River of Dreams: The Voyage of the First Cork Boat

John Pollack's childhood dream came true, thanks to 160,000 wine corks.

Jan. 10, 2008 — -- Imagine taking your most fantastic childhood dream and chasing it down, investing money, time, sweat and tears in search of your personal bliss.

While many people hope to do such things, most never get close enough to see their dreams come true. But John Pollack is not most people. Pollack's childhood fantasy was to build his very own boat and sail off on a magical adventure, and he made that dream a reality.

"I always loved boats," Pollack said. "I built a boat when I was 6 years old, and it had very short maiden voyage — straight down."

That first nautical adventure sparked Pollack's 6-year-old imagination.

"I decided, OK, the next boat I build has to float," he recalled. "And I thought, well, why not build a cork boat? Because you can't sink [a] cork, how could you sink a lot of corks?"

With that thought and his family behind him, he started to save wine corks.

Pollack, now 41-years-old, was raised in Ann Arbor, Mich., by parents Henry, a professor of geophysics at the University of Michigan, and Lana, a political activist and dance instructor.

"In our family there was a premium on imagination," Pollack explained. "My sister Sara and I had a big cabinet full of crayons and markers and odds and ends, and we were always coming up with great projects. Nothing was too impossible in our family."

'The End of Childhood'

Whether they were building a spaceship in their basement or climbing the steps of the Taj Mahal, Pollack and his sister were always together. She even helped him drag his first boat down to the neighborhood pond.

When Pollack was 12, his father took their family on a trip to the Himalayas that changed their lives forever.

"We were on a trek into the mountains … we were fording a river, and it was a bad river, and [Sara's] pony slipped, and she was swept away. One of our guides tried to rescue her, he was swept away, and we never found them," Pollack said, pain from the moment still fresh in his eyes.

"It's the end of childhood," Pollack said. "I mean, I think I'm probably a lot more serious a person because of it, just because I recognized the fragility of life."

"I don't know that, you know, anybody ever fully gets over a loss like that," said Pollack. "But you can decide to fold your tent, or you can decide to keep going. And you know, in our family we keep going."

Pollack and his parents did keep going, but Pollack says he lost his sense of adventure and shifted his focus to more serious pursuits. However, he also kept saving those corks, a reminder of "happier times."

Pollack graduated from Stanford University in 1988 and became a freelance foreign correspondent in Spain. He became something of a wordsmith, winning the World Pun Championship in 1995.

'Every Cork Has a Story'

Pollack was working as a speechwriter in Washington, D.C., when an old dream resurfaced.

"I'm getting burnt out on the Hill … and I just thought, I'd like to just take a break and do something fun. Why not build the boat?" recalled Pollack.

Suddenly those corks saved to hold onto good memories became the building blocks for Pollack's adventure.

"I'm quitting a good job to go build a cork boat," he recalled. "I mean, how do you explain that to your boss without insulting him?"

Pollock knew he'd need a lot more corks to build his boat, so he began visiting bars and restaurants around Washington in search of supplies.

"When I was collecting corks … I'd go restaurant to restaurant," Pollack said. "Some places were very dismissive, because I wasn't important. I mean, I didn't have money. I didn't have power. I just had a boyhood dream. And boyhood dreams don't always count for so much in a place like Washington."

"Every cork has a story to tell," he said. "There's a toast, there's a celebration, there's a moment or just a relaxing drink at the end of a long day. And so every cork has a story to tell."

Pollack says he felt sorry for the people who didn't understand his dream.

"With the cork boat, people either got it, or they didn't get it," he said. "If they didn't get it, I felt sorry for them because what's life if there isn't play? What's life if there isn't whimsy?"

No Surrender

As the cork donations came in, Pollack called on old childhood friend Garth Goldstein, an architect who immediately latched onto the project. The two began devising ways to fasten the corks together.

"I just thought, 'Well, what would be the most efficient way to pack these things?'" said Goldstein. "And after a minute or two, we wound up with, you know, a hexagon."

They decided it would take at least 100,000 corks total to complete the ship.

Pollack and Goldstein dived into the project and worked out of a garage, called the Boat Works. They enlisted friends and neighbors, even complete strangers to stop by for even a few hours to help bind the corks and wrap them into logs.

Pollack and Goldstein — along with the revolving core of volunteers who Pollack says wanted to "be a part of something bigger than themselves" — worked for more than two years on putting the boat together. In the middle of the second year, Pollack was offered a job at the White House as a speechwriter for President Clinton. Although his new job took him away from the boat during the day, he kept working overnights and soon had the White House staff collecting corks.

"People really liked it," Pollack said. "Look, I had come towards the end of the administration, and a lot had gone on at the White House. To have a little bit of levity, and something fun going on — I was kind of the quirky new guy building a cork boat."

A launch date of Columbus Day 2001 was set, but by September Pollack and Goldstein weren't speaking to each other and the project had stalled.

"John was very much concerned with 'let's get it done, let's move on,' and I was obsessed with 'it has to be perfect … we have to be true to some concept to make it as strong as possible,'" Goldstein said.

"There came a point where I wanted to quit," said Pollack. "I called up my mom … and I said, 'maybe I should just give up on the cork boat.' She said, 'John, you've been talking about building that cork boat since you were 6 years old. If you give up now, you'll always regret it."

"I remember thinking, if it's the last thing I do, I'm going to build this boat and I'm going to get it in the water."

The '2-Ton Hippopotamus' Sets Sail

The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, further inspired Pollack to patch things up with his partner and figure out what to do with the boat.

"We thought, well maybe we should just put the boat on hold," Pollack said. "I mean, after all that's happened, what does a cork boat matter?"

But one by one, volunteers started arriving at the garage, telling Pollack and Goldstein that they needed to "work on the boat."

"Garth and I realized that the cork boat didn't matter less," said Pollack. "It mattered more, because in this world that had gone topsy-turvy in this, you know, time of murder and hatred, that humanity depended on not surrendering to that kind of evil."

With a new perspective and a collective drive to get the boat finished by the launch date, Pollack put his political skills to use in search of more corks.

"A manager calls me and says, 'listen, we have this guy, he wants to build a cork boat, he's after some corks, what do you think?'" said Jochen Michalski, president of Cork Supply Group, one of the world's largest manufacturers and suppliers of cork.

"We thought this was kind of crazy, but … very quickly we decided we were going to support it," Michalski said. His company donated 100,000 corks, and Pollack's team began working furiously to complete the boat.

On Columbus Day 2001 the team finished its "2-ton hippopotamus," a 22-foot-long Viking ship made out of 166,000 wine corks.

'Everyone Has a Cork Boat'

Pollack and Goldstein decided to take their maiden voyage down the Douro River in Portugal.

After a mad scramble to assemble oars and a sail followed by a test run in Washington's Potomac River, Pollack, Goldstein, Pollack's parents, some very faithful volunteers and one cork boat arrived in Portugal and set sail.

The boat became a Portuguese media sensation.

"The whole country started following these crazy Americans, who were on this goofy mission," said Pollack. "When we would walk into any village along the way, people would say 'Cork boat! Cork boat!'"

As the cork boat made its way slowly down the Douro, Pollack learned a few things about happiness.

"It was fun to see so many happy about the boat. You get moments of perfection, and moments of happiness," he said. "I don't know that I've ever been happier, but being happy is like being on top of a mountain. You take in the air, and this great view, and then you see another mountain in the distance and that's another peak in your life."

"I think that people just need to have faith in themselves and in their own dreams, that maybe they don't turn out exactly the way we imagine them to, but if you trust yourself enough to follow them, that the following them will bring you happiness. Everyone has a cork boat in their life of one sort of another," Pollack said.

As the ship pulled into port, Pollack was reminded of the missing crew member.

"Sara would have been on the boat cheering with the rest of us," Pollack said. "But you know, I used to think that good times, you know, cancel out the tragedy. They don't. But the bad things happen in life. The good things, you really have to reach for, and so we reach for them. And you savor them."