If a cork floats, then so should a boat made of corks, right?
That hypothesis was proposed by 6-year-old John Pollack shortly after his first boat -- made not from cork, but from orange crates and firewood lashed together with bumper stickers -- sank on its maiden voyage, in a pond near his boyhood home in Ann Arbor, Mich. It was a simple enough idea, this boat made of corks, but it took Pollack three decades to turn his childhood fantasy into a buoyant reality, a feat he chronicles in his book Cork Boat (Pantheon, $21).
Cork Boat tacks from memoir to travelogue and even brings us up to speed on the history of the cork, from its beginnings in ancient Egypt, through its forgotten years and rediscovery by a blind monk named Dom Pérignon, to today's "cork wars" between natural and synthetic closures.
The story starts in 1999. Pollack, while working as a speechwriter in Washington, D.C., became disenchanted with workaday politics and quit his job, having decided to finally make something of the thousands of corks he had collected since he was a child: the world's first cork boat.
For more than a year, Pollack scoured D.C. bars and restaurants for leftover corks, using his tenacious enthusiasm to charm other would-be cork savers into volunteering for his project.
If Pollack was the visionary, then his partner in the project -- architect Garth Goldstein -- was the pragmatist who was essential to the boat's design: stacks of honeycomb-shaped discs lashed together into "logs" with rubber bands and netting. These cork logs were durable and flexible, with not a drop of glue necessary.
The corks Pollack gathered were not nearly enough to construct the rig the duo envisioned, so they approached California-based Cork Supply USA, one of the country's largest suppliers of natural corks, where their story caught the attention of company owner Jochen Michalski. More than 100,000 donated corks later, the Cork Boat was a reality, a 22-foot-long Viking-style sailboat comprised of 165,321 natural corks. Although the boat weighed about 3,000 pounds with crew and gear, when Pollack tested it in the Potomac River, he proved that his childhood dream was no Spruce Goose: It sailed.
Then came an offer from Cork Supply: Would Pollack and Goldstein come to Portugal in the summer of 2002 to sail the Cork Boat down the Douro River? Pollack had originally planned on a maiden voyage through French wine country, but Portugal, where many of the world's natural corks are produced, seemed like the just the spot. Cork Supply agreed to pick up the tab for shipping the boat across the Atlantic and helped expedite the customs process so Pollack could launch on schedule.
In July 2002, Pollack, Goldstein and the Cork Boat set sail in Barca d'Alva, near the Spanish border, and sailed 410 miles downriver to Porto, where the Douro spills into the Atlantic. During the trip, Pollack and his crew were greeted by enthusiastic spectators and given bottles of wine and Porto from local producers like J.P. Vinhos, Quinta do Vale Meão, Quinta de la Rosa, Quinta do Vesuvio and Cálem.
Wine Spectator recently sat down with Pollack to ask him about the Cork Boat.
What first attracted you to collecting corks?
I think I've always associated collecting with exotic places and history. My family traveled a great deal, so I collected stamps and coins. Corks are similar in that they come from all over. Each cork has a story to tell, whether it's a toast or celebration or a special meal, and so in collecting all these corks you're collecting all these stories.
While gathering corks to build your boat, did you run across others who shared your hobby?
The competition for corks was fierce. I was surprised how many people collect corks. I was glad people were saving their corks, because they were in a sense kindred spirits. But it was frustrating at times to compete with them.
I think collecting corks by its nature brought a lot of people together. One of the reasons the project resonated with people was because they could participate by sending in their corks. When we launched the Cork Boat in the Potomac, a guy came up to us and said, "I've been saving corks for years, and people have always been giving me grief about it. Now I can tell them I'm saving to build a cork boat."
You hit your share of roadblocks and setbacks while constructing the Cork Boat. How did you get past your frustrations?
I always told myself, if you give up, only give up for the rest of the day, then start afresh in the morning. Had I known how many obstacles there would be at the beginning of the project, I might have been discouraged. But by taking it one day at a time, nothing seemed insurmountable. At a certain point we had no choice but to keep pushing ahead.
What was the biggest obstacle?
The biggest challenge was figuring out how to attach 165,000 corks without glue in a way that was secure and flexible. That took a lot of trial and error. Even after we figured out that hexagonal disks were the way to go, figuring out how to join the disks together and compress them into the logs was vexing.
You enlisted more than 100 volunteers to help you build the boat. How did you convince so many people to join in?
I think enthusiasm is contagious, and if someone is enthusiastic in what they're doing, other people gravitate to that. The Cork Boat offered different things to different people: a sense of community, an opportunity to work with one's hands, and it was just plain fun.
In Cork Boat, you say the project was especially therapeutic in the weeks following Sept. 11.
After Sept. 11, I thought about dropping the project or at least putting it on hold, because it seemed too frivolous. But I went to work on the boat a few days after, to take a breather from the world. And people just started showing up from all over, to be with friends, to work off nervous energy, to try to make some order out of chaos. And that was really moving. So when people came together around the boat, I realized that it mattered not less, but more, than before.
During your trip through Portugal's wine country, did you discover any new favorite wines?
I learned to really enjoy Port. All along the Douro, people gave us bottles of wine and vintage Port. It was a very good gift, because it was personal, intimately related to the land through which we were traveling and imbued with history. And while traveling down the river, you're surrounded by these old vineyards that come right down to the water. The Romans terraced the hillsides along the river 2,000 years ago.
In the Douro Valley, wine is the major industry, along with the tourism it attracts. I came away with a great appreciation for certain producers, for both sentimental reasons and because I like their wine.
One producer, J.P. Vinhos, was very generous in supplying our voyage with libations. As we were preparing the boat, they sent over cases of red, white and sparkling wines. So we were well-stocked for the entire trip and became big fans of their wines.
Another was Quinta do Vale Meão, which has a beautiful vineyard and winery.
How did the boat handle on its way down the river?
It was incredibly stable. We used the sail when the wind was favorable. That was rare. For the most part, the wind was against us and made for very hard rowing. And we only lost one cork.
Where do you fall on the wine-closure debate?
Proponents of different closures, whether they're screwcaps, synthetic or natural cork, all argue their relative merits. But for me the real question is, while there may be a role for synthetic or screw-top closures, who wants to unscrew a bottle of wine? Part of drinking wine is the aesthetic experience. We can industrialize everything in our lives, but I think tradition is more important now than ever before.
The general public and many wine lovers don't realize that cork is a sustainable agricultural product -- it's harvested every nine years from barks of ancient trees. Entire villages in Portugal depend on this industry for their livelihood, and their stewardship of the cork forest protects the native habitats of several endangered species, from the Iberian lynx to the imperial eagle.
Plus, it's hard to build a boat out of screw-tops. And synthetic corks are ugly.
So there's no plan for a plastic cork boat?
What is your next project?
I don't have a next big project figured out. I try to remember that the Cork Boat didn't start out as a big idea, it started out as a small idea, with a single cork. That's one lesson I take from the experience: Sometimes great things start small, and you have to be patient in nurturing them along.
The whole thing makes me think about the nature of adventure, because adventure today is often defined as danger. And adventure doesn't have to be dangerous. Not that there's anything wrong with dangerous adventures. But saving corks for a boat and sailing it through wine country was an adventure, but I wasn't in danger at any time. It was challenging and exhausting, but totally worth it.
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