Orange crates sealed with bumper stickers float, but not for long. So John Pollack discovered when he built his first boat at age six. Far from being discouraged, the young boy decided that someday, he’d build a boat from something that couldn’t sink: corks. Over the next 25 years, Pollack pursued other dreams, working as a White House speechwriter and a foreign correspondent in Spain, but he never stopped saving corks. His new book, Cork Boat, is a lively, memorable account of the attempt to make his dream a reality.
The Cork Boat project began in earnest in 1999. "I wanted to start the new century with a big project, and the time seemed ripe to launch the boat," Pollack tells BookPage over the phone from his New York City apartment. He’d found a business partner in Garth Goldstein, an architectural student whose design expertise would be crucial to the boat’s success. Realizing they’d never save enough corks on their own, Pollack and Goldstein printed out flyers and handed them out to local restaurants and bars, asking them to save their corks for the project. Pollack was met with one of two reactions: immediate excitement and support, or a blank stare. Neither fazed him. "If you’re building a cork boat, you can’t take yourself too seriously, because it’s such a goofy project. And I think that if you can laugh at yourself, other people are willing to laugh with you."
To build the boat, Pollack and Goldstein designed a honeycomb "cell" of corks rubber-banded together in the shape of a hexagon. These cells would be bound together to form logs, which in turn would construct the Viking-like ship. To help band the corks together—first at Pollack’s kitchen table, then in the garage of Goldstein’s rented house, soon dubbed the Mount Pleasant Boat Works—Pollack used his way with words to recruit friends and neighbors, holding boat-building parties late into the night. He solicited help from the California-based Cork Supply, USA, which generously donated many of their test corks to help Pollack and Goldstein collect the 165,000 corks that they would need to complete the project. Still, building the boat was much more complicated than Pollack had imagined.
"The most unexpected aspect of the whole project was how hard it was. There were several times where I thought, this is impossible. And there were several times when I felt like quitting. My mom was instrumental in saying, ‘you can’t quit, not now if you do you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.’ And mom was right."
The hard work of so many people paid off when, in April of 2002, Cork Supply called with a proposal: would Pollack and Goldstein be willing to come to Portugal in June and sail the boat down the Douro River? It wasn’t the wine country route that Pollack had originally envisioned, but he enthusiastically agreed. He and Goldstein spent the next two months in furious production, putting finishing touches on the boat and correcting problems they’d noticed during the boat’s first launch on the Potomac the previous October. But once again, the difference between dreams and reality gave the team a wake-up call. The trip, far from the idyll Pollack had imagined, "ended up being 17 days of hard rowing," he admits ruefully. "But the struggle made it all the more worthwhile; if it had been easy, it wouldn’t have been so meaningful."
Pollack’s evocative description of the ups and downs of his remarkable journey creates an unusual memoir of one man’s struggle to live a childhood dream. He hopes it will inspire others to do the same. "One of the reasons I wrote Cork Boat was because I wanted to story to live. Years from now, someone’s going to be looking for a book to read, and they’ll see Cork Boat, pull it off the shelf and read the story, and the journey will continue."