Bobbing Through Portugal on Boat Made of Wine Corks

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I had worked really hard to design everything as carefully as possible, but until we set off, we were not sure how the boat would function. There was always this little voice in my head, saying, "Garth, the boat is going to fall apart!" But it worked perfectly. The structure is essentially unsinkable. The only real danger was that someone with a very sharp knife and bad intentions could cut the boat and hemorrhage a log, and then we would have had thousands of corks floating down the river.

Why did you decide to take the boat to Portugal?

Portugal is the largest producer of cork in the world, and most of the corks in the boat came from there, so it seemed fitting that we would bring them back from whence they came. The Douro River is intimately tied up in the history of Portugal, particularly because all the world's port wine is produced from vineyards that grow alongside it. In the past, boats called barcos rabelos would brave rocks and rapids while transporting the wine up and down the Douro. In a way we wanted to replicate the voyages of old, so we modeled our boat after barcos rabelos, which look like Viking longboats. Cork Supply Group said they would ship it across the Atlantic and handle the logistics. We were ecstatic.

What was the journey like?

It was an amazing adventure. We would get up around 4:30 in the morning and try to be on the move by the first light. After watching the sun rise over terraced hills and the vineyards, we would basically row all day, which was very difficult. John and I thought we could do it ourselves, but we ended up needing a crew of at least two others. The boat was huge and unwieldy—if the wind was behind us we could get going about 6 kilometers an hour, but it was extremely hard to maneuver against the wind and in the dam locks. At times we were rowing as hard as we could and were getting nowhere. It was like a hippopotamus with oars, but eventually we began to appreciate its subtle ballet.

How did the Portuguese respond? Were they supportive?

Very. They thought we were an anachronism in this old-fashioned boat, rowing down a river where all the other Portuguese ships had motors. But they loved it. Passengers on the tourist boats would run to the sides and wave to us; cars on the roads near the river would stop and honk; people would come to the bridges and wave to us; trains would toot their horns at us—it was pretty amazing. It never would have worked as well if the Portuguese hadn't liked the project so much and wanted to help. It really resonated, and I felt like we were honoring them in a way, celebrating their history. John was bound and determined to build this boat if it killed him. To me it became a piece of performance art, because it got the whole country's attention.

What are your plans now, and where's the boat?

I just started architecture school at Yale, where I will get my masters. John is actually planning to write a book about the boat and our trip. As for the boat, it's in storage right now. Cork Supply is talking about another trip, but I think the boat was made for the Douro. To take it anywhere else might be anticlimactic.

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