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Earl John Seagars, 86; tracked ocean currents with wine bottles

February 12, 2007|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Earl John Seagars, a meteorologist and teacher who tracked ocean currents the old-fashioned way by dropping wine bottles into the water with messages inside, has died. He was 86.

An instructor of marine weather at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa for more than 20 years, Seagars died Jan. 20 of complications from heart disease at Little Company of Mary Hospital in Torrance, said his son, Dana.

Seagars grew up in Redondo Beach, where he became fascinated by the ocean at an early age. He was in his 50s when he started tracking ocean currents by setting wine bottles adrift to see where they would land. He put a note and his return address inside, asking the finder where and when the bottle was picked up. It was not unusual to wait three or four years for a response from China, northern Africa, New Guinea or other distant shores.

One bottle traveled 21 months from the coast of Oregon, where Seagars set it afloat, to the Philippines, where a fisherman picked it up.

Seagars kept a careful log and once said that he knew the fate of one of every three bottles he set loose. It helped, he said, that his message promised reward money.

"I don't include the fact that it's only $5 or $10," Seagars said of the prize money, in a 1997 interview with The Times. "I'd probably get a lot fewer responses."

Friends of Seagars who planned to travel could expect a call from him. One colleague, Brad Avery, was on his way to a vacation in the South Pacific when Seagars brought him a case of wine. It turned out that the bottles were empty except for Seagars' notes.

Studying ocean currents this way is not entirely out of date.

More typically, however, oceanographers now use "drifters," floating devices that can be tracked by satellite and convey information about water currents, temperatures and other details.

"Earl used the bottles to demonstrate ocean currents to his students," said Avery, director of the marine program at Orange Coast College. "He'd get the students engaged. He was an inspirational teacher."

Many of Seagars' students were amateur sailors who took his noncredit courses. Some of them were preparing for circumnavigation sailing.

Having crewed a number of times in the biannual Transpacific Yacht Race from the Los Angeles area to Honolulu, Seagars had a good idea of what his students were in for.

"Earl told his circumnavigation students he was a phone call away," said Vivian Bust, a former student. "And they did call him.

"He'd say, 'I haven't lost a student to bad weather yet.' He was very proud of that."

Born in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, on June 26, 1920, Seagars moved to Redondo Beach with his parents when he was 2. He was an avid swimmer and sailer from boyhood.

After graduating from high school, he served in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II, where he learned meteorology. When he completed military service, he entered USC and majored in business. He graduated in 1946 and began a long career in the insurance business.

He married Janet Helene Teagle. They settled in Manhattan Beach and had one child, Dana. The couple later separated.

Seagars' wife died in 2005. Along with his son, he is survived by his grandchildren, Brooke and Chelsea; two sisters; and his longtime companion, Evelyn Woolsey.

Contributions in his name can be made to the Orange Coast College Foundation, for the Earl Seagars Youth Sailing Scholarship, 2701 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa, CA 92626.

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