Boys form long-distance friendship through winning science project

Most children make friends by chatting in the classroom, on the playground or during after-school activities.

But one Mattituck second-grader has managed to make a friend through one of the most old-fashioned forms of long-distance communication: a message in a bottle. 

Gavin McGreevy, 8, tossed 31 messages in bottles overboard near Little Gull Island by Orient Point from a boat operated by his father, Peter, on Oct. 22, 2018. Each bottle contained a handwritten letter with his name, age, email address and post office box address and a request that the reader write back if they found the letter. About two weeks later, Gavin received his first response: an email from Eli Marsella, an 8-year-old boy from Block Island.

“We were all quite surprised,” said Mr. McGreevy, who described the bottle launch as part science project, part outdoor adventure and part communication pursuit.

Eli’s mother, Shannon Cotter-Marsella, said they were at a beach just off the tip of Cooneymus Road while she searched for hand-blown glass globes — part of the Glass Float Project, a popular island tourist attraction — when he discovered Gavin’s bottle.

“It was interesting,” she said. “I was searching for treasure and Eli found a treasure of his own.”

Eli opened the bottle with help from his father, Louis, and promptly sent an email reply to Gavin.

With guidance from his parents, Gavin excitedly responded to the email within the next day. The boys digitally chatted digitally all winter and into the spring, Mr. McGreevy said.

“He likes Cub Scouts, he likes Legos, he plays piano and he loves Pokemon, all like me,” Gavin said. “I never thought I would make a friend that liked everything I liked.”

Gavin received four more responses through letters and emails — two from Martha’s Vineyard, one from Cape Cod and one from Dartmouth, Mass.

As the summer season set in, Gavin grew eager to meet Eli. On Sept. 8, with guidance and planning from Ms. Cotter-Marsella, Gavin and his parents, Colleen and Peter, sailed 35 miles from Orient Yacht Club to Payne’s Dock in Block Island. There, they ate sweets at Payne’s Killer Donuts and visited the Block Island Animal Farm, South East Lighthouse, the beach where Eli found the bottle and Block Island School, where Ms. Cotter-Marsella teaches middle school students. The school has only about 130 students, Mr. McGreevy said.

Gavin said he enjoyed feeding ducks outside Payne’s with his new friend. Eli said he was a little nervous at first, but warmed up to Gavin quickly. For Mr. McGreevy, the best part was watching his son get to know another kid his age. “It was interesting, because for the first five seconds, they were a little shy, but then — bam! They hit it off just great,” he said.

The bottle send-off was inspired by Gavin’s grandfather, Ronald McGreevy, who worked on the bridge of a destroyer while serving in the Navy in the early 1960s. He traversed the Atlantic, the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean.

“He told me about it,” Gavin recalled. “He threw lots of bottles but didn’t get a response.”

The project served as more than a means of communication, Mr. McGreevy said; it also became Gavin’s award-winning second-grade science fair project.

With each bottle response, Gavin was tracking the movement of currents. He made a map and kept track where each bottle washed ashore, he said.

After snagging first place in the Cutchogue East Elementary School science fair, he won an honorable mention at the Brookhaven National Laboratories science fair.

Mr. McGreevy said he believes the project changed Gavin’s perception on communication.

“It allowed him to see another means of getting in contact with people,” he said. “It’s not just meeting someone in school or meeting someone around town. You can toss a bottle in the water and make a new friend.”

Caption: Eli Marsella (left) of Block Island and Gavin McGreevy of Mattituck, both 8, at a Block Island beach in early September. (Courtesy Photo)

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