Oceanographers Find Lessons In The Great Nike Shoe Spill

A flotilla of up to 40,000 Nike gym shoes has been slowly bobbing around the Pacific Ocean since the spring of 1990.

News that these sartorial requisites have met a watery fate may dismay the youth of the West. However, it has brought joy to Oregon's beachcombers, who have been making a fortune reselling the gym shoes that, bizarrely, have survived their briny immersion with surprising resilience.

Odder still, the data provided by plotting the Nike armada's progress has allowed oceanographers to test several complex theories about the detailed mechanics of Pacific currents.

"It has been a real bonus to our work," said Dr. James Ingraham, of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

This strange story began on May 27, 1990, when a storm struck the freighter Hansa Carrier, which was en route from Korea to the United States. The ship survived, but its shipment of Nike gym shoes was washed overboard. Not a sole was saved.

The incident was forgotten until November that year, when Nike shoes began appearing along the shores of Oregon. Large hiking boots, high-tops and other styles began to bob landward, at first in ones and twos, then in scores, eventually in the thousands. To the incredulity of locals, the beaches were swamped with multicolored shoes.

Within weeks, this well-heeled landing army had created a thriving new local economy. Beachcombers held swap-meets at which they exchanged right and left shoes, then resold in pairs.

"I got my pair for $20," said Ingraham. "That's about a quarter of the price I would have paid in a store. Admittedly, they had spent a year sloshing about the Pacific, but after I'd worn them a couple of times they loosened up and are quite comfortable now."

The fact that their shoes were still wearable after many months' battering by storms and water would suggest Nike products have a certain weather-proofing prowess, a quality that could well be marketed. However, this has not been seized upon.

"We contacted Nike, but they didn't want to know," said Ingraham. "Maybe a beachcomber's recommendation is not quite the testimony that Nike was seeking."

Maybe not, but the longevity of the gym shoes has been a real boost for Ingraham who, with colleague Curtis Ebbesmeyer, began studying the shoes' oceanographic peregrinations. They used the data to produce a lengthy paper for the journal Transactions of the American Geophysical Union.

They report that many of the shoes appeared farther south than would normally have been expected for flotsam borne by the tropical Pacific currents that head north to Alaska.

Now, as the currents have swept back out to sea from Oregon, the shoes have been heading south and east, and already some have appeared on the shores of Hawaii.

"The next stop is Japan," added Ingraham. "After that, they will start on their second circle of the Pacific Ocean."