Glass Treasures of the Sea
Story and photos by Stu Farnsworth
Tossed, carried, pushed, and polished. Glass floats, a beachcomber’s most treasured find, are still thrown upon West Coast beaches after their long journeys across the sea.
The clock in the car reads 1:15 a.m. as I pull into the Cape Lookout State Park parking lot. High tide was just past midnight.
My heart pounds as 50 mph gusts shake the car; sleet and rain are coming from the southwest. No cars in the parking lot, a very good sign. I can’t change into my beachcombing gear fast enough, because I know the fun is about to begin. As I get out of the car, a blast of icy cold rain says, “Welcome to the wonderful world of beachcombing.”
Fifty yards ahead is a 25-foot bluff to the beach. I point my flashlight toward the bluff as foam and spray fly toward me. Above the smell and roar of the sea, I hear loose logs thunder into each other.
I wonder what treasures I will find. Maybe a squashed, basketball-size, deep purple float with dragons embossed on the glass, lost, perhaps, off the Emperor’s fishing fleet in the 1920s. Oh, how I can dream.
On the edge of the bluff, I sit at a picnic table in the pitch dark, shining my light down the beach and across the scattered debris. I wait for the tide to recede far enough for me to get on the beach. Rain soaks me to my bare skin through my “watertight” rain suit. I laugh at how crazy it is to be out here so early on a December morning.
Finally down on the beach, I shine my light through the debris left by the tide. Way up ahead my light glitters off something sitting on the sand . . . a large glass ball, aquamarine, foam still on it.
Nine miles later, I practically crawl to the car as dawn approaches. Others are here now, and for a moment, I am at the center of other beachcombers’ oooh’s and aaah’s. I found seven glass floats this night, many of them small, one basketball-size, one beach ball-size.
History of Floats
Where did these exotic pieces of glass come from? Japan, Korea, Russia, the Philippines, possibly Taiwan, most people think.
Actually, the first glass fishing floats probably came from a Scandinavian country. Birid Glasvaerk in Norway was in business from 1762 to 1880, and his company may have been producing glass floats as early as the late 1700s. Aasnaes Glasvaerk, in business from 1813 to 1883, produced 122,493 glass floats just in the year 1875. A glass float with Aasnaes’s mark on the seal button is a collector’s item.
The Japanese started producing small floats in the early 1900s. Asahara Glass Company had several factories and made a variety of sizes. Asahara made baseball- to orange-size floats for tako jigs, salmon gillnetting, and seine fishing; grapefruit-size floats for seine and long-line cod fishing; basketball-size for tuna operations, bottom trawls, and crab trapping; and the small rolling pin floats were used for tako jigs and troll fishing.
Fishermen lost much of their gear during their ocean trips or dumped it over the side when their boats were full. When a float broke free, it started a long journey along Pacific surface currents, from Japan up to the Aleutians and down the West Coast, then it headed back to Japan to start the trip over again.
The first Asian floats came ashore along the West Coast just before 1920 and have been rolling in ever since. They were made from recycled glass and are easy to identify compared with later varieties. Look for flaws in the glass or thousands of bubbles in the oldest floats.
How to Find Floats
The prime time to look for glass floats is late November to late April, with February, March, and April being the most productive months. Schedule your trip around good winds, but concentrate on southwesterly, northwesterly, or best of all, straight out of the west. Also, I find most floats on the North and Central Coasts.
After two high tides and prolonged winds at a decent clip, say about 17 mph, head for the beach. If the tide is low enough, go about two hours before high tide. Look for signs that junk is coming in, such as wood with gooseneck barnacles, bottles, or plastic. Look for Asian writing on the bottles or plastic, then look for the best sign of all, the small blue jellyfish with a sail on top, velella velella.
How to Identify Floats
The larger floats arrive first, then the grapefruit to base-ball sizes arrive, with the rollers coming in last. Look for embossed markings on the floats; you’ll see the makers’ marks on about eight out of 10 of the larger floats, and less often on the smaller ones, about two out of 10. Markings can be found in three general areas on small floats: the sealing button, the side of the glass, or the top or opposite the sealing button. On large floats, the markings are usually on the seal button or a separate patch of glass.
Colored glass floats, especially those that are deep purple, red, orange, or black, are most favored by collectors. Some collectors specialize in certain markings; others collect rolling pin floats.
Beach Safety We don’t recommend our readers follow Stu Farnsworth’s beachcombing practices. He is an experienced beachcomber who knows the dangers. You, dear reader, will too, after reading the following warnings from the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department:
Respect the ocean’s power.
• Watch for sneaker waves. They’re called sneaker waves because they appear without warning, often surging high up on the beach with deadly force, and are impossible to predict. Never turn your back on the ocean.
• Stay off and away from logs on the beach. The ocean is strong enough to pick up even the biggest log and plop it down on top of you. Some logs may look small, but even the tiny ones can be waterlogged and weigh tons.
• Know the tides. Incoming tides isolate rocks from headlands and the shore. Avoid the temptation of strolling out to an interesting rock without knowing when the tide will roll back in. Stay off rocks and small, enclosed beaches. Assume nothing is “high enough” and avoid exposed rocks, jetties, and headlands during strong wave action (like during and after storms).
• Stay away from cliffs. Assume that all cliff edges are unstable. Wet trails or soft sand and earth can make for unstable footing. Rocks can be slippery even when it isn’t rain ing. Make sure you wear proper footwear, and stick to the trails. Stay behind guard fences and railings, and don’t get too close to the edge.
• Standing at the base of an oceanside cliff can be dangerous, especially if it has an overhang. In some places, winter storms and high waves have eroded the shoreline, increasing the chance of collapse and slides. Beware of falling rocks, and don’t climb on bluffs and eroding hillsides. Don’t walk along the base of cliffs unless absolutely necessary.
—Courtesy Oregon Parks
& Recreation Department
Look for floats with a spider web of glass running from one end to the other. These are spindle floats, and those with an intact spindle are quite rare. Look for floats with water inside. If there are no cracks visible, then the water was forced in through microscopic pores while it was deep in water. The float was able to withstand the tremendous force and not implode.
Learn More about Floats
Stu Farnsworth and Alan Rammer’s book, Glass Fishing Floats of the World, is a collector’s guide to floats. It is available from the author (firstname.lastname@example.org; www.glassfishingfloats.com; PO Box 847 Wilsonville, OR 97070-0847). Farnsworth also recommends Beachcombing for Japanese Glass Floats, a classic with great stories and information by Amos L. Wood (Oregon: Binford & Mort, 1975, 1985).
Oregon Coast March/April 2007