Sunday, June 21, 2009

From 1 Degree To 179 Degrees West Longitude 1981

The cover photo of the 1981 Charles Abernethy booklet shows Charles standing among the wares of the Ship's Chandlers in Lerwick, the Shetlands. When I first looked at that photo, I wondered if it was Charles, and while looking at the man holding this small Herring by the tail, there was no mistaking the humorous intention. It is a photo of Charles Abernethy.

Charles starts out the booklet by writing:

1981 began as a year with no prospects at all for glass floats, but ended up with a steady stream of packages flowing westward from 1 degree W. Longitude and eastward from 179 degrees W. Longitude. Additionally, I received a half dozen super floats in a hardware store right in downtown Pittsburgh.

1981, too, is particularly noteworthy for it marks the first time I have invaded the European float market some 25 years after glass floats were discontinued there, and with a surprisingly high degree of success.

The last paragraph got my European float collector’s blood boiling! Before we get to that portion of the booklet, I’d like you to read about:


Charles wrote: I have often gone into Matt’s Bargain Store on Liberty Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh for nuts and bolts, eyeing each time occasional ship’s fog horns, brass cannons, ship’s wheels and brass-framed port holes. “I do a pretty good business in that nautical stuff,” Matt said one day, setting off the fog horn. I showed him some floats with which he was unfamiliar. Then some months later he called to say he’d received a new shipment of nautical items “from the coast,” which included some floats, and would I come down to make sure they were genuine and not fakes?

I was amazed to see a dozen magnificent 9, 12, and 14 inchers, and all with excellent nets. I assured him they were genuine, all right, as fakes are not ordinarily made so large, and too, these were all covered with dried sludge from the sea and tar from the decks of ships. And all had certainly seen sea duty. The 9-inchers had beautiful intricate nylon nets and the others crude manila nets. A thorough scrubbing restored both the glass and the nets to their pristine sparkling beauty. I bought six. The prize was a robust 14" with a strange thick reddish rubber collar under its net in the center of which was a 1' high neck 2" in diameter and threaded on the inside. I had never seen one like it before...and then I remembered...”Of course! They are used in long-line Pacific Tuna fishing.” The tuna craft play out as much as 50 miles of continuous line with baited hooks at fixed intervals and large 12" or 14" floats, too, are dropped overboard not only as markers but also to hold the baited hooks near the surface. The rubber collar type have bamboo poles screwed into the threaded necks sporting flags of red and white cloth for easy spotting from the ship. To avoid the lines snarling or knotting, brass swivels are used every thousand feet or so. For every hundred hooks a metal buoy with a battery powered light on top is released not only as a method for keeping a control on the various lengths of the line but as an easy way to keep track of the entire operation at night.

As a ship patrols its lines, a wobbling bamboo pole with its flag waving, tells the crew fish have taken the bait, and at once a small boat is dispatched to haul in the catch. Two tons is a good day’s catch.

Fleets of long-line tuna craft ply the Pacific from many ports. One such fleet operates out of Pago Pago, and each ship in gone for two months. It’s hard work...the 50-mile long line of several thousand hooks is baited, paid out overboard, pulled up and then baited again every 24 hours. Frozen summa fish of a uniform 8" length makes hook baiting a quick and efficient chore. The small crew works in shifts, and each man works quickly and silently at his particular job. There are lulls in the busy work day, of course, and the crew of young Orientals finds time for never ending chopstick meals of rice and soups. And you may be sure no tuna long-line fishing ship ever leaves Pago Pago Harbor without its record player ready on the fantail!

KURE ISLAND “MINIS” The Float-Of-The-Month Club

Last January I received an article in “Old Glass” magazine from a friend which told of a remote Pacific Ocean Coast Guard station on Kure Island (1 mile x 1.5 miles) a few miles east of the International Date Line (179 degrees W. Longitude). A handful of men operate a weather station there, and to while away lonely hours jog around its perimeter, play endless table tennis and a few occasionally collect floats which frequently wash ashore inches from their surf-side quarters.

As each man is returned to the States after his one year’s tour of duty, a farewell soiree is given at which he is jokingly decorated with a float. I wrote to the C.O. at once, and he put me in touch with one of his men who was a float collector.

At length I heard from one serviceman named Erik, the company clerk, who sent a Polaroid picture displaying 9 floats of various sizes (including 2 rollers) and a list of their diameters and prices. The diameters turned out to be circumferences, and the prices a bit on the Tourist Giftie Shoppe side. After a brief exchange of correspondence, our Float-Of-The-Month Club came into being, and continued very pleasantly, for 10 months. Thereafter as regularly as the once-a-month-ration-and-mail plane from Hawaii touched down on his coral shores, I received a box containing a few assorted floats varying from tiny 2.5" minis to sturdy 5" light greens, and including the two 5" rollers in his photo. Oddly enough none of his floats had nets, rollers were extremely rare, and only a few bore trademarks: those that did showed the common 3 verticle “hash marks” of the Kawaguchi Glass KK. During the summer months floats became scarce on Kure, as they wash ashore only during stormy seas and high winds.

I have read those passages at least a few times, found them enjoyable reads, yet always find myself becoming impatient-I want to read about the Euros! Charles does not disappoint.


I had long looked forward on my journey this July to the U.K. to occasional float junkets, my collection completely lacking in European floats (except for the pineappley Aegean float from Mykinos in ‘73). So, I was overjoyed in Brighton On The Channel to find several in the many antique shops, but alas, only one, a 5" olive, bore a trademark, naturally “English Made.”

In Plymouth, a broken-down dockside shop had three 5" olives but no trademarks. Everywhere in the U.K. I heard from fishermen that the windlass that hoists the catch up out of the sea through a metal bracket onto the deck of the ship, crushed the glass floats, so over a quarter of a century ago, they were replaced by the garish, gray ugly plastic floats. Their two holes on the sides make for instant threading with ropes to attach quickly to the fishing lines, doing away completely with float nets...certainly a time saver, yes, but you must remember, unlike plastic, glass floats always reflect light to reveal their whereabouts, however overcast the skies.

The English Trawler Fishermen called the glass floats, “Bobbins” or “Lights”. Charles goes on:

At Lerwick, stark capital of the stark Zetlands (the Shetlands,) I found but one float used as a window display at the “Bookstore,” a dark olive 5". The proprietress accepted my offer of 5 pounds, and I was delighted to gaze at its Three Leaf Clover mark, which (and with no proof at all) I immediately attributed to the seal of the King of Norway. After all, Norwegain fisheries have always dominated the Zetlands since time began. If the lady had not been willing to make the sale, I had ready in my sea bag a worthless, unmarked glass decoy to furtively switch when her eye might be averted. Like a kleptomaniac, Glass Float collectors have no honor.

A time consuming boat-by-boat canvas for floats among the fishing boats tied up a Lerwick’s docks always brought forth the same answer, “Haven’t used a glass float for over 25-30 years,” the weather beaten captains always replied. “We have a few, the wife and me...keep ‘em as souvenirs...wouldn’t part with them for any amount...

On St. Mary’s Island in the Isles of Scilly (never say “the Scilly Isles” please) a touristy dock-side shop was trying to foist off on the tourists, brand new shiny (but genuine) unmarked floats at really rip-off prices. Claimed they were found on remote out-islands and their nets were woven by fishermen’s wives!

To reach the fishermen who kept old floats as keepsakes in their cottages, upon returning home, I immediately placed an ad in the Lerwick Times for floats with trade marks only. After several nerve-racking weeks of waiting I received four replies offering a total of 20 floats, and only two were duplicates, the Clover Leaf mark. The very names of the places I heard from were enchanting: Hillswick, Burra, Yell and Fair Island. One woman claimed her 7 had washed up on her shores during WWI, and found by her father.

Negotiations to buy the floats presented a problem: just what was a fair price, and how much would the postal charges run? My first reply from Hillswick stated he had his singular 8" packed up but was thwarted by the excessive cost for shipping, and did I want my money returned? A collector has no choice–pay the fees and cut down elsewhere.

The first parcel arrived 39 days after it was mailed from Burra Island containing two 5"-a light green 3-leaf Clover and a dark olive Anchor. The postage (“carriage” as they call it) was a whopping $12.00!

The Hillswick parcel (carriage $15.90) contained two floats: a clear moulded 5" who’s bottom is quite thick bearing the trademark “British Made” in a circle within which is a 5-pointed sunburst, the other is a perfectly spherical gem 8" who’s mark is a W inside a box. While holding it up to the light it revealed a trillion tiny air bubbles glistening like the stars in the heavens.

The third parcel from remote Fair Island, contained 4 floats: a green Anchor, a green “S”, and the last two of the Arabic numbers 5 and 13, each in the center of a sunburst (like the Hillswick sunburst).

The sender writes, “...these floats, as far as I know are British made, and used by our fishing fleets up to 1928 when iron came in, then aluminum, and now it’s all plastic.”

He also has #’s 1, 4, and 10 for my next order. Why the numbers? What do they mean? Did the manufacturer put out “new, improved models”? Or was it a device to encourage to save the complete series, like Baseball Cards or numbered Pepsi caps to collect and trade among themselves during idle days? Picture a bearded fisherman holding out two #4's and saying, “Trade you these for one of your #8's...then, b’Gorry, I’ll have the complete set.” And why these numbered sunbursts peculiar only to Fair Island?

The last party, from Yell Island, delayed her reply because, 1) the weather was stormy, 2) she had no suitable box, and 3) she cannot walk in high winds (understandable, as there are no trees growing in the Zetlands to hold onto). En route are 7 floats with the following marks: a G (clear glass), and the rest green: a Z, and N, a Clover Leaf, 3 Overlapping Fishes, and two with an Anchor in a Rope Circle. She “wrapped each in thick cotton and sewed it, packing with plenty of newspaper around.” The carriage ran to $36.00 U.S.! The parcel will be so huge it will readily lend itself to become ballast in the stormiest of seas, and even if the ship struck an iceberg off the perilous Out Skerries Reefs, it couldn’t possibly sink. (This blog writer thinks that I should get a reduction on my homeowner’s insurance...there is no way that my house would sink in a flood! “There are floats all over the darn place!” My wife often, yet affectionately says). She continued: "I understand only the trawler fishermen used them. The herring nets are floated with wooden corks and the lines with canvas buoys. I suppose it will be all plastic now.” She ends with: I am glad to think someone will care. Here, after my time they would only be thrown out and broken.”

So, you see, others too have a sincere and tender regard for their floats.

Charles finishes by writing:


The Yell Isle WWI Special Seven Floats just arrived...not in one huge crate as I expected, but in 3 cardboard boxes, plastered with colorful sheets of postage stamps in small denominations. Each float was covered in neatly sewn cotton batting. Alas! One float, the “G” was shattered to smithereens. Unfortunately the lady did not stuff wadded newspapers around the floats as I suggested–she just laid carefully folded copies of the Aberdeen Sunday Post on the bottom of each carton.

The 3 Criss-Crossed Overlapping Fishes is far and away the most singular of her floats.

I would like to end this post with a story of my own, and a "Thank you," to Ken Busse. I have been especially looking forward to writing this particular post because of Ken.

Earlier in the Spring, he emailed to say that he had one of Charles Abernethy's floats on his website: GEMS OF THE OCEAN. I looked at the float, and expressed interest, but could not purchase it at that time. In preparation for this post, I reread Charles' booklet, and realized that the float that Ken had was the "S" marked float which came in the 3rd. parcel from Fair Island. I went back to Ken's website, noticed the float appeared to be available, and quickly sent an email off inquiring about the float. Fortunately, the float and the funds to make the purchase were both available.

During the years I have been "Ebay Beachcombing," many floats have come my way, and there have also been many which have not. The feeling of being "bummed," at having lost an auctioned float that I wanted, was quickly replaced during the first couple of losses, with the realizations that: I could not win them all; that someone else was lucky and happy and that there are floats that come via friends, auctions and new acquaintances which have a special feeling about them. There is an inward knowledge that a particular float was meant for me.

I'm certain that some after reading that paragraph, cannot identify with my thoughts, but for me it works. If I lose a float that I wanted, there is a good feeling that replaces frustration with expectancy and hope. Proof that sustains this way of being for me has happened over and over again.

In the case of the Abernethy "S" float, good fortune smiled on me, and not only was it still available, but since purchasing the float, a wonderful history has unfolded.

Starting with Charles' advertisement, the purchase of the float and its safe trip across the Atlantic from Fair Island, the float was special enough to be written about. After he passed, his daughter-in-law catalogued and sold the collection to dedicated collectors.

Ken told me that the float was purchased by Dave Lee. I've sent an email to Dave, asking him particulars about the "S" float, and am looking forward to his reply. Earlier, in my hunt for Abernethy information, Ken had introduced me to Dave, who wrote that he purchased a number of Charles' floats approximately 1993. When Dave saw that float in Ken's possession, he told him that he had purchased it from Charles' daughter-in-law, and that it then was passed onto Stu Farnsworth.

From Stu, the float passed onto Ken, and 28 years after Charles Abernethy received it, the float resides in my collection. What a truly nice history this float has. It's good to have documentation to go along with a float. It is the history that I am collecting, researching and writing about. I feel particularly fortunate to not only have one of Charles Abernethy's floats-one of his first Euros-but also a float that has previously been enjoyed by some truly great collectors and wonderful people.


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