The Saga of the Cork Boat John Pollack
A Proven Pollution Solution Filipa Pires, Sónia Moreira and Catarina Bastos

February 14, 2004

Do the Eco-Math: 165,321 Corks = 1 Boat!

The redoubtable crew of the Cork Boat makes waves and history on the bounding main of Portugal's Doura River. Credit: Paulo Duarte
John Pollack's friends in Washington knew him as a White House speechwriter but not everyone knew his secret passion. For 25 years, Pollack had been consumed by his dream of building an unsinkable boat -- fashioned from corks.

The dream began to take shape several years ago when Pollack's architect-friend Garth Goldstein came on board. Working together, the budding boatwrights designed a honeycomb of corks rubber-banded into hexagonal cells. These sections were then joined to form "logs" that were used to construct the ship. The boat parts were assembled on Pollack's kitchen table and in the garage of Goldstein's rented house.

Meanwhile, Pollack spent nights handing out fliers at local taverns, bars and restaurants, begging barkeeps and wine stewards to save their corks for the project. Cork Supply USA, donated thousands of test corks to help top off the 165,000 pile of stoppers needed to complete the project.

Finally, in April 2002, Cork Supply USA made an offer Pollack couldn't refuse: Would he be willing to travel to Portugal and sail his boat down the Douro River? The voyage wasn't exactly smooth sailing, Pollack recalls. It ended up being "17 days of hard rowing. But the struggle made it all the more worthwhile."

The Origins of the Cork Boat
John Pollack / Excerpted from The Cork Boat

My first boat sank. I was six years old and had hammered it together from old orange crates and split firewood, sealing the cracks with bumper stickers from an Ann Arbor City Council candidate named Ulrich Stoll. When it was finished, I walked around the neighborhood and invited people to the launch. Saturday morning, at the pond.

On the big day, my family, a few neighbors, and one or two of their dogs dutifully assembled at the small, reedy marsh at the end of our block. As my mom cinched on my life jacket, my dad set the boat in the water. More excited than nervous, I stepped aboard.

It was a short voyage -- straight down. Before I could even think about abandoning ship, it was all over. There I stood, knee-deep in water, my boat stuck fast on the muddy bottom.

Afterward, I wheeled the boat home on my wagon and junked it behind our garage. But I wasn't discouraged. I was happy -- I had built a real boat!

And I was already thinking about my next one. I would just have to build it out of something guaranteed to float, no matter what....

And So, 25 Years Later...

In the cold blue dusk of December's waning days, I walked from bar to restaurant to bar, distributing the fliers and talking up the project with bartenders, restaurant managers, and waitstaff. My spiel was quick. "Hi, I'm John Pollack," I'd say, handing them a flier. "I'm building the world's first cork boat. It's going to be a Viking ship made entirely of wine and champagne corks and I need your help to pull it off. Would you be willing to save your corks?"

"You mean a toy boat?"

"No, a real boat. A 16-foot Viking longboat. The plan is, when we're done, to sail it through French wine country." I didn't actually know if the boat would be 16 feet or if it would ever see France. But we were thinking big and I spoke with total confidence.

I always gave them a few moments to ponder the possibility that, while I might be crazy, I was actually building the boat.

"You're serious?" came the response.

"I'm serious. And I really need your help -- I can't drink enough on my own."

That usually got a laugh. When it didn't even get a chuckle, I knew I was in trouble.

Floating an Idea -- With Mixed Results
The toney St. Regis Hotel on 16th Street, a few blocks from the White House, was one place where my sense of humor fell short. The bar manager, a thin-lipped man in a double-breasted suit, practically sneered when I made my pitch. Handling the flier with his fingertips as if it were a soiled diaper, he refused to read it, instead setting it aside on the gleaming, black marble bar.

"I'll be sure to leave this for Nathan, so he can save more ...corks," he said, sarcastically.

It's not that I really cared about getting corks from the St. Regis, or any other particular establishment. The way I saw it, the opportunity to contribute corks to the world's first cork boat was just that -- an opportunity, a chance to do something whimsically bold and have fun doing it. Those who didn't see that possibility were, well, missing the boat.

The St. Regis could decide to save or not save; I would understand if setting aside their corks was too much trouble. But I was angered by the man's blatant condescension. Even in a city that suffers from a chronic case of totem pole-itis (the reflexive habit of treating people according to their apparent rank on the totem pole of power), his attitude reeked.

Clearly, I wasn't an important person. Important people didn't build cork boats. Important people had power, or, at the very least, a good substitute: money. As I walked out, inwardly furious, I noticed that the leather-bound "books" lining the shelves of his bar were just like those at the Capitol -- clever fakes.

Generally, though, people's responses to the boat were positive. At the Toledo Lounge, a grungy dive in Adams Morgan, the bar staff was fired up from the get-go. "We only go through five or six bottles of wine a week," said Christine, a bartender. "But we'll save the corks for you." Then, cocking her head flirtatiously, she asked: "Are you going to take me with you?"

"Absolutely," I said. "You can be an official cork maiden."

Cork Wars: The Plastic Empire Strikes Back
As I discovered early in my rounds, the plastic cork was making steady inroads against its natural rival, and had sparked a nasty debate that the press was calling the "Cork Wars." "Plastic Stoppers Uncork Great Wine Debate," read one headline. "Sour Grapes," read another.

With consumers buying 14 billion bottles of wine a year, there was a lot at stake. An organization called the World Cork Congress had even scheduled a summit, later in the year, to discuss and counter the attacks of the plastic-cork partisans.

According to these synthetic-cork boosters, their product was superior because it eliminated spoilage from the cork-related microbial growth known as -- Trichloranisole, or "cork taint." According to their data, cork taint was ruining up to ten percent of all bottled wine and cost vintners tens of millions of dollars every year. A British supermarket chain, reacting to criticism after it leaned on its suppliers to switch to plastic corks, sent customers a letter complaining about "greedy" cork farmers, whom they accused of environmental degradation.

Angered, cork traditionalists fired back with their own laboratory data on cork taint. "First the supermarkets said that cork was overpriced. Then they said it spoilt wine. Now they say cork-stripping is an environmental hazard," Paulo Portas, a prominent Portuguese politician, told the Guardian. "This is a campaign based on falsehoods."

As all the articles explained, producing corks doesn't require cutting down even a single tree. Rather, corks are punched from sheets of bark carefully stripped, once every nine years, from the Quercus suber, a species of oak that grows throughout Mediterranean countries, but principally in Portugal.

Carefully tended by foresters from generation to generation, each tree usually produces about 4,000 corks per harvest, and can live for more than 200 years. With whole villages depending on these cork forests for their livelihood, environmentalists, in fact, commended the cork harvesters for protecting some of the last remaining habitat for several of Europe's endangered species -- including the wild boar, the Iberian lynx, and Spain's imperial eagle.

Whatever the relative merits of plastic corks might be, my own anecdotal evidence suggested that the drinking public, given a choice, would almost always choose natural corks over their plastic rivals. Part of wine's appeal is its aura of tradition and the subtle sense of ceremony that accompanies the soft, musical thwock of a pulled cork. Extracting a plastic stopper just sort of drains all the romance from a bottle before a single drop of wine even splashes into the glass.

Still, plastic corks were making inroads. And when I mentioned press reports that identified billionaire software mogul Bill Gates as a principal investor in the world's leading plastic-cork company, the revelation put Garth over the edge.

"Death to the plastic cork!" he shouted. I joked that our boat could serve as the flagship of an entire cork navy -- one that would defend against the evil, bobbing armada of synthetic invaders. That is, if we could ever collect enough corks to build the damned thing.

John Pollack is the author of The Cork Boat (304 pages, Pantheon). For more info on the project, check out
© 2004 John Pollack. Excerpted with permission of the author.

Young Reporters of the Environment

Riding the Hydrogen Bus:
A Proven Pollution Solution

Filipa Pires, Sónia Moreira and Catarina Bastos

Not only is this city bus powered by a fuel cell but the fuel cell is powered by clean-burning hydrogen.
PORTUGAL -- Nowadays, humanity struggles with the huge problem of atmospheric pollution. It results, essentially, from the accumulation of carbon dioxide, methane and CFC's, which damage the planet's protective ozone layer and increased the global-warming Greenhouse Effect.

It is urgent to find new solutions and alternative energies offer a hope for change. In this context, the use of hydrogen as a source of environment-friendly energy challenges the hegemony of oil. The knowledge of hydrogen's potential has recently lead to a growing number of concrete applications.

On January 10, 2003, three new hydrogen-fueled buses (H2Buses) were integrated into the fleet of the Society of Public Transports of Porto (STCP). Porto, which already counts as the Europe's second largest natural-gas-powered bus fleet, is now part of the European Union's CUTE program (Clean Urban Transport for Europe).

Since the European Union approved the CUTE Project in November 2002, hydrogen-powered buses have been introduced in nine European cities -- Porto, Amsterdam, Barcelona, London, Stockholm, Madrid, Stuttgart, Hamburg, and Luxembourg. The fuel-cells are powered by hydrogen.

A kilogram of hydrogen contains three times more energy than a kilogram of petroleum and it is a simple, light and abundant element of the Universe - about 90 percent of the whole matter is constituted by hydrogen (H2).

The test aims to discover the impact of the H2 Bus on reducing greenhouse gases -- an essential objective in meeting the goals of the Kyoto Protocol.

The only thing that emerges from the exhaust pipes of these buses is water vapor. These vehicles, with a capacity for 70 passengers, have range of about 200 kilometres (124 miles), and they can reach a maximum speed of 80 kilometres/hour (50 mph).

H2 buses are safer than diesel buses and passengers enjoy a lower level of noise. For these and other reasons, the automobile industry, oil companies, and governments are starting to invest in hydrogen technology. However, not everything is simple in the process. The cost for purchasing and maintenance each vehicle during the two-year experimental phase amounts to 1.25 million euros.

This is one of the European Union's greatest initiatives. The largest experiment of its kind in the world, the research effort has a budget of 52 million euros, of which 35% will be funded by the European Union.

Who Are the "Young Reporters for the Environment"?

Young Reporters for the Environment (YRE) is a program of the Foundation for Environmental Education designed for secondary school pupils and teachers. The idea for participants is to build up in the frame of the school activity a project of investigation about a local environmental issue in one of six main topic areas: Agriculture, Cities, Coastline, Energy, Waste or Water. The goal of each project is to communicate the results to the public.

The YRE website provides tools to link and organize YRE members who are now represented in the following 17 countries: Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, France, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Iceland, Latvia, Morocco, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, and the United-Kingdom

For more information on YRE, contact: Thierry Lerévérend, International Coordinator, French office of Fee, 6, Avenue du Maine, 75015 Paris, France, +33 1 45 49 40 50. Fax : +33 1 45 49 27 69. Email: Website:

For more information contact:

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