct us to our hotel. There is an abundance of bicycles, and shortly after checking in to our hotel, we're pedaling down cobblestone streets and through a shady forest to the sea.
But we've arrived during peak European vacation time, and the beach is a Where's Waldo scene of sunbathing tourists. A message in a bottle? We'll be lucky to find space to spread our towels. For encouragement, I cycle a couple of miles inland to the Flora Shipwreck and Beachcombers Museum, a wondrous testament to Texel's beachcombing potential. It's like going to a garage sale on acid. The gate is topped with colorful fisherman's gloves—the Dutch call them handschoen, or "hand shoes." Yellow and orange buoys hang from a cottonwood. The front half of a yacht is marooned in the parking lot.
Inside, the artifacts are both mundane and miraculous. There are margarine tins and mortar shells, hard hats and hypodermic needles. I find an HP computer monitor and an inflatable sex doll near an old sign urging sailors to go to church. There are dozens of messages in bottles, and something even better—a small wooden crate thrown out by an Englishman when his girlfriend dumped him. Filled with stuffed animals, photographs, and letters, the crate floated 200 miles across the North Sea to Texel, where local beachcomber Klaas Uitgeest found it. When she learned of the discovery, the girlfriend asked to have the crate. Uitgeest refused. What the sea gives, the beachcomber keeps.
Museum co-owner Judith Vlaming-van der Zee says container ships have changed Texel's beachcombing. Years ago, a ship's cargo was vulnerable in a storm. Now it's secure. Well, almost. Lost containers have littered Texel's beaches with televisions, toolboxes, and milk powder. (One jutter collected so much that he didn't buy milk for a year.) Still, those finds are rare.
"Winter is best, when it's windy," Vlaming-van der Zee says. "But every day you go to the beach it's possible to find something." She doesn't have to tell me twice. I set my alarm for 5:30 a.m.
Outside, a thumbnail moon hangs in the sky. I cycle through empty streets to an isolated beach. My eyes tear up from the cold wind, but I feel hopeful.
I walk to the water's edge. Before long I see a blue jug, printed with a skull and crossbones and the words "sulfuric acid." I leave this. Soon I find a green hand shoe, which I take. Farther along I see a bottle—could it be?—but there's no message inside, just seawater and sand. I find a jellyfish and another hand shoe, which immediately devalues the first. The tideline is a trail of refuse: a moldy orange, a radial tire, a plastic crate that says "Brixham Trawler Agents." I find a carton of Spanish apple juice, an empty jar of Nutella (aren't they all?), a pinecone, and a peanut.
By the time the sun spills over the dunes, I've learned that museum-quality finds are rare. Still, it's hard to turn back. There's always another bump in the sand to investigate.
Back at the hotel, I curate my finds on the coffee table: a spent tube of machinery lubricant, three hand shoes, a turquoise flip-flop, a pink lighter, and a broken wooden handle. My wife makes supportive noises.
Later that day, I travel down to the port of Oudeschild to visit Kaap Skil, the island's second beachcombing museum, built of glass and reclaimed wood. Museum employee Maarten Roeper shows me around. A dapper man in a seafaring sweater, Roeper doesn't consider himself a true beachcomber. He's never found a message in a bottle. He once found a Tupperware, though, with four pacifiers and a child's note to SpongeBob SquarePants inside. "I am giving you these because I am a big boy now," the note read. "Love, Harry."
I ask Roeper if Texel's jutters are a bit crazy, searching for treasure in the ocean's trash. "Not crazy, but passionate," he says. "Mostly they're good storytellers. They take a small thing and make it big."
One of these storytellers is Maarten Brugge, a towering 35-year-old with liquid eyes and a voice like a foghorn. A third-generation beachcomber and an oceanographer, Brugge's passion for the sea and its contents is complete.
"My grandfather was one of 15 children," he tells me. "When they got home from school, his mother sent them to the beach. Everything they found was a nice extra." That was the golden age of beachcombing, when you could find a barrel of whiskey or a keg of butter. "Now we find 10,000 shoes, or a bunch of cigarettes," Brugge says. "Now I collect stories."
Brugge shows me red boxes of Hollywood cigarettes from a container that washed up when he was 13. "The beach was red with packets," he says. "The whole island was collecting cigarettes. Everybody was smoking at that time." He shows me part of a Maine lobster pot that crossed the Atlantic, and a plastic jar filled with adult human teeth. "Some things you want to know the story," Brugge says. "Some things you don't."
As for messages in bottles, Brugge has more than 200, stashed in a binder. Most are from kids looking for pen pals, or lonely hearts looking for love. But some are serious. One hints at suicide. It lists no return address.
Brugge pours me some Juttertje, a local liqueur with a beachcomber on its label. He suggests I try the east side of the island, along the Wadden Sea. It's tamer there, but in summer it's thick with sailboats. Things fall overboard.
"With every wave something new comes ashore," he says.
The next day I'm up before the sun again, cycling along the dykes into the cold wind. The Wadden Sea is flat and gray in the morning light, and the small beaches have none of the open-sea drama of the west side. I find a solitary folded tissue. I start to think about breakfast.
I stop to look at one last beach: I find two red onions, and then see a glint of glass in some kelp. It's a bottle. There's a curl of paper inside. I found one!
I don't open it immediately. I want to savor it. I tuck the bottle behind my bike seat and race back to the hotel. I wake my wife, and together we fish out the message. It's in German, dated four days ago. I pull up Google to translate. "Hello, I am Marie," it reads. "I am 10 years old and I am on a sailing trip here in the Wadden Sea. I would be very happy if you write me back." She has drawn a large, smiling face.
I do write her back, in English. I tell her about my life and family. But I want to tell her what I've learned on Texel. That even though the world is smaller than ever, the sea hasn't shrunk. It separates people, but also connects them in unexpected ways. And this is why we beachcomb. Because everything we find tells us a little more about each other.
From Amsterdam, a 70-minute train ride takes you to Den Helder. Public buses make the short trip from the train station to the TESO line's car-ferry service across the Marsdiep Strait to ’t Horntje on Texel—a 20- minute ride. Ferries depart every half hour at peak times; reservations are not accepted.
The Grand Hotel Opduin, a comfortable, spacious resort in the town of De Koog, is a short walk through the dunes to the beach. Rates start at $131; opduin.nl. Owned by a beachcomber, the friendly, 19-room Hotel De Waal is filled with tasteful driftwood furniture and other gifts of the sea. Rates start at $98; hoteldewaal.nl. Situated in the heart of the Oudeschild harbor, and near the Kaap Skil museum, the six-room Havenhotel feels like a cozy, old-fashioned seafarer's inn. Watch the boats come and go from the terrace restaurant, where North Sea shrimp don't get any fresher. Rates start at $86.