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Call Him Ishmael

Donovan Hohn goes in search of rubber duckies for his modern-day Moby Dick


Story by Brian Rash. Photography by Brian Rash and Melissa Mayer.

Donovan Hohn is five minutes late to class at Friends Seminary in Manhattan. In the main auditorium of the private Quaker school, the students are about to assemble, eager to hear from the famous former teacher who turned a student assignment into a bestselling book about 28,800 yellow rubber duckies lost at sea. In the front office, faculty and administrators greet Donovan enthusiastically as he signs in tardy. “Donovan Hohn!” one teacher calls out. “Moby-Duck, right?” Donovan smiles and nods, then sneaks away. His journalism students are long gone, but he is eager to see his old classroom three flights up. Room 409. He lingers for a second at the threshold, taking in the antiquated wooden desks that reflect the heritage of the 200-year-old school. This is where he taught his students the importance of exhaustive research, where his bright but troubled student, Big Poppa, first decided to tell the story of his good luck charm named “Luck Duck.”

Donovan is just back from England, promoting his first book, Moby-Duck, by beachcombing along The River Thames with a Daily Telegraph reporter. Like a teacher eager to share a new lesson, he begins his talk at Friends Seminary by sharing something he knows will intrigue his young audience. “When I was in England,” he tells the hushed auditorium, “I pulled from my shoulder bag some bath toys, which I’m going to do now.” One by one, he removes the bath toys from his dark brown satchel. A yellow duckie – much like the one he had as a child – is first. Then, a blue turtle and a green frog. “My favorite one … I actually left at home ... is a maraschino-cherry-red beaver,” he says. The kids laugh.

Donovan is in his element. “When I pulled those out of my handbag for the reporter in London, she was very kind,” he confides, “but she compared me to a low-rent magician (more laughs), which I love.”

In 2005 Donovan was here at Friends, teaching journalism to high school seniors, freelancing for magazines on the side. His assignment to his class that spring: Annotate an object, read everything you can on your object, obsess over your object. Big Poppa, the class clown, chose his personal talisman – a yellow rubber duckie with pouty red lips and a vivid yellow polyethylene body. Big Poppa had found an article in The New York Times about 28,800 rubber bath toys that had fallen off of a Chinese transport ship in 1992 just below the Aleutian Islands in the North Pacific Subpolar Gyre. Beachcombers were still trying to map the paths of these toys, hoping to discover where they might wash up along the beaches of the Northern Hemisphere.

Donovan, looking for a story close to home and his pregnant wife, decided this might be a fun piece to research from the convenience of Manhattan. He was intrigued by the idea that the plastic toys could end up 2,000 miles away from the Aleutians in the Artic. With Big Poppa’s blessing, he pitched the idea to his editor at Harper’s Magazine. His plan was to report from his desk. “It’ll be whimsical … an essay. I’ll narrate their journey and do archival research on the Arctic and toys,” he would later say. Early pieces bobbed up in Harper’s and Outside while Donovan worked on Moby-Duck, the saga of his five-year journey searching for the rubber duckies from the plastic-infested beaches of Alaska, to the open waters off Hawaii, the glaciers off Greenland, the Arctic Circle, as well as the toy factories of China’s Pearl River Delta. (The full title is quite a mouthful: Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them.)

The journey would force Donovan from home for months at a time, thousands of miles from his indulgent (his word) pregnant wife at first, then thousands of miles from his indulgent wife and newborn son. Pitfalls and phobias ensued, as did paternalistic and spousal guilt. (Despite a nice advance, money got tight, too.) But along the way, Donovan’s essay-from-a-desk turned into a major work of nonfiction about ocean pollution and a memoirist’s rumination on fatherhood – all of it harkening back to Herman Melville’s great work of fiction, Moby Dick. Like the teacher-turned-sailor Ishmael, Donovan is both protagonist and narrator in his book, on a personal quest as much as a journalistic one. It was, he says, the only way to bring together the disparate experience of his reporting trips. “It’s a first-person book,” he says. “I’m the glue.”

He blames Melville for taking him away from home and school – “blame” is his precise word. “I sometimes blame Herman for derailing my teaching career,” he tells the students. He had been rereading Moby Dick for class. “I identified a bit unhealthily with his narrator Ishmael,” he says. Like Ishmael, who leaves teaching to board Ahab’s whaling ship the Pequod for the South Seas, Donovan set sail seeking answers at sea. To discover what had happened to the 28,800 toys swept to sea from the container ship Ever Laurel in 1992, he would learn about ocean currents and the six degrees of freedom in a ship’s movement as well as Chinese manufacturing practices, the sinister origins of the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign, the Coriolis Force, and more. As with Ishmael, the journey’s onset blossomed into a drama worthy of the high seas.

On the screen behind Donovan at Friends Seminary now is Curtis Ebbesmeyer, the oceanographer whose newsletter Beachcombers’ Alert! reported that plastic toys from the Ever Laurel had come ashore in Maine in 2003. “I did what journalists do,” Donovan tells the students. “In July 2005, not long after classes had let out at Friends Seminary, I drove up to Maine to interview the beachcombers who thought they’d seen a duck.” He didn’t find a rubber duck. He did find a mission.

the day after his speech, Donovan heads to a quaint little restaurant/bar on Lafayette Street called the NoHo Star. He worked there as a day bartender in the ’90s. It’s a favorite hangout of Harper’s writers and editors, as their offices are right around the corner. He orders the fried chicken salad and a Neff beer, an order he says is more out of nostalgia than anything else. He remembers working here, making $250 a week.

Desperate to break into nonfiction writing, he made friends with a coworker, a waitress, who had asked to read his first short story, “Near-Death Experiences.” On the off chance she might show it to a deputy editor at Harper’s, he gave her a copy. The ploy worked, and at the editor’s suggestion, he applied for an internship – unpaid, of course. “I have mixed feelings about unpaid internships,” he says. “I think it can be a drag on wages. It can be a form of exploitation. But as far as an education goes, that internship, as an apprenticeship, I think was probably more valuable to me than J-school would’ve been.”

Even in his teens, Donovan wanted to write fiction. His resume is scary good: B.A. in English at Oberlin College, Fulbright teaching assistant at the prestigious Lycee Faidherbe in France, summer writing tutor at Harvard University, master’s in creative fiction writing from Boston University, MFA in poetry from the University of Michigan, first published in the literary journal AGNI in 1995, the year after he graduated from Oberlin at 22. In the middle of all that heady learning, however, he fell out of love with fiction and fell in love with journalism, specifically nonfiction narrative.

Donovan attributes his switch to nonfiction to his zeal for the hunt, following the narrative. He loves the research part of it, especially the interviews. “The whole pleasure of long-form narrative nonfiction is that ability to immerse yourself in a subject in a way that a newspaper reporter never can,” he says. In Moby Dick, Ishmael talks about how he swam through libraries and sailed across oceans. “Everything I do, I like to have both,” says Donovan. “You want to be out there observing and learning firsthand from experience in a way that a scholar wouldn’t necessarily, unless they were an ethnographer or a field scientist.” But there’s a delight in research, too, he notes, “in finding that quote in a government health manual from the middle of the 20th century, or whatever it is, because it’s a kind of treasure hunting.” It’s easy to imagine this as one of Donovan’s mantras, whether he’s peering into shark-infested waters about to jump in or poring over research in the drab corners of a public library.

In 2005, Donovan had pitched Harper’s about the Detroit Zoo’s decision to send its elephants off to retirement in a sanctuary for former circus animals in California. But the narrative would mean a summer in Detroit, away from his pregnant wife, so he started searching for another idea that would require less travel, he says. And that’s when Big Poppa’s essay about the bath toys swept out to sea crossed his desk at Friends Seminary. Harper’s bit on the idea. And then, because things always go wrong with long-form stories, or juicy opportunities turn up, Donovan got an invite to go to Sitka, Alaska, with Ebbesmeyer to scour the beaches for rubber duckies at its annual Beachcombers’ Fair. “How can you pass that up? It means that you’re going to be able to turn a source into an actual character.” He and his pregnant wife discussed the logistics, talked to her doctor, and Donovan was on his way.

 

Chasing an icon of his childhood – the rubber duckie – Donovan realized his son, Bruno, and his own guilt were part of the story.

 

Chasing an icon of his childhood – the rubber duckie – Donovan realized his son, Bruno, and his own guilt were part of the story. Hohn’s similarities to Ishmael, also a schoolteacher who left behind a wife and child for maritime adventure, deepened. “I think the biggest question that I get asked lately is, ‘Does your wife hate you?’” he says, as he strides out of the Conde Nast building, where he works as features editor at GQ. Ironically, he says, the situation at home was much worse than he let on in the book. He was teaching at Friends while his wife Beth was freelancing with no maternity leave. They were in financial trouble despite paying way less than the average to rent in the Manhattan real estate market. (His in-laws rent them a tiny 800-square-foot home in the West Village.) “The reality that’s not in the book,” he says, “is basically that we couldn’t afford the child we were about to have.”

The other reality, hinted at only in small doses, usually via recollections of his family back home, he says, was the extent of his unhappiness on the road. “There are people I know, writers who have written for me who love the swashbuckling life,” he says. They travel the world – and tend to be bachelors, he points out. “For me, the pleasures of travel mostly arrive at the end when it’s vivid in my mind and memory and I’ve got great material to work with. But I get terribly homesick. If I’m in a hotel for four days and on the road for two and a half weeks in China with no one to talk to, don’t know the language …, it’s just you can lose your wits,” he says. In reality, he stitched his trips together in short bursts, so he could be home more. “It’s funny when I talk to other journalists about it, it’s rare to see journalists writing that homesickness and parental guilt into their books,” he says. “It’s an occupational hazard” and an obstacle when choosing stories to report.

Writers are used to obstacles, of course, and Donovan had his share – from dead ends in research to his fear of shark-infested waters and an almost equal fear of heights. At one point, he wasn’t sure he would find the Po Sing factory in Dongguan, China, in the now heavily industrialized Pearl River Delta that manufactured the toys lost at sea – a crucial part of his reconstruction. For a section about the ducks’ passage through the Arctic, he says, it took months of “wooing and letter writing” to persuade the Canadian Coast Guard to give him a cabin on an iceberg. In Alaska, he combed the beaches of Gore Point after undergoing a microdiscectomy a year earlier to repair an acutely herniated disc.

Now he can be philosophical about the multiple challenges. “One of the things that I’ve learned is that there’s almost always a solution and sometimes those obstacles turn out to be a gift, too,” he says. “For me, even the birth of my child was a kind of an obstacle. I had to get home. I had to hurry.”

One evening, as Donovan called his wife, Beth, from Resurrection Bay in Alaska, his whimsical, hypothetical constructs of how he would handle being away from his son were swept out to sea. Beth told him that Bruno had begun to display a seemingly genetic propensity for general fearfulness, just like Papa. They were staying with a friend at a beach house in Delaware. Bruno would not go near the water. She beckoned him to the phone. Almost 2 years old, he sprinted to hear the sound of his father’s voice, tripped and cried for an achingly long time. Beth dropped the phone and ran to console Bruno. “Standing there on the Alaskan coast, gazing out past the marina at Resurrection Bay, listening to my son wailing inconsolably somewhere on the coast of Delaware, in a house I couldn’t imagine, I felt like a truant, a deadbeat dad,” Donovan writes in Moby-Duck. “Like a serial deserter who’d dressed up his restlessness in the trappings of a quest.”

He knew his quest to find the bath toys could come across as yet another doom-and-gloom story about the health of the world’s oceans today. He didn’t want to “preach to the choir.” He kept his distance from what he calls “apocalyptic mode” in writing.  “I don’t want to make too much of Moby Dick, but if you’ve read that novel, there were lessons I learned and took to heart and thought about very self-consciously,” he says. Melville, he points out, “would have a moment of slapstick comedy, followed by a moment of sublime horror, followed by moments of dark, dark satire. It’s that mix of different modes that makes the book so marvelous.”

At times, Donovan found himself sucked into the dismal lives of his characters, making him reflect on his own family life and fatherhood. Case in point: Alaska native and environmentalist Chris Pallister. During Donovan’s second research trip, out to a popular beachcombing spot in Gore Point, Alaska, he briefly lodged with his source. Chris, head of the nonprofit conservationist group GoAK (Gulf of Alaska Keeper), was determined to clean up the beaches of his home state, and Donovan was, of course, searching for bath toys. As the two became close in the tight quarters of Chris’ home, Donovan’s host revealed that he and his wife were about to divorce, but that he still harbored hopes of winning her back. “I had a certain amount of admiration for the enormity of will and effort that went into this possibly misguided attempt to rid the Alaskan maritime wilderness of all things manmade,” says Donovan. “In some ways, he was the most Ahab-like of all the characters I met. Just so determined on the one goal, no matter what.”

As he pulled the details of Chris’ work and life from him, Donovan says he was acutely aware of “the seduction” he used in getting Chris’ story. He did what great narrative writers such as Studs Terkel, author of Working, have done and passed along to budding writers for generations: He listened; he empathized. “Just like an actor, you’re trying to make people feel at ease, and you don’t want them to feel like you’re being false in some way, but you are playing a role.” You edit what you do, or don’t, say. “What made him irresistible to me was that he was a man in crisis,” says Donovan. “Chris had financial problems, physically he was a wreck and he was lonely.” Suffocated by the unnecessarily close relationship forming between him and Chris, Donovan left and booked a hotel room. “I felt so trapped in his loneliness that I made up an excuse about needing to do some other research in Anchorage,” he admits.

None of those obstacles, says Donovan, compared to the woes that began when he returned from his last trip to the Arctic in 2008. A third of his book was written, but his advance from Viking was almost gone, a casualty of last-minute plane tickets home from places like Greenland. He had cashed out his retirement plan from Friends Seminary at a penalty. Writing a book, he says archly, is a “financially perilous thing to do.” He was going to have to tend bar again, he just knew it. “These kinds of moments are far more terrifying than walking around the ice in the habitat of polar bears,” he says. And that’s when he got lucky: The Whiting Foundation, which awards $50,000 annually to 10 fiction and nonfiction writers, called “like angels from on high” (and from out of the blue) to tell him he was one of 2008’s recipients.

Like Ahab’s wife in Moby Dick, Donovan’s wife, Beth, pops in and out of his book. She was no Penelope sitting at home knitting. “She wasn’t happy about it, but she was actually much more supportive than I think many readers assume,” he says. They agreed that his travels would ultimately be a boon to young Bruno, instilling a feeling of wonderment for the world. “You know the gamble paid off. ... It’s not everyone’s idea of a wise strategy for increasing your income, writing a magazine piece about a bunch of bath toys, but it led to a book deal.”

the f train takes Donovan down Manhattan to the Brooklyn Bridge. You can see Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty from the bridge, but Donovan is going under the bridge, beachcombing along the only sandy shoreline in Manhattan. Heading east, he gets lost between Little Italy and Chinatown, but 20 minutes later, the sounds of taxis and buses, the squealing of bike brakes, the fast-paced conversations of New York City begin to fade, replaced by the sounds of gulls squawking and teenagers running on the beach. The air now smells like the saltwater punch of an actual beach.

He has a new book idea, a new dream himself. It’s an idea he’s held onto for a while, waiting for the right format. During the Russo-Polish War of 1920, aerial fighting became a viable mode of warfare. The new book will tell the story of a battle between cavalry upon horseback and a biplane air assault. When he leaves for Eastern Europe in 2013 to research his new project, he hopes to bring his family, which now includes a second son, 3-year-old Malachy.

Here on the beach, Donovan is suddenly animated. A bunch of industrial-strength chains bar the passage to the beach, but, still cautious about his bad back, he carefully straddles the fence in his dress pants and lands on a patch of dirty, pebbled earth. He starts combing the beach. “You’ll find all kinds of stuff out here: lighters, tampon applicators, things like that. Look.”  He points out a pair of jeans stuffed and tied at the cuffs. A flotation device for some poor drifter, he guesses. He finds a group of zip ties. “These things might not have been washed up here,” he says, musing that they might have been used as temporary handcuffs by the NYPD. After a few minutes, he looks for his favorite graffito quote. “It looks like they painted over it,” he says, disappointed to see splotches of blue and black paint and rust on an old dock support beam. “It read: D[ow]n under the bridge/Big city of dreams,” he says.

As he peers out into the East River, over to Brooklyn, things grow quiet. Even the children on the tiny beach have stopped running and are huddled together, talking quietly. The brief moment of peace is reminiscent of the ending of Moby-Duck. Donovan is with his son, Bruno, at a park along the Hudson River. His worldwide journey is over. Bruno collects pinecones while Donovan scours the area for “dog turds and syringes and fragments of broken glass.” Then they both begin throwing pinecones out into the Hudson, and the father and son give chase as the cones float downstream. As they drift out to sea, Papa tells Bruno of all the amazing places they might end up.

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Donovan Hohn goes in search of rubber duckies for his modern-day Moby Dick
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