Cork Boat

Cork Boat

4.5 2
by John Pollack

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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


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.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
In the summer of 2002, a strange vision appeared on the Douro River, in Portugal: a Viking ship constructed from more than a hundred and sixty-five thousand wine corks, and held together entirely by rubber bands. Its skipper, the author of this quirky adventure, had become disillusioned three years earlier by his job in Washington, D.C., and had decided to fulfill a childhood dream of building a cork boat. He teamed up with an architect, recruited a hundred volunteers to do hard manual labor, and ultimately won sponsorship for a launch in Portugal. The author’s experience as a White House speechwriter shows in the way he shapes his odyssey into the tale of an underdog, dismissed as an idealist, who succeeds against all odds. It’s corny, but it works: as the boat bobs down the Douro to the cheers of the crowd, Pollack’s absurd quest seems not merely charming but heroic.
Publishers Weekly
After a three-year stint as a freelance foreign correspondent in Spain, Pollack returned to the U.S. to win the 1995 O. Henry World Championship Pun-Offs and work as a speechwriter for House Democratic Whip David Bonior. Disillusioned by Capitol Hill hypocrisy, hyperbole and political rhetoric, he yearned for a "creative sabbatical." "Deep down, I knew I had to get out before the rising bile of my cynicism poisoned the last of my idealism." The "antithesis of everything Washington," he decided, would be to build a boat from wine corks, a dream project since his childhood. Teaming with architect Garth Goldstein and collecting corks during visits to D.C. restaurants, Pollack also received some hefty donations: 15,000 corks from California's Cork Supply USA and an equal number of rubber bands from Arkansas's Alliance Rubber. Despite such inroads, Pollack's boat building endeavors went on the back burner when he was invited to join Bill Clinton's speechwriting team. He shares a brief glimpse of White House life, then gets back to boat-building. After several months (and with the help of dozens of volunteers), the boat was finally assembled with 165,321 corks and 15,000 rubber bands. Sailing on a cresting wave of media attention, Pollack landed a sponsorship from Cork Supply and navigated his 22-foot boat down the Douro River in Portugal (the birthplace of cork); the concluding chapters detail that operation's loony logistics. Although a cork boat drawing (not seen by PW) is included, it's not always easy to visualize the boat's construction from the text description. Nevertheless, Pollack offers an amusing tale, with entertaining anecdotes constantly bobbing to the surface. Agent, Tina Bennett. (Jan. 7) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Pollack worked as a foreign correspondent, campaign consultant, and congressional speechwriter for ten years after college. In 1999, Pollack gave in to what he calls his sense of whimsy and quit his job in Washington to concentrate full time on building a boat made from wine corks. Four years and 165,321 corks later, he and buddy Garth Goldstein sailed Cork Boat, as it was named, down Portugal's Douro River under the sponsorship of Cork Supply USA. Using sails and oars, the pair traveled from Barca de Alva, near the Spanish border, to the ancient city of Porto, where the river empties into the Atlantic Ocean. The first half of the story is devoted to the building of the boat, the second half to the journey down the river. As much a memoir as a travel book, Cork Boat tells of relationships made and strained, dreams realized, and adventures made possible through team effort. Suitable for larger public libraries and boating collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 9/15/03.]-Mary V. Welk, Chicago Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Pollack tells how he realized his lifelong dream of building a boat from wine-bottle corks. The project involved calling on restaurants (an agonizingly slow process that he grew to loathe); boat design (and redesign) with his architect partner; asking for 60,000 free corks from a supplier; construction (with numerous setbacks) in a Washington, DC, garage by dozens of volunteers who came and went; and the stressful completion of the vessel just barely in time to meet his third self-imposed deadline. The boat was shipped to Portugal (the home of cork) for a trip down the dam-filled Douro from the Spanish border to the Atlantic, with his codesigner and a few family members and friends along to help row. The journey took much longer than planned. This wonderfully inspiring story, told in an amusing and suspenseful way, shows how hard work and perseverance can make improbable dreams happen. Pollack gives credit to his project partner, who remains a friend even though they had serious differences along the way. His tone is so can-do and engaged with life that it cannot fail to affect readers positively.-Judy McAloon, Potomac Library, Prince William County, VA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The whimsically strange story of 165,321 corks, 15,000 rubber bands, and their co-evolution into a 22-foot Viking longboat. As he tells it, former White House speechwriter Pollack had always been a builder of curious boats. One, made of orange crates, firewood, and political campaign stickers, went straight to the bottom. Another, the S.S. Milky Way (made of milk cartons), was seaworthy but had a problem with mold. Here, with a sincerity that is at once this account's principal strength and its puling weakness, Pollack writes of becoming demoralized and exhausted by the trench warfare of politics in Washington, where as a staffer for Congressman David Bonior he was repulsed by the city's caste system and relentless power-slinging. He chucked it all to pursue a childhood desire to build a cork boat. This meant obtaining a lot of corks and a design, enlisting friends, taking time off to make a little money here and do a little networking there, making new friends in the cork and rubber-band businesses, suffering the inevitable setbacks and slowdowns, and reveling in the breakthroughs and the acts of kindness. Among the gestures of support, both hands-on and purely verbal, Pollack includes getting tapped to serve Bill Clinton as a speechwriter and making a voyage to Antarctica as a glorified publicity man. These episodes, though they may burnish his liberal/quirky-adventurer credentials, bog down the cork boat that is the real object of fascination for readers. A labor of love and fine madness, too ungainly to even make it into the water at first, the boat had a curved prow resembling a fist giving a one-finger salute. Pollack concludes with its crazy journey down Portugal's Douro River, atrip sponsored by his cork supplier that gave him a chance to let the boat show its stuff. A childhood dream realized, and an engaging story well told. Agent: Tina Bennett/Janklow & Nesbit

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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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.

From the Hardcover edition.

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.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Cork Boat 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Cork Boat is the enchanting story of a boy who had a dream as a child to build a boat out of corks. The book accounts for all of his struggles from gathering 165,321 corks to actually sailing it down the Douro River. It also describes the hassle of actually building the boat, and of the 100+ volunteers who helped him. John Pollack always had an interest in boating, and after many failed attempts to launch a boat, he decided to make one out of corks because they never sink. As an adolescent, John lost his younger sister while the family was on a trip. They were very close, and after her death, nothing seemed worthwhile to him. His sister and him were always playing games and pretending to b explorers. They both had a fascination with boats. Years after her passing away, he took a job as a speechwriter for President Clinton, but quit during his impeachment. After he quit he decided to make his dream come true and actually made the cork boat with the help of many people. It was held together entirely by rubber bands and strong netting to hold cork hexagons in place. The boat weighed over one thousand pounds and had six long hexagonal logs that helped to keep it afloat. He had to convince bar owners to help him, and had to win the support of the nation to make his dream come true. The first journey was just giving rides to people in the lake near their house, but Cork Supply U.S.A sponsored them so they could go to Portugal and sail down the Douro River. The trip was over 100 miles, and sailed through all of the major dams and locks on the river. If you like a story about adventure, friendship and especially corks, this is the book for you. This book makes the reader stop and think about what childhood dreams were abandoned and whether or not they should think about pursuing those again.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a fun story to read. However, a major fault is the lack of ANY photos of the boat! There are some small drawings and a map, that's the extent of the illustrations. Too bad!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Taken on its own, the cork boat voyage is a joyful escapade, full of color and emotion. What struck me was the fact that the author undertook this crazy project as a means of cleansing himself and restoring his sense of innocence and and idealism after a time working as a speechwriter on Capitol Hill. In other words, what burns at the core of the magical whimsy of his boat is a broken heart. And that's what makes the book beautiful.