From time to time, we find and buy small hoards of glass floats for the shop. They sell fast and visitors are always amazed when we get into conversations about the abundance of glass floats on Grays Harbor beaches still being found, to this day. If you know when and where to look, you might be the next luckiest beachcomber around! …Ready? Set. Go!
OK! But first - a little - history
While we mainly refer to the glass floats as “Japanese” and for good reason since Japanese fishing boats are famous for releasing the majority of them that end up bobbing their way to the west coast. But. If you take a quick peek at the history, glass floats have Norwegian roots thanks to Christopher Faye, a 1840s merchant from Bergen Norway, credited with the invention. By 1844, glass floats were widely used on gill nets while fishing for cod in Loften and it wasn’t until some 70+ years later that the Japanese began blowing and using glass floats for fishing.
These little beauties are generally made from recycled glass hence the imperfections. And they’re not all made in Japan. Manufacturing took hold in the USA during the 1930s and 40s when recognizable American glass companies such as Owens Illinois, Corning, and Seattle’s Northwestern Glass Company began machine making them. Today, a few small Japanese glass shops still blow floats for the fishing industry, but the vast majority are machine-made or artfully blown in small batches for tourists.
Reportedly, an abundance of the little gems are stuck far out at sea caught in a similar circular current as the dastardly Pacific Ocean Garbage Dump. Round and round the floats go — UNTIL — the flow is disrupted and they’re jettisoned to freedom by a storm. And thus my friends is why winter on the Pacific Ocean is the best time for beachcombing and when you spot an illusive glass float on the beaches of Grays Harbor, chances are they’re authentic and Japanese. If you’re not sure, check for maker’s marks and imperfections.
Amos Wood - Beachcombing guru
You know how some people are really generous with sharing their secrets? Well that’s the case with Amos Wood, a former Boeing Engineer and expert at finding glass floats on Grays Harbor beaches. A true scavenger with a knack for the sport, he wrote a book about it in 1985. We found Mr. Wood divulging his secrets in a 1977 article in a Washington Gold Coast tourist publication. There he gave advice and secrets to finding the little buggers (or sometimes big buggers) out here in our little seaside haven; Pacific Beach, Wa. Download a copy of the article below and read on for the highlights.
Finding Glass Floats on Grays Harbor Beaches
From the Mouth of Amos Woods 1977
Take note: “the location and time must be right and the visual scanning skills of one person as related to that of another will probably measure the day’s results. In addition, good storms and west winds are a boon to bringing in the floats lost at sea by fishermen. This is why the winter storms along Washington’s coast made glass ball collecting an enjoyable pastime for residents and a pleasant winter interlude for many visitors.”
“If you don’t find your float among the fishing boats, at the water’s edge, or in the kelp, then you might learn the tricks of working the driftwood, as well as other areas at the high-tide levels,” Wood says. “On a flat beach the high tide will leave residue over a broad area. This should be scanned first and when scanning an area, scan all of it. I found one day that I was concentrating too much on distance detection and missing items right under foot. I revised my scanning to include the nearby out 30 feet and faraway, out several hundred yards.”
Wood says, scanning a beach for floats is somewhat like looking for agates. One has to be able to look into the shadows of piled driftwood. And don’t be dismayed if there are lots of people on the beach. Even if the beach you’re searching has been culled by other people, good scanning may still turn up a glass ball. Mr. Wood advises that two searches of the same area work best.
Proof of Mr. Wood’s engineering background:
“If time is limited and a certain number of miles must be covered, a reasonably effective search pattern can be worked out by rapidly walking the high-tide down the beach, scanning left to right as you go, and zigzagging over the driftwood on the return trip. But, it is fundamental that in beachcombing there should be no schedule!”
Beware: weekdays, sand banks and beaches hide Glass floats
“The second day of a storm on a Washington coast beach; the time when the strongest winds are blowing across the beach, is the best time to beachcomb,” Mr. Wood says, “and the high-tide time factor is important, too.” Mr. Wood’s next choice of the ideal time for beachcombing is a Thursday of the most overcast rainy week in March. According to him, Thursday is the perfect day to avoid weekend visitors and allows three days worth of tide changes to accumulate floats. But note, the highest tide of the month, regardless of the time of day, is also good.
The Oddball Floats
Mr. Wood classifies the float types as; spherical, roller, cylindrical, and pear-shaped. He also covets floats with the water inside, barnacles, spindles, double balls, sunspots, fluid, pockmarks, and frosted ones, which he classifies all as “oddballs.” And adds, “the most common of the oddballs are the ones with water inside.”
Oddball water-filled float: How water gets inside:
Nobody actually knows the full journey of an authentic fishing float from when it’s lost at sea to arriving on our beaches – especially for the oddballs that take on water. But theories say the water gets inside when nets are pulled to lower depths and pressure forces water in through tiny pores around the sealed end. Or that nets are lost to the ice in the Arctic regions and when the ice melts, the water is forced inside.
Barnacle laden floats on the Washington coast
Mr. Woods says, the second most common oddity are floats found laden with barnacles. These floats circled in the Japanese current long enough for barnacles, muscles, and other marine life to attach themselves first to the net and then directly to the glass. One such float was found by Mr. Wood on Vancouver Island and it took an estimated 15 years to grow the size of sea life it carried.
Spheres, spindles, doubles, and sunspots are rare!
Spherical floats with an internal spindle are another oddity. Apparently the spindle occurs during some unusual or accidental step of manufacture such as an excess of glass at the right place at the right time during blowing or sealing operations. Chances of finding a spindle float is about one in 1,500. The sunspot float he found was a mild colored 12-incher, containing a sunspot red orange image on one side. Whatever the origin of the sunspot, that particular float is unique among eight million floats and there may be no other like it. Pockmarks have a few external scars from rock and wave damage but despite all the internal glass failure, there appears no single place where the glass is broken through. Double floats have smaller irregular spheres blown inside and frosted floats are probably caused by sand abrasion from continuous rolling back and forth on sandy beaches.
Are your eyes peeled and ready for nature's scavenger hunt?
True, we like to sell the floats we bring into the shop, but more we like to hear the stories of those who love the thrill of the chase! We’ve seen a plethora of different floats out here and they’re found on the regular. So come on out for a Thursday in March, as Mr Wood says that’s the best time. Bundle up and when you’ve scored, stop in and show us what you got!