A marine casualty, floating sneakers, and oceanography
On May 27, 1990, the container ship Hansa Carrier was en route from South Korea to Los Angeles, California, loaded with several thousand containers. Among these were five containers filled with Nike athletic shoes. An unexpectedly severe storm caused the ship to roll heavily. A number of containers, including the five filled with sneakers, fell overboard. Up to this point, the events, though disappointing, were not that unusual. Subsequent events turned out to be unique. Of the five containers of Nike shoes, one descended to the sea floor. The other four containers broke open, releasing their contents (61,820 individual shoes) into the North Pacific at about 47°N, 160°W. We know a lot about what occurred because the Nike Company keeps meticulous records. Every shoe is not only well-made, but also has a serial number. The records also showed which shoes were in which container. Shoes from four of the containers were eventually recovered, but none from the fifth. The first reports of Nike shoes coming ashore were on Vancouver Island in January 1991. Some shoes were later found further north along the shores of the Queen Charlotte Islands and in Alaska. Many more, though, were deposited on the beaches of Washington and Oregon. There were so many and usually singles, that informal local networks were established to help people find the missing shoe mate (sole mate). Eventually, thousands of Nike sneakers were found. Most were in good condition. The shoes floated sole up, so that the less-substantial tops were not exposed to the sun and weather. It was at this point that an oceanographer based in Seattle entered the picture. Curtis Ebbesmeyer learned of this curious development and figured that there might be things to learn. He met with and collected information from numerous collectors of the Nikes, including where and when the sneakers had been found. He then did a reverse drift analysis (hindcast). This allowed him to confirm details regarding the pattern and speed of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre and its subsidiary currents, which had been poorly understood up until that point. Serendipity!