Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Cork Boat

This one isn't indigenous to anywhere except perhaps the Realm of Whimsy, but it sure is outside the western boatbuilding tradition.
Cork Boat: A True Story of the Unlikeliest Boat Ever Built, by John Pollack, is a fun little book about one man's "dream" to build a boat entirely out of wine corks. Pollack first had the idea at the age of five or so, after his first attempt at building a displacement boat failed. Figuring that a boat made out of corks couldn't sink, he began collecting them, aided by his family. As he reached adulthood, he was still collecting corks, but the dream had become quite remote -- just something to think about, and likely never really do.

Pollack worked as a speechwriter for David Bonior, the Democratic Whip in the U.S. House of Representatives. But disillusioned by the nastiness and futility of politics in general, he quit his job and began to focus on the cork boat as a kind of therapy. The notion of devoting himself to something whimsical appealed to him and enabled him to turn his mind away from the dispiriting nature of national politics. He spread a wide net, asking restaurants around D.C. to save corks for him. He joined up with an architect friend who helped him design the boat and agreed to crew with him, although no particular trip or voyage had been discussed. After months of collecting, they realized that they weren't even close to the hundreds of thousands of corks required. They sought, and most amazingly, found the perfect sponsor in a company called Cork Supply Group, which distributes corks to wine makers all over the world. CSG ultimately supplied hundreds of thousands of corks in exchange for sponsorship. They went further, providing generous financial backing that was probably all out of proportion to the promotional value of the arrangement (which was, however, substantial). Like Pollack, it seems that the folks at CSG just thought the idea of a cork boat was really cool, and they wanted to help out.

Pollack briefly came out of "retirement" when he had an opportunity to work in the Clinton White House but, even there, he continued collecting corks and building the boat in his spare time. After the Supreme Court's dubious resolution of the Bush/Gore presidential race, followed not long after by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Pollack's disillusion with politics was complete, and he turned his sole attention back to his project, with renewed vigor.

Pollack's greatest skill was that of organizer, and he persuaded dozens of people -- friends, relatives, and strangers -- to help him with the phenomenally tedious process of assembling the boat. (See below for details.) When complete, it was shipped to Portugal (home to Cork Supply Group), then trucked up the Douro River to the Spanish border and launched. Over the course of about three weeks, Pollack, his architect friend, and a revolving crew of friends and family descended the Douro, mainly rowing and occasionally sailing down to Porto on the coast.

Building the boat takes up most of the book, and it's unfortunate for we boaties, but probably better for most readers, that Pollack doesn't give much detail on the boat's design, and provides little in the way of illustrations. (The image above is the only one of the boat itself, other than the photo on the book's jacket.)  It was, of course, a raft, not a true boat.  The basic unit of construction was a hexagonal "disk" formed by bundling 127 corks together with long rubber bands. Dozens of these hexagons were stacked and sewn together inside a tubular net to create "logs." Nine logs were lashed together, four above five, with the front ends curving sharply upward in what the author imagined to look like a Viking ship. (It actually looked much more like a reed boat, which it also more closely resembled in its hydrodynamic properties.) Decks were added, along with two sets of oarlocks, a centerboard, rudder, mast step, and mast hoisting a square sail.

It's a cute book about an "adventure" that's neither harrowing nor grand. The whole idea was to do something offbeat and personal, something based on a private inspiration of no real social significance. As it turned out, the boat and the adventure did generate a number of pleasant social encounters for the author, and he took heart in the power of a silly but pleasant idea to bring out the best in people. Occasionally, Pollack veers a bit close to oversentimentality, but he seems like a sincere and likable fellow, and he's easily excused.


  1. Wow!! what a wonderful stories of Cork Boat by John Pollock. I would like to buy this book.Keep posting such type of stories.Thank you so much for the post.

  2. Just spent some hours in the Falmouth National maritme Museum, Cornwall.

    They have THAT bark canoe on display. Interestingly it is boarded completely on the interior with thin slats with cross-members nailed on. So, apart from the nails, was boarding a native tradition or did a commissioning European feel more secure with interior "planks"?

    It has been noted that progress to full interior planking is something that currachs did.

  3. Edwin,
    The thin cedar slats sandwiched between the bark and the ribs -- known as sheathing -- has always been standard proceedure for almost all N. American Indian bark canoes, as far as is known. That's what the earliest European descriptions showed (and there are no pre-European archaelogical examples from which to gather information). See here for photos of a build:
    Birchbark is a great flexible waterproof material, but not stiff enough to hold a boat shape on its own. The sheathing adds much strength and creates a much fairer shape than would occur if the ribs bore directly on the bark "skin."
    Not all cultures used sheathing in bark canoes however. e.g., Australian aborigines' canoes used a stiffer bark, and so had little internal stiffening or other structure, other than a couple of thwarts.