A Real-Life Adventure

‘Cork Boat’ Follows Vessel’s Journey From Its Inception

Posted February 2, 2004 at 3:33pm

Two days after his new book “Cork Boat” was released, author John Pollack walked into a neighborhood bookstore in Brooklyn to find his work displayed on a table marked “New Fiction.”

He wasn’t too surprised. After all, his book is about a wild adventure that involves building a boat made entirely of wine corks and rubber bands and taking it on a journey across Portugal, down the famed Douro River.

The one-time Capitol Hill staffer, boat builder, author and dreamer simply picked up the stack of books and moved them over to the table marked nonfiction.

Pollack’s fun-loving and oddly inspirational book is the story of the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. A boat builder from the start, Pollack decided at age 6 — after some less than successful experimenting — that he would one day build a boat out of wine corks.

“I eventually settled on wine corks,” Pollack writes, “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.”

“Every cork has a story to tell,” Pollack said in an interview last week. “Every cork has a memory. It’s a toast, a celebration, a dinner with friends, and I think that saving corks is a way of hanging on to some of those memories.”

Pollack’s collecting habit continued through his days as a speechwriter for then-House Minority Whip David Bonior (D-Mich.) until one day, during the political circus that surrounded the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1998, he suddenly realized that the world of Capitol Hill wasn’t for him.

In a move that would inspire any Congressional staffer who has ever been frustrated by the Capitol Hill culture, Pollack decided to quit his job, leave the “class issues” of Congress behind and work full time to make his childhood dream a reality.

The rest of the book follows the ups and downs of Pollack and his friend Garth Goldstein’s effort to create their vessel — which in the end was made of 165,321 individual corks.

It’s a story that gives tidbits of cork history throughout a journey that eventually led to a sponsorship that sent the cork boat to Portugal. In an epic 17-day adventure that pits man and cork against nature, Pollack recounts how he and his crew rowed, sailed and hauled their tiny boat 135 miles through four sets of locks and around a dam as they made their way through Portugal’s wine country.

“I look back on the whole adventure and it seems wildly improbable,” Pollack said. “Sometimes, when I take a step back I think, ‘Did I really do that?’”

One audience Pollack hopes to reach with his story are those who work on the Hill today. “I hope that this book shows that worthwhile endeavors can take many forms,” he said, “not all that will appear, at first glance, to be very serious, but they can hold great meaning.

“I think that perhaps for a lot of people, certainly younger staff, the Hill is a great education on the way to other adventures in life.”

A former Hillite Pollack has already inspired is his old boss, Bonior, who is currently a professor of labor studies at Wayne State University in Detroit.

Pollack’s “got a whimsical side to him, an adventurous side and a playful side,” said Bonior, noting that his former staffer, who once won the O. Henry World Championship Pun-Off tournament, has gotten the former Congressman into the habit of punning.

“I helped contribute my share of corks to” the boat, Bonior said proudly, noting that the entire office knew of Pollack’s project and helped chip in.

Bonior said he looks forward to reading Pollack’s book when he and his wife go on their own aquatic adventure later this year — the couple is taking a two-week rafting trip down the Colorado River.

Since his adventure in Portugal, Pollack has settled into the private sector, working for ROI Communications, where he’s still writing speeches and working in communications consulting. Currently, he’s taking some time for a 10-city book tour, which brought him back to Washington this past weekend.

And, as usual, everywhere he goes talk of the cork boat has inevitably brought questioning looks and smiles.

“I think part of the reason people respond to the book is that everybody has a dream — some of them crazier than others,” Pollack said. “I’ve had 7- and 8-year-olds whose parents bring them to book signings who say, ‘I’m going to start saving corks to build my boat,’” he added.

But Pollack said he didn’t always know he was going to write a book, he just knew he wanted to build his boat — a dream and hobby that, in the end, cost Pollack and Goldstein somewhere around $12,000, even with a massive cork donation from Cork Supply USA.

“The idea to write a book came after the boat was built and before we took the trip,” he said. “I said, ‘If we take it on a journey, then I can see a good story.’”

After traveling through Portugal and encountering all the various characters and adventures along the way, Pollack said he knew he had to write it all down.

“The whole experience was so preposterous and so great that I had to record it for posterity’s sake,” he said.

As for the cork boat itself, today it sits on display at a cork warehouse in Portugal, in permanent dry dock after its one and only voyage. Pollack said he’s investigating the possibility of donating his childhood dream to the cork museum in Portugal.

And Pollack is already on to his next grand dream — he’s looking into writing a book about “the notion of adventure.” Although he admitted it was probably unlikely the cork boat would sail again, he refused to give up the idea completely.

“I wouldn’t rule out more trips in the future. … [However] it’s not the most practical boat in the world.”

But for Pollack’s readers, that’s exactly the point.