Cork Boat


Cork Boat **** by John Pollack

I’m joining Jain with my Edible Book Review at Food for Thought, a delicious blog for readers with an appetite~ for the written word and food.

This book caught my eye bobbing amid the audio selections at my library. Drawn to the title and subject of both boat & corks, which I have my own small collection of (corks, not boats :-), I found this to be a fascinating story and enjoyable listen, despite the politics cast about. John Pollack, a speech writer for former President Clinton, tires of the hypocrisy on Capital Hill and abandons ship to pursue his childhood dream of building a boat that wouldn’t sink~ one built entirely out of wine corks.

 In the fall of 1999, starting with corks he had saved for thirty years, he solicits his friends, family, and recruits bars and restaurants to save corks for his project~ aware that the cork-collecting opportunities on the eve of the new millennium were great.

What begins as a dream and a quirky desire, quickly becomes challenging~ requiring perseverance and his gift as a wordsmith~ to conjole and recruit friends and neighbors to join him in long nights of boat building parties, assembling corks into hexagon cell-like honeycombs, that eventually are bound, forming cork logs. His three-year project ultimately ends with a celebratory journey, where he and his boat-building-partner, sail down the Douro River in Portugal, becoming a national sensation.

“Why not build the boat? I had talked about it long enough. And in its playful, goofy absurdity, a cork boat was certainly the antithesis of everything Washington. The more I considered the project, the more it seemed the perfect antidote to my cynicism. Why not let whimsy fill my sails and carry me where it would? Over a period of several weeks, the idea took root. Although I kept my decision a secret, I vowed to leave the Hill by year’s end, and start the twenty-first century a free man, captain of my own ship.”

“. . .I calculated that it would have to be sixty-four corks wide and ninety-six corks long, all corks positioned vertically. So the minimum, conservative, number of corks I would need, per person, was. . .6,144.”

“If I needed 6,144 corks just to float at waterline, I’d need three or four times that to stay dry. And if I hoped to take others aboard. . . the numbers were mounting fast. Estimating conservatively, I’d have to figure on a boat of 60,000 corks.”

“…I turned my attention from boat design to building materials, specifically cork. And I soon discovered that cork had a fascinating history in its own right. Apparently, the pharaohs of ancient Egypt were the first people to use the bark to seal jugs and bottles, and thy recorded their innovation in stone hieroglyphs. Centuries later, Greek traders used cork to close clay amphorae as they plied the stormy seas of the unknown world.”

“But then, with the fall of Rome, a veil of ignorance fell over Europe, and the humble cork was forgotten. Although people still drank wine in great quantities, they sealed their jugs with oily rags, wooden plugs, and other small objects.”

“It was a blind Benedictine monk, Dom Perignon, who rediscovered the cork stopper sometime in the 1660s. A vintner of great devotion, he turned to cork after becoming frustrated by traditional wood stoppers that, wrapped in oiled hemp, kept popping out of his bottles prematurely under pressure from the bubbly.”

While John believed, “Every used cork had a story to tell; bringing those stories together was an inherent source of the boat’s appeal”~ it became apparent they would never collect the number of corks needed for construction. They turned to California-based Cork Supply, USA, which generously donated the corks they needed. Along with the corks, donations of 15,000 rubber bands to hold the hexagons together, were made by Alliance Rubber Company.

“I was suddenly the proud owner of fifteen thousand virgin corks—perfect, cylindrical corks. Buoyant about my newfound wealth, my antipathy toward virgin corks vanished in an instant. Like a fine sherry blended from different vintages, I reasoned, the world’s first cork boat would be a blend of old and new.”

I took my cue for Food for Thought from a passage where they have champagne & sheet cake to celebrate the boat’s completion. I made celebratory cupcakes instead, floating on a sea of corks. . .


165,321 corks. . .1 boat

 Cork Supply USA sponsors a trip down the Duoro River in Portugal~ home to the largest cork-oak forests in the world. Despite some rough waters, the Cork Boat ultimately makes the journey down the river. While in Portugal, John enjoys dining on seafood:

“For the past week I had been eating exceptionally well—crispy local sardines, enormous tiger shrimp, tender grilled octopus…”

I opted for Tiger Shrimp instead sardines & octopus :-)

Since the Cork Boat volunteers & recruits ran on adrenaline, coffee & pizza~ I made Shrimp Pesto Pizza with Sun-Dried Tomatoes & Goat Cheese. . .

“Equal parts memoir, adventure story and travelogue, Cork Boat ferries the reader on an unlikely, inspiring journey from the corridors of power to the windswept gorges of northern Portugal, all aboard an absurd yet beautiful vessel. Written with unusual grace and disarming humor, Cork Boat is a buoyant tale of whimsy, adventure, and the power of imagination.”

You can find Cork Boat photos from the author’s website, here.


Be sure to visit  Food for Thought, and see what everyone is reading & eating :-)

  8 comments for “Cork Boat

  1. November 26, 2010 at 8:00 pm

    Nifty post, Mary. The book sounds interesting.
    I love your cork boats!

  2. November 27, 2010 at 12:06 am

    You made wonderful food connections here, not to mention your clever use of your own cork collection. I recall seeing your bowl of corks in a previous post and thinking then what a great idea. We’ve never saved corks, but it seems like a fun thing to do. The cupcakes are precious and the tiger shrimp are a favorite here. Yum!

  3. November 27, 2010 at 3:44 am

    wow that was a fascinating post, love the way you spin a story with fab photos as well

  4. November 27, 2010 at 10:10 am

    You sure have a lot of corks:) Love the boats ..Very well always…

  5. November 27, 2010 at 11:03 am

    What a great story…I’ve collected a few corks myself…but I seal them…how?…at a dinner party with a bottle, slice the top of the cork and place a small coin across…everyone signs their name on the cork and then write the date…no know where this tradition comes from..but I have some great dinner party memories when I look at the sealed corks…Great post! xx

  6. November 27, 2010 at 12:15 pm

    i am heartsick, i posted a huge post, you know how i run on and one and it said error. twice… this will be my 3rd try to comment and by now i lost the comment completely :(

    i went on about how you float my boat, make me sea sick with evny and perhaps you need to sail over to aa… then i said you truly popped the cork[s] on this one… i want to gush more but i am just ticked off technology is not accomadating me here…

  7. November 28, 2010 at 12:19 am

    I love all of the corks and the way that you have photographed them!!! And I especially love all the pretty cupcakes! LOVE cupcakes!! Hope you had a wonderful holiday Mary!!

  8. November 28, 2010 at 9:56 am

    What a fun post this was to read on a wet and dreary afternoon here in Italy. I will never look at my few corks again in the same way.

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