Cork Boat: A True Story of the Unlikeliest Boat Ever Built

Cork Boat: A True Story of the Unlikeliest Boat Ever Built

4.5 2
by John Pollack
165,321 corks
1 boat

Most people have childhood dreams; few ever pursue them. At the age of 34, John Pollack quit a prestigious speechwriting job on Capitol Hill to pursue an idea he had harbored since the age of six: to build a boat out of wine corks and take it on an epic journey.

In Cork Boat, Pollack tells the charming and uplifting story of this


165,321 corks
1 boat

Most people have childhood dreams; few ever pursue them. At the age of 34, John Pollack quit a prestigious speechwriting job on Capitol Hill to pursue an idea he had harbored since the age of six: to build a boat out of wine corks and take it on an epic journey.

In Cork Boat, Pollack tells the charming and uplifting story of this unlikely adventure. Overcoming one obstacle after another, he convinces skeptical bartenders to save corks, corrals a brilliant but disorganized partner, and cajoles more than a hundred volunteers to help build the boat, many until their fingers bleed. Hired as a speechwriter for President Clinton midway through construction, Pollack soon has the White House saving corks, too. Ultimately, he and his crew set sail down the Douro River in Portugal, where the boat becomes a national sensation. Written with unusual grace and disarming humor, Cork Boat is a buoyant tale of camaraderie, determination, and the power of imagination.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“As the boat bobs down the Douro River to the cheers of the crowd, Pollack’s absurd quest seems not merely charming but heroic.” –The New Yorker

“A surprisingly charming memoir.” —Esquire

“An adventure whose goofiness is exceeded only by its fun.” –Detroit Free Press

“Fascinating and extraordinary.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“A great story of adventure and imagination.” —The Oregonian

“Irresistible. . . . This adventurous memoir is the perfect post-holiday escape. It is a hearty affirmation that dreams can–and sometimes do–come true.” –Tucson Citizen

“Compelling. . . . Pollack is so likable that it’s hard not to root for him. . . . After reading this book, you might never look at a cork–or a pipe dream–in quite the dame way again.” –San Antonio Express-News

“This spiritual journey on a boat made from wine bottle corks is . . . well worth taking. This Cork Boat floats.” –Orlando Sentinel

“Written in a style of singular grace and impact. . . . The example of John Pollack imagining and fashioning this object of rare, if bizarre beauty, is worthy of warmest admiration.” –Washington Times

“This buoyant nonfiction adventure saga is bound to float any armchair adventurer right out of the winter doldrums.” –Boston Herald

“A Quixotic tale that made me chuckle–and brought a lump to my throat.” –Witold Rybczynski, author of Home

“What can be more fun than a childhood fantasy realized and beautifully told? An absolute delight for sailors; for landspeople; for people like ourselves who delight in the simple, noble, and amusing cork, often the best part of the wine.” –David and Daniel Hays, authors of My Old Man and the Sea

“[Pollack’s] breezy writing and witty asides go well with a comfy armchair and a bottle of wine.” —Washingtonian

“Hard to resist.” –Arizona Republic

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.19(w) x 7.97(h) x 0.65(d)

Read an Excerpt

A Boy and a Boat

My first boat sank. I was six years old and had hammered it together from old orange crates and split firewood, sealing the cracks with bumper stickers from an Ann Arbor City Council candidate named Ulrich Stoll. When it was finished, I walked around the neighborhood and invited people to the launch. Saturday morning, at the pond.

On the big day, my family, a few neighbors, and one or two of their dogs dutifully assembled at the small, reedy marsh at the end of our block. As my mom cinched on my life jacket, my dad set the boat in the water. More excited than nervous, I stepped aboard.

It was a short voyage—straight down. Within seconds, brown water started gurgling up around my ankles, then gushing over the sides. Before I could even think about abandoning ship, it was all over. There I stood, knee-deep in water, my boat stuck fast on the muddy bottom.

Afterward, I wheeled the boat home on my wagon and junked it behind our garage. But I wasn’t discouraged. I was happy—I had built a real boat! And I was already thinking about my next one. I would just have to build it out of something guaranteed to float, no matter what.

I eventually settled on wine corks, the kind my parents pulled out of the bottle at the dinner table once or twice a week. Since it was impossible to sink a cork, I reasoned, it would be even more impossible to sink a lot of corks.

And so I started saving them, one by one.

From then on, all my parents’ corks went into a wooden bowl on the kitchen counter. To them, whether or not I could ever save enough corks was irrelevant. In our family, imagination itself was a prime virtue, and they encouraged my older sister, Sara, and me to let ours run free. In a home governed largely by expectations, not rules, I can remember only one explicit mandate from my mom: we weren’t allowed to get bored. Sara and I—separated by only a year and a half—were united by that challenge, and we constantly conspired to keep things interesting.

My parents set a good example. My mom was always busy in those early years, teaching dance and running local political campaigns. Apart from the surplus bumper stickers we often got as a result, Sara and I also learned that hard-fought battles, even losing ones, were worth the effort. In 1972, the two of us organized a dozen neighborhood kids to hold a bake sale for George McGovern, pulling an assortment of cupcakes and cookies from house to house on our wagons. I recall hauling them up one especially steep driveway, a veritable Everest, and ringing the doorbell at its summit. I can still see the owner, in a dark blue dress and towering bouffant, answering our pitch with a friendly but firm “I’m sorry. We’re for Mr. Nixon.”

My dad was a popular professor of geophysics at the University of Michigan, where he still teaches today. Always eager to travel the world, he saw no need to choose between family and fieldwork. So wherever he went, we went, too, whether it meant flying into the Amazon on a rattletrap Cessna, ply- ing the waters of Lake Titicaca in a traditional reed boat, or jouncing down some of the worst roads in Africa in a mud-spattered Land Rover.

If our family travels weren’t always comfortable or easy, they were never dull. In Zambia, we once picked up a tall hitchhiker in a red jumpsuit who carried a nine-foot spear. He smelled terrible, and Sara and I, sharing the backseat with him, secretly held our breath for as long as possible. Another time, when we were camping on an uninhabited island in Africa’s Lake Tanganyika, Sara spotted a cobra slithering toward our open tent. Within seconds, my mom grabbed a nearby shovel and, swinging it like a machete, chopped off the snake’s head.

Later that same year, as we were crossing the Zambezi River from Zambia to Botswana on a small, jerry-rigged ferry, a patrol boat from Rhodesia roared up the river and began circling us like a shark, trying to swamp the ferry’s outboard and send us drifting downstream into Rhodesian territory. Much to my dad’s dismay, my mom gave the soldiers a defiant, international gesture for “kiss my ass.” But we made it across safely. Sara and I assumed all of this was quite normal.

Back home in Ann Arbor, we traveled just as widely in our minds, reading book after book about explorers, pioneers, and inventors who helped make history and change the world. In our basement, Sara and I transformed an old refrigerator box into a spaceship, where we spent many happy hours exploring strange planets in faraway galaxies. I even sacrificed a few corks—the kind with plastic tops—for the cause. Inserted through the cardboard walls of our spacecraft, they made excellent knobs for adjusting the booster rockets.

When I was eleven, we moved to England for a year, for one of my dad’s sabbaticals. We lived in Durham, a small north- ern cathedral town, in a four-hundred-year-old gatekeeper’s cottage overlooking the River Wear. Every morning, Sara and I would put on our school uniforms and trudge off to the Durham Johnston Grammar Technical School, a gray, Dickensian institution where teachers—or “masters,” as they were called—required us to stand at attention whenever they entered the room, and complete our lessons with fountain pens.

But if the stern traditionalists at Durham Johnston were inclined to view Sara and me as wayward, latter-day colonials, we took it upon ourselves to excel to such a degree that there would be little doubt that the “Yanks,” as we were known, had not only won the Revolution but were first in their class, too.

And then, in a few horrible moments, my whole life changed. Leaving England, we took a family trip to India. After sharing a fun week aboard a houseboat on a gorgeous lake in Kashmir, my parents hired guides to take us all pony-trekking up into the Himalayas. Crossing a swollen river, Sara’s pony slipped on a rock and threw her into the rushing waters. My dad and two of our guides sprinted in to save her, but the thundering rapids and boulders overwhelmed them. Sara, along with one of the men who tried to save her, hit the rocks and was swept away. We searched the river for two days as we hiked out, but never found them. She was fourteen.

I was devastated beyond comprehension. Sara had been my best friend, and in a single, terrible fluke—just a few yards from safety—she had been taken from me forever. Gone were the games, the laughter, the mischievous conspiracies of our childhood. And gone were any illusions that the world was safe, that parents were all-powerful, or that life was fun. I might still have been a kid, but my childhood was over.

Already a close family, we pulled together even more. Still, the years of adolescence that followed were an exercise in abject misery, and I struggled through by channeling my grief into a frenetic schedule of study, sports, and music lessons. One of the few bright spots in junior high was building a raft with my best friend, Andrew, out of 126 cardboard milk cartons and several rolls of duct tape.

About ten feet long, the boat featured a sweeping prow that resembled a Viking ship, complete with a dragon’s head whose pointed horns were half-pint cartons, emptied of their half-and-half. We called our vessel the SS Milky Way, and launched it in the Huron River to a smattering of applause from friends and family. It floated beautifully, and we gave rides all afternoon before bringing it back to Andrew’s house. Unfortunately, only a day or so later, our craft began assuming the look and the smell of blue cheese. Only reluctantly, and at the strong insistence of Andrew’s dad, did we haul it to the curb for the garbage man.

Some years later, after high school, I took a summer job as a hotel groundskeeper on Mackinac Island, a small, historic resort island in Michigan’s Straits of Mackinac, at the confluence of Lakes Michigan and Huron. I had first visited the island in third grade, and was fascinated by its old colonial fort and the fact that it banned cars altogether. If you wanted to get around on Mackinac you either walked, rode your bicycle, or climbed aboard a horse-drawn wagon. More than anything, I loved all the boats that jammed its harbor, and went there hoping to spend time on the water.

Seeing I was young and fit, the head groundskeeper assigned me the task of moving rocks, work that made the prospect of two months on Mackinac seem more like a sentence on Alcatraz. After two days at hard labor, I hatched a plan. I had brought along my violin, and convinced the resort’s owner to give me a tryout as a violinist in his restaurant. “I’ve played the violin since I was four,” I said, concealing my nervous- ness. “I can do more for you making music than I can moving rocks.”

Something of a wheeler-dealer himself, he admired my chutzpah; he also liked the idea of replacing his maître d’s George Winston tapes with some live entertainment. So, for the next few days, I moved rocks by day and played violin by night. Then, when I complained that my hands could only manage one or the other, the owner shifted me to musical work altogether, and I traded my grubby jeans for a black suit, bow tie, and the easy life of a solo, strolling violinist.

The head groundskeeper grumbled at my escape from his rock pile, but I didn’t care. My quarry had now become all those romantic couples who tipped so generously for a few songs at tableside.

When I was done for the night, I’d walk home and pull the crumpled bills from my pockets—along with that night’s haul of corks. Not that I had plans to build the boat of my dreams anytime soon, but saving those corks reminded me, somehow, of happier times. By summer’s end when I shipped off the island, I had several hundred.

Meet the Author

Before working as a speechwriter at the White House and on Capitol Hill, John Pollack worked as a foreign correspondent, at a history museum, and as a strolling violinist. In 1995, he won the 18th Annual O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships. A native of Ann Arbor, Michigan, he now lives in New York City.

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Cork Boat: A True Story of the Unlikeliest Boat Ever Built 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
AJSTEIN More than 1 year ago
Written by an ex presidential speechwriter, Cork Boat is a fantastic account of whimsy, dedication, and the importance of pursuing dreams. Author John D. Pollack grows tired of the "totem-pole" mentality in Washington DC, and makes the decision to peruse his own childhood dream by making a boat entirely out of corks. Bringing together friends, family, and strangers from all walks of life, Pollack uses their combined ingenuity to create a system to lash the cords into disks, then lash the disks into logs, and finally to lash the logs into the first Cork Boat. After quitting his job, going back to work for President Clinton, and losing his job again, Pollack is even gained a sponsorship from Cork Supply USA to sail the boat down the Duro River in Portugal. This book is an account of how dedication and whimsy can pave the way to great things. Cork Boat is even more than proof that childhood dreams can actually be fulfilled, it is a modern account of how people from all walks of life can unite to a common purpose; it is a testament to the core of American values. Possible themes include: Ingenuity, Politics, Exploration, Pursuit of Childhood Dreams, Dedication, and Friendship, Boatbuilding
Guest More than 1 year ago
Cork Boat captures the reader's attention and holds it all the way to the end, rewarding you with chuckles, the occasional tear, and enough inspiration to give a lasting return on the investment of your time. John Pollack is the rare combination of someone who pursues a great project (the building of a boat made of 165,000 plus wine corks with the help of perhaps hundreds of others who contribute either corks or labor), lives a great adventure (a dozen-day float trip through Portuguese wine country), and rewards you with well-told flashbacks ranging from vignettes from his experience as a Washington speechwriter (including a stint for Clinton during his final year) to a surprisingly appropriate comparision of striving through physical exhaustion as a high school cross country runner to the grueling oar work aboard the Cork Boat. And along the way his analysis of his too early termination of his childhood with the death of his sister at 14 and his pondering of the relationship of this event and his clinging to the childhood dream of the cork boat are another bonus in a multi-layered, well-told tale. The glimpses of his very interesting family and their ambitions and adventures are threaded nicely among the cork tales, as well.