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Tall tails

Oct 1, 2012

Penguin

There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul!

          - Emily Dickinson

 

Armchair sailing, whether that armchair is in a landed living room or a gently rolling main saloon bunk at anchor, is quite often a literary pursuit, and like most passions, the selection of books to further slake the thirst for cruising adventure offers countless choices.

Boat owners, captains, crewmembers, and dreamers have turned to the printed page for centuries, tagging along vicariously on the grandest voyages. Joshua Slocum’s Sailing Along Around The World, Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before The Mast, Sir Francis Chichester’s Gypsy Moth Circles The World, Airborne: A Sentimental Journey by William F. Buckley Jr., Robert Manry’s Tinkerbelle, Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific By Raft, a bookshelf’s worth of Tristan Jones from The Incredible Voyage to Encounters of a Wayward Sailor, and even Edward Lear’s poem, “The Owl and the Pussy Cat” — the choices beckon from an endless string of titles.

But here’s one book that could arguably be the strangest voyaging adventure of all.

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, written by Donovan Hohn and published in 2011.

In 1992, en route from Hong Kong to Seattle aboard a container ship, nearly 29,000 rubber ducks and other bath toys — the Chinese-manufactured “Friendly Floaties” — were washed overboard. Much of this playful flotsam was destined to run laps around the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, driven by the North Pacific Gyre. Some broke free of the whirling current to make landfall in Alaska and Hawaii. Others spent years marooned in the Arctic ice, which oceanographers predicted would transport them to the Atlantic and the British Isles — a 15-year, 17,000-mile voyage.

Mr. Hohn’s chronicle of the hunt for the great yellow rubber ducks made the New York Times list of the 100 Notable Books of 2011. As sailing yarns go, tailing this flock of plastic fowl makes for quite a tall tale indeed.

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