Bobbing Through Portugal on Boat Made of Wine Corks

September 19, 2002

This summer, John Pollack and Garth Goldstein took an old trade (shipbuilding), a basic principle (buoyancy), and created an ingenious, two-ton, 27-foot craft made of (what else) 165,321 corks. Confident that their vessel was of sound design, the two set sail from the northern Portuguese city of Barca d'Alva, near the Spanish border, where hundreds of Portuguese gathered to watch them embark upon an improbable, 17-day journey on the Douro River.

The genesis of the trip began when John Pollack, 36, a former speechwriter for former President Clinton, told longtime friend and architect Garth Goldstein about his dream of turning the roughly 70,000 corks he'd collected since childhood into a raft. Intrigued, Goldstein, 31, immediately went to work on the designs. They convinced Cork Supply USA, the leading supplier of wine corks in the United States, to donate an additional 100,000 stoppers to their cause in 1999. After two years of planning, testing, and building, the "Cork Boat," complete with a wooden deck, a Viking-style V-shaped prow, and two oars, was finished on Columbus Day, 2001.

Exhausted by the effort, Goldstein and Pollack rested for a few months in their Washington, D.C. homes before approaching Cork Supply once again to propose their Heyerdahl-esque adventure: sailing their homemade boat 165 miles down the Douro River, home of the famous port wine industry to the city of Porto, on the Atlantic coast. Co-captain Goldstein discusses the building process and the journey itself.

When John first told you about the project, what did you think?

I loved the idea. I've spent a great deal of time in the outdoors—climbing, rafting, canoeing, and I've traveled a great deal around the world. I'm also an architect—I'm used to making things. I've made chairs out of cardboard, a bed out of FedEx boxes. The idea of a cork boat was pretty wacky, too, and I liked the idea of having an adventure in something I built. But what initially inspired me was the prospect of building something large out of such a ridiculous material. It seemed like a really interesting design challenge.

So how did you design it?

We were very inspired by explorers like Thor Hyerdahl, who built the Kon-Tiki. I actually visited the Norwegian museum that contains his drawings and sketches. After John and I made some final decisions, I worked on the design at my office using Autocad.

We experimented with lots of different structures, then hit upon the idea of creating hexagonal discs. A hexagon, we found, is the most efficient form for corks to be packed together. If you pop a rubber band around them, they'll hold their form fairly well. This formed the basis for the whole boat, and we constructed logs made out of the hexagons, held together by nothing but rubber bands. We capped those logs with fishnet on either end, put them under tremendous tension, and then wrapped the entire business in fish-netting and tied it shut with climber's knots. Essentially the basic structure of the boat is made of nothing but wine corks, rubber bands, fishnet, then various diameters of extremely durable cord. The principal behind the boat is buoyancy. One 150-pound person can be held above the water on 6,000 corks. We had over 160,000 corks, so we knew we would be fine.

Did you have any help building the boat?

We recruited as many volunteers as we could—mostly friends of ours—and convinced them that they would have a great time sorting and assembling corks in my garage. Because the project was so colossal, we had decided that we were going to finish the base by hook or by crook on Columbus Day. So we took some time off work and put in long days and long nights; by the end, we and our volunteers were working round the clock, tying knots for hours. Everyone had bloody and blistering hands. Then, at 7:30 in the morning on Columbus Day, there it stood.

How confident were you that it would hold together once in the water?

Continued on Next Page >>


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