Last year, finally, I did. I helped him build a boat out of 166,000 wine corks, and we rowed it down Portugal’s Douro River, from the Spanish border to the Atlantic, where we received a hero’s welcome in Porto.
This peculiar odyssey began thirty years ago when a friend, John Pollack, rode in reed vessels on Peru’s Lake Titi-caca and imagined constructing a cork boat. By 1999 he’d accumulated thousands of corks in his Washington, D.C., apartment. Garth, an apprentice architect in town, embraced John’s idea as a challenge to design something both functional and beautiful.
At first Garth and John seemed ridiculous as they hunched over drawings and stuck corks together with a glue gun. After two years they had a workable design akin to a Viking vessel. I joined the effort to make huge logs out of corks and then encase them in netting. It was tedious work done on summer afternoons, but as the weeks passed, volunteers poured in. Garth darted around in his paint-spattered sandals, issuing instructions, tying expert knots, and making quick calculations about tension and torque.
We built nine huge cork logs that summer of 2001, then struggled to bind them together with hundreds of Dacron lines. Then the boat was done: twenty-two feet long, five feet wide, and seven feet high at the bow. It weighed almost 3,000 pounds and could fit eight people.
After a maiden voyage on the Potomac, Garth and John envisioned a real expedition. By now I was hooked, too. After a lot of wine-fueled debate, we settled on the Douro—the boat, after all, was made of Portuguese corks. In June 2001 a cork company shipped the boat across the Atlantic, then trucked it eastward to the Spanish border. We planned to sail the entire 136-mile river, which cuts through historic port-wine vineyards on its way to Porto, center of the port industry.
Garth and John shoved off the next day under a noon sun. Fishermen waved as they raised the square sail emblazoned with a cork, the red oar blades cutting a sharp contrast against the murky green water. The rest of the crew joined them soon after and learned a bit late that the summer wind on the Douro blows upstream. Hard. The scenery was stunning—terraced vineyards, olive trees clinging to steep banks—but we barely noticed as we fought whitecaps. Consulting our maps, we realized it might take us two months to reach the Atlantic. Garth threw an arm around my shoulder and shot me a grin.
The Portuguese saved us. Something about our peculiar vessel, suspended between the epic and absurd, evoked strong feelings in the people of the Douro. Fishermen urged us to leave before dawn each day while the air was still calm. Tourist ferries cheered us on. Private boats towed us through the worst stretches. As word of our voyage spread, whole towns turned out to welcome us with fireworks and food.
We reached Porto in seventeen days. A boat crammed with photographers motored up to us, and helicopters circled overhead. People shouted and cars honked. Garth answered with Handel’s Water Music on a kazoo. We made the evening news and every paper in the country the next day.
And I still keep a cork on my desk to remember it all.
Brandt Goldstein is writing a nonfiction legal thriller, The Floating Wall, which Scribner will publish next year.