- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 31, 2004

CORK BOAT

By John Pollack

Pantheon Books, $21, 291 pages

REVIEWED BY JOHN S. MONAGAN

John Pollack, a former Clinton speech-writer and Hill staffer, with a partner, built a boat out of 165,321 corks, took it to Portugal and sailed it down the Douro River to the sea to the enthusiastic acclaim of the Iberian populace. He then returned to write this book, which details the anguish, frustrations, ingenuity and triumphs involved in the creation and sailing of this improbable craft.

Always interested in boatcraft, Mr. Pollack, at an early age and fresh from the disastrous foundering of a boat he had built from conventional materials, decided in future construction to put his faith in a planking which surely would float and, settling on corks, began a long period of collecting the traditional stoppers for this purpose.

This process involved solicitation by hordes of cooperating relatives, friends and supporters and the pestering of unnumbered bartenders, waiters, restaurateurs and pharmacists. The method faced failure, however, until it was superseded by the generous contribution of corks in massive numbers by a leading U.S. cork importer.

Structuring the corks necessitated the invention of a novel process of assembly; this was evolved to a great degree by Mr. Pollack’s architect associate, Garth Goldstein. Basically, it consisted of a standard hexagonal disk — 14 inches in diameter — embracing 127 corks surrounded by rubber bands which, piled on other disks, created a uniform log of substantial heft that was then sheathed in commercial fishnet. The first complete log was a column of 96 identical disks that was 12 feet long, incorporating 12,192 corks.

Nine of these columns comprised the foundation of the boat, over which a lumber platform was set for the passengers. The actual preparation required long hours of disking corks and transforming them into logs in the killing summer heat inside their makeshift laboratory, an old two-car garage in the Lamont Street Collective in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood of the District.

It was in this wearing task of piece-by-piece labor that Mr. Pollack’s persuasive organizational skill proved its effectiveness by attracting scores of volunteers to labor happily in what he felt, and they perceived, to be a peculiar, but historic, enterprise.

Finally, on an October Sunday morning, the prototype cork boat, all 3,000 pounds of it (Nordic prow and all), was launched into the Potomac at Belle Haven Marina where it floated gracefully in the water and was liberally doused by celebratory champagne.

Finding a locus for a test voyage was a problem until, several months later, the project was conceived of taking the craft on a trip across Portugal (the source of its basic product), voyaging down the Douro River from Barca de Alva to Porto and the Atlantic. Mr. Pollack and Mr. Goldberg were delighted to accept the challenge of guiding the boat in this major test of its navigability.

The trip down the river proved to be a triumphal progress, but it presented serious problems as well. The two sailors cast off from Barca, with U.S. and Portuguese flags flying at the backstays, and floated briskly for a while, but shortly found the prevailing wind blowing from the west. This forced those at the oars to row long hours with aching muscles at tortoise-like pace instead of blithely floating seaward, and unexpectedly lengthened the time of the cruise.

When the number of rowers increased, the progress was easier, but difficulty of another sort arose at the massive Pocinho dam. A violent contrary current of wind forced them to battle furiously to access the security of the concrete chasm of the lock. Then, as the sluice-gates opened, they found themselves face to face with a large Azul riverboat churning right at them.

By vigorous rowing and able steering, a collision was averted and then, to their great surprise, they saw the entire personnel of the riverboat, passengers and crew, crowded at the railings, cheering and waving at the cork boat and its crew.

This warm, friendly greeting characterized the attitude of the Portuguese people throughout the entire trip. The media had been bowled over by the corkonians: Their story had been featured on TV, and the boaters soon became famous figures nationwide. They were Americans who were venturesome and free from controversy and they were welcomed with open arms by officials and the public alike wherever they disembarked.

After 136 miles and 17 days, Cork Boat (its formal name) and its crew reached Foz, at the mouth of the Douro and their goal at the blue expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. In spite of difficulties and challenges, they had made it.

John Pollack’s account of this adventure is no mere travel guide. Its scope is much broader than that. It is the story of a boyhood dream and the conquering of almost impossible obstacles to reach that objective. The author’s concept of a boat of cork was unique and irrational, yet through imagination and determination, and with the expert help of Garth Goldstein, Mr. Pollack produced the world’s first vessel of that buoyant material. This result was not achieved without the devoted efforts of scores of volunteers, drawn in by Mr. Pollack’s enthusiasm and persuasive power and impelled to do the necessary, and often messy, work required.

To achieve this he needed the exercise of political skill to deal with and surmount the emotional conflicts between himself and Mr. Goldberg, conflicts which naturally arose from their close and often frustrating work together. It enlisted the quickness of mind demonstrated by the winner of the 1995 O. Henry Pun-Off World Championship, which Mr. Pollack was. Above all, it called upon reserves of courage and good humor to keep moving toward the stated objective and was a spiritual triumph.

Written in a style of singular grace and impact, “Cork Boat” embodies skills honed in speech-writing in the White House and on Capitol Hill. Of course, captious critics might object that creating a cork boat serves no useful purpose, but surely, in these times of bewilderment and indecision, the example of John Pollack imagining and fashioning this object of rare, if bizarre, beauty is worthy of the warmest admiration.

John S. Monagan is a retired U.S. Congressman from Connecticut. His books include “The Grand Panjandrum” and “A Pleasant Institution: Key-C Major.”


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