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Bobbing Through Portugal on Boat Made of Wine Corks

By Whitney Duncan
National Geographic Adventure magazine
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?

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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