How love letters made their way back home from on board the ship

This recent story reminds us of an era in which seafarers were practically unreachable when far away on board their ships.

This recent story reminds us of an era in which seafarers were practically unreachable when far away on board their ships. Back then, there wasn’t any email, smartphones or social media. Instead, news and holiday greetings only reached ships and their crews via telegram or short wave – and letters were transported in a way that sounds almost incredible to us today. As older seafarers can tell you, until just a few decades ago, a so-called mail buoy carrying letters for loved ones back home would be tossed overboard regularly in coastal areas. Fishermen would then find these buoys, bring them on board and put the letters in a mailbox on shore. And that really worked.

Captain Peter Rößler and his chief mate, Christian Stritzke, recently thought back on these days when they were steering the “Valparaíso Express” – one of Hapag-Lloyd’s five new 10,500 TEU vessels – from the French port of Le Havre over the vast Atlantic toward the Caribbean in the SWX service. Their course took them close by the Azores, a Portuguese archipelago about 1,400 kilometers west of continental Portugal, and they also remembered that it was precisely here that these kinds of mail buoys used to be thrown overboard. “There, we came up with the idea that this tradition could be revived,” says the captain, who is currently sailing on his 333-meter-long ship from the Panama Canal toward the west coast of South America. No sooner said than done: In almost no time, a container that would float and remain watertight was found. Any member of the crew who wanted to join in the fun wrote a love letter that would be sent via the “Azores mail,” Europe’s westernmost post office. A total of eight letters were written and placed inside the container.  

According to the old tradition, a small “thank you” also has to be packed into the mail buoy for its finder. This was often liquor or cigarettes back then, so they decided that’s how it should also be today. “We pooled some money and bought a carton of cigarettes and a bottle of whisky in the ship’s canteen,” Rößler says. Everything was packed up to make it waterproof and prepared for the drop.

Then, on January 29, the day of the mail drop, they spotted Flores, the westernmost and fourth-smallest island in the Azores archipelago. “Everyone was already pretty excited,” reports Rößler, who had commissioned the vessel in 2016. “We approached the island at a safe distance. In the southern part of Flores, there is the small harbor of Lajes, which I knew from my time on cruise ships.” The challenge was in finding the right time to toss the buoy overboard. “If the wind or current caused the buoy to drift past the island, our mail would be lost and underway in the vastness of the North Atlantic for a very long time,” the captain says. “In the tried and tested way, I determined the location for the drop using wind direction and current set. The mail buoy went overboard and, according to my calculations, it would drift straight into the port of Lajes. At the same time, we established radio contact with the island via VHF and spoke with the pilot. But, unfortunately, there wasn’t any boat in the harbor that could sail out and fetch the mail buoy.

So, was it all in vain? No. The captain radioed in the exact drop-off location to the pilot, and then the “Valparaíso Express” bid farewell to the island of Flores with three deep and long blasts of the ship's horn. “The next day, I received an email from the island’s pilot,” recounts Captain Rößler. “He wrote me that our buoy had been found and that the letters were on their way. Before we even reached the Caribbean, I learned from my wife that my letter had arrived to her at home in Germany.”

P.S. We heard from a colleague from the Portugal country office of Area Iberia, that the person who found the buoy and mailed the letters on Flores was happy to receive the gifts.

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