Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Moby-Duck by Donovan Hohn.

Author photos: Beth Chimera

Copyright © 2011 by Donovan Hohn.


At the outset, I felt no need to acquaint myself with the six degrees of freedom. I’d never heard of the Great North Pacific Garbage Patch. I liked my job and loved my wife and was inclined to agree with Emerson that travel is a fool’s paradise. I just wanted to learn what had really happened, where the toys had drifted and why. I loved the part about containers falling off a ship, the part about the oceanographers tracking the castaways with the help of far-flung beachcombers. I especially loved the part about the rubber duckies crossing the Arctic, going cheerfully where explorers had gone boldly and disastrously before.

At the outset, I had no intention of doing what I eventually did: quit my job, kiss my wife farewell, and ramble about the Northern Hemisphere aboard all manner of watercraft. I certainly never expected to join the crew of a fifty-one-foot catamaran captained by a charismatic environmentalist, the Ahab of plastic hunters, who had the charming habit of exterminating the fruit flies clouding around his stash of organic fruit by hoovering them out of the air with a vacuum cleaner.

Certainly I never expected to transit the Northwest Passage aboard a Canadian icebreaker in the company of scientists investigating the Arctic’s changing climate and polar bears lunching on seals. Or to cross the Graveyard of the Pacific on a container ship at the height of the winter storm season. Or to ride a high-speed ferry through the smoggy, industrial backwaters of China’s Pearl River Delta, where, inside the Po Sing plastic factory, I would witness yellow pellets of polyethylene resin transmogrify into icons of childhood.

I’d never given the plight of the Laysan albatross a moment’s thought. Having never taken organic chemistry, I didn’t know and therefore didn’t care that pelagic plastic has the peculiar propensity to adsorb hydrophobic, lipophilic, polysyllabic toxins such as dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (a.k.a. DDT) and polychlorinated biphenyls (a.k.a. PCBs). Nor did I know or care that such toxins are surprisingly abundant at the ocean’s surface, or that they bioaccumulate as they move up the food chain. Honestly, I didn’t know what “pelagic” or “adsorb” meant, and if asked to use “lipophilic” and “hydrophobic” in a sentence I’d have applied them to someone with a weight problem and a debilitating fear of drowning.

If asked to define the “six degrees of freedom,” I would have assumed they had something to do with existential philosophy or constitutional law. Now, years later, I know: the six degrees of freedom—delicious phrase!—are what naval architects call the six different motions floating vessels make. Now, not only can I name and define them, I’ve experienced them firsthand. One night, sleep-deprived and nearly broken, in thirty-five-knot winds and twelve-foot seas, I would overindulge all six—rolling, pitching, yawing, heaving, swaying, and surging like a drunken libertine—and, after buckling myself into an emergency harness and helping to lower the mainsail, I would sway and surge and pitch as if drunkenly into the head, where, heaving, I would liberate my dinner into a bucket.

At the outset, I figured I’d interview a few oceanographers, talk to a few beachcombers, read up on ocean currents and Arctic geography, and then write an account of the incredible journey of the bath toys lost at sea, an account more detailed and whimsical than the tantalizingly brief summaries that had previously appeared in news stories. And all this I would do, I hoped, without leaving my desk, so that I could be sure to be present at the birth of my first child.


But questions, I’ve learned since, can be like ocean currents. Wade in a little too far and they can carry you away. Follow one line of inquiry and it will lead you to another, and another. Spot a yellow duck dropped atop the seaweed at the tide line, ask yourself where it came from, and the next thing you know you’re way out at sea, no land in sight, dog-paddling around in mysteries four miles deep. You’re wondering when and why yellow ducks became icons of childhood. You want to know what it’s like inside the toy factories of Guangdong. You’re marveling at the scale of humanity’s impact on this terraqueous globe and at the oceanic magnitude of your own ignorance. You’re giving the plight of the Laysan albatross many moments of thought.

The next thing you know, it’s the middle of the night and you’re on the outer decks of a post-Panamax freighter due south of the Aleutian island where, in 1741, shipwrecked, Vitus Bering perished from scurvy and hunger. The winds are gale force. The water is deep and black, and so is the sky. It’s snowing. The decks are slick. Your ears ache, your fingers are numb. Solitary, nocturnal circumambulations of the outer decks by supernumerary passengers are strictly forbidden, for good reason. Fall overboard and no one would miss you. You’d inhale the ocean and go down, alone. Nevertheless, there you are, not a goner yet, gazing up at the shipping containers stacked six-high overhead, and from them cataracts of snowmelt and rain are spattering on your head. There you are, listening to the stacked containers strain against their lashings, creaking and groaning and cataracting with every roll, and with every roll you are wondering what in the name of Neptune it would take to make stacks of steel—or for that matter aluminum—containers fall.

Or you’re learning how to tie a bowline knot and say thank you in both Inuktitut and Cantonese.

Or you’re spending three days and nights in a shabby hotel room in Pusan, South Korea, waiting for your ship to come in, and you’re wondering what you could possibly have been thinking when you embarked on this harebrained journey, this wild duckie chase, and you’re drinking Scotch, and looking sentimentally at photos of your wife and son on your laptop, your wife and son who, on the other side of the planet, on the far side of the international date line, are doing and feeling and drinking God knows what. Probably not Scotch. And you’re remember ing the scene near the end of Moby-Dick when Starbuck, family man, first officer of the Pequod, tries in vain to convince mad Ahab to abandon his doomed hunt. “Away with me!” Starbuck pleads, “let us fly these deadly waters! let us home!”

And you’re dreaming nostalgically of your former life of chalk boards and Emily Dickinson and parent-teacher conferences, and wishing you could go back to it, wishing you’d never contacted the heavyset Dr. E., or learned of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or met the Ahab of plastic hunters, or the heartsick conservationist or the foulmouthed beachcomber or the blind oceanographer, any of them. You’re wishing you’d never given Big Poppa the chance to write about Luck Duck, because if you hadn’t you’d never have heard the fable of the rubber ducks lost at sea. You’d still be teaching Moby-Dick to American teenagers. But that’s the thing about strong currents: there’s no swimming against them.

The next thing you know years have passed, and you’re still adrift, still waiting to see where the questions take you. At least that’s what happens if you’re a nearsighted, school-teaching, would-be archaeologist of the ordinary, with an indulgent, long-suffering wife and a juvenile imagination, and you receive in the mail a manila envelope, and inside this envelope you find a dozen back issues of a cheaply produced newsletter, and in one of those newsletters you discover a wonderful map—if, in other words, you’re me.

That title. What were you thinking?

Yeah, the subtitle is really long. I wrote it early one morning after a seasickening deadline bender. I’d just finished the last chapter and was supposed to deliver the manuscript by the time Viking’s offices opened for business. It was already around 8 and I’d been up since 4. The working subtitle was “An Accidental Odyssey,” and I still kind of like that one, but I knew it was too coy, insufficiently expository. No way was I going to get to keep it. So I started playing. And I had in mind these 18th and 19th century shipwreck narratives. They were so popular they constituted a literary genre, Naufragia, from the French for shipwreck. They had subtitles the lengths of paragraphs. You can see for yourself. I quote one in full on page 251. I still wasn’t sure whether Viking would let me keep my own long subtitle, but god bless ‘em, they did.


No. Not the subtitle. The title. What were you thinking? I mean, Moby-Dick is this epic masterpiece, and you, my friend, whatever you are, are no Herman Melville.

It started as a kind of joke. I chose the title before I wrote a single word, which is unusual. Once I committed to it, I had to take the joke seriously. I knew that my voyage had to be a grand one. I often wished that for my first book I’d chosen a smaller project, a nice little monograph of an essay on oh, I don’t know, the pleasures and perils of bicycling in New York. But I love Moby-Dick, love the so-called informational chapters as well as the action sequences. I think most of all I love the dynamics in Melville’s prose, the swells and troughs, the storms and calms, how it mixes the high and the low, the philosophical and the naughty. I used to tell my students to look out for the fart joke in chapter 1, “Loomings,” (hint, it has to do with the pythagorean maxim). Then, too, Ishmael is an insular Manhatto, like I was, a former schoolteacher as I was. I couldn’t resist. I carried a tattered, annotated copy around with me during my travels and kept it on my desk and sought inspiration in its pages. It sustained as well as daunted me. Frankly, I’d almost to prefer to talk about Melville’s book than mine.


Sorry. That’s not what The Nervous Breakdown asked for. I will let you quote a favorite passage, so long as it’s not one of the many that appear in the pages of your book.

So hard to choose! But when my hypos get the better of me, I find particular solace in these two. First a long, gorgeous, voyage of a passage:

“Would to God these blessed calms would last. But the mingled, mingling threads of life are woven by warp and woof: calms crossed by storms, a storm for every calm. There is no steady unretracing progress in this life; we do not advance through fixed gradations, and at the last one pause: — through infancy’s unconscious spell, boyhood’s thoughtless faith, adolescence’ doubt (the common doom), then scepticism, then disbelief, resting at last in manhood’s pondering repose of If. But once gone through, we trace the round again; and are infants, boys, and men, and Ifs eternally. Where lies the final harbor, whence we unmoor no more? In what rapt ether sails the world, of which the weariest will never weary?”

The “pondering repose of If”! Then, secondly, an aphoristic one:

“There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness.”


I said “one.” No more Melville for you. Back to the ducks. Do you collect them?

No. But people have started giving them to me. For well-intentioned reasons. And I feel kind of obliged to keep them, but I really would  rather not acquire any more. I would say, however, that duckie collecting is, like most things, more interesting than you might think. On a trip that didn’t make it into the book, I visited the woman who owns the Guinness record-setting duckie collection, Charlotte Lee. She turned out to be this smart, interesting sociologist who’d written a sociological study of duck collectors.


Quick. One image that you remember from your travels that you didn’t manage to find a place for in the book. First thing that pops into your head.

The old part of Guangzhou. Back streets like corridors in a maze. On a window grating someone had hung out heads of lettuce, presumably to dry.


Are you working on something new?

The dread question. The answer is yes, but I’m going to be evasive by being facetious. One review called my book “the Moby-Dick of drifting ducks,” which is a nice way to describe it, but which if you pause over it makes “drifting ducks” sound like a literary subgenre. My wife said, “Next you can write The Lady Chatterly’s Lover of drifting ducks.” We made a kind of parlor game of it, coming up with the other books in my burgeoning franchise: The Duckameron. Duck Quixote. My personal favorite: Duckleberry Finn.


There’s much about fatherhood and childhood in the book. One of your two sons even turns up as a kind of recurring character. What does he want to be when he grows up?

His plans keep changing, of course. Recently, he’s decided to be the host of a televised cooking show. But once he told me that he was going to be a scientist so that he can go to Antarctica and bring things back for me and his mother. Another time, god help him, he said he wanted to be “a papa and a writer.” He even had a great book title picked out.


What was it?

The Frogs of Australia.