Saturday, September 29, 2007

Finally we reach Albany!

It has been an eventful 48 hours.

After months of planning and preparation, we boarded a plane in Southern California for New York City. Nereo, Daniela and Martina Zane had stayed with us in Orange County for a week which included all the typical sightseeing items along with a surfing lesson compliments of two of my Newport Beach gondoliers – Cole and Will. The Zanes joined my wife and me and our two daughters and experienced another very American experience: TSA screenings.

I can’t sleep on planes. It stinks but it is what it is. Having slept about 5 hours per night for the three previous nights, I was in rough shape, nevertheless, I stepped off the plane with a new level of energy. Being in New York served as a concrete reminder that “this crazy thing” we’d been preparing to do was becoming a reality. We rented a minivan and drove from JFK to Albany, arriving in time to bed down around 1am.

This morning our gondola was delivered ahead of schedule and unloaded expertly by the guys from Dawson’s Body Shop using a flatbed truck and a hoist. Mike Novack’s chase boat was delivered and launched by gondolier Pierre. I had the pleasure of meeting Vincent Tummino (FDNY and International Columbia Association) and Bepi Suste and Enzo Lizska for the first time. It was great to see Vittorio Orio too. The last time I saw Vittorio was September of 2006 when I was in Venice, at that point we were only talking about doing a row together. Sponsor decals were a great “first task” for all of us, as was putting the gondola “together” with all of her various decorative and/or functional pieces.

A huge rowing regatta was taking place where we had planned to launch the gondola. We met lots of folks who were interested in learning about the gondola and our expedition.

We also had the chance to meet Joe Deverell, a gondola owner from Cross Lake near Syracuse – he had rowed around 250 miles to Albany and was not only fun to talk with, he had some good advice based on his own recent row.

We all had dinner together and held a meeting to go over the plan, joined by gondoliers John Kerschbaum and Chris Harrison who had just arrived in Albany. My Italian is improving but I wanted to be certain that all the details were covered clearly and that questions were understood and answered accurately. Martina Zane – our team translator, did an exceptional job of articulating everything that needed to be said in either language. Without her, the day would have ended on a confusing note.

Our shirts arrived by FedEx and they look great – a perfect end to a long day.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Completion of Vittorio and Enzo’s expedition to Rome

Vittorio and Enzo have comleted their gondola expedition to Rome and the Vatican.
They reached their final rowing destination of Ancona on September 14th logging a total of 134 miles in 11 days. They fought against wind and seas. Sometimes it was just Vittorio, but in challenging conditions, Enzo came aboard to lend a hand. The gondola was always accompanied by the Italian Coast Guard when entering and exiting ports.
When he arrived in Ancona, Vittorio was welcomed by city authorities, the manager of the Pediatric Hospital, and the chief of the Coast Guard base in Ancona.
On Friday the 15th, Vittorio hosted the Pediatric Hospital manager for a short trip on his gondola so the children of the hospital could get a close look at a Venetian gondola. The event was filmed by RAI Italian TV network and photographed by several reporters.
Upon arrival at the Vatican, Vittorio had the honor of meeting His Holiness Benedetto XVIand presenting him with the capitello made by Giorgio Affabri. Vittorio also invited the Pope to take a gondola tour with him on his next visit to Venice, reminding him that two previous Popes, Giovanni XXIII and Giovanni Paolo I often used the gondola to move in the town when they were Patriarchs of Venice.
The expedition was a great success and ended just in time for Vittorio and Enzo to pack for New York.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007


The first time I saw this photo I wasn’t sure how to interpret it.

Was it a joke? Were these guys rowing this Venetian caorlina really monks, or were they just a bunch of jokesters in costumes? I talked with our expedition photographer Nereo Zane (who took this photo) and some of the guys at my rowing club (GSVV-M) and found out that they were the real thing – rowing monks. “Capuccini monks” from Redentore to be exact. The Redentore is a famous church on the Island of Giudecca, facing Venice. The church was built between 1577 and 1592 by Andrea Palladio to commemorate the end of the plague.
These Capuccini Monks can be seen in their distinctive habits – and sunglasses – rowing their black caorlina along the route of the world-famous Vogalonga and the Regata Storica which is so well known in Northern Italy.
In the Veneto Region, everybody rows. Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but it sure seems that way when you see so many kinds of people out rowing. I’ve seen couples out for an early evening row, still in their business attire; I’ve seen groups of old men, young girls, and rowing clubs of all sizes. The Naval Academy has their own guys on the water; there are the monks, and now even firemen. Sure there are Venetian firemen who row, but now American firefighters are joining in. No, they aren’t rowing as fast as they can towards burning buildings; it’s recreational. While talking with our FDNY friends Vincent Tummino and Dan Nigro, who are also leaders in the International Columbia Association, I learned that a group of guys from the Fire Department of New York fly to Venice now and then and row with the local rowing clubs. They’ve been doing it since at least 2000. Some of these guys probably just go once for kicks, but others are serious rowers. I understand that we’ll get to meet a few of them while we’re in New York. Now if I can figure out a way to meet those rowing monks . . .

The “FDNY rowing team” in 2004

New York firefighters row with Venetians in 2007

Saturday, September 22, 2007


It drives my wife crazy – no matter where we go I end up on a gondola.
Any time we’re in New York City I have to visit Andres Garcia on the lake in Central Park, and when in Boston, I must drop by the gondolas on the Charles River;

I consulted for them in 2001 and have been a fan ever since.
This year we’re vacationing in South Florida, and I’m planning on rowing with Mike Novack at Stork’s Bakery in Ft. Lauderdale.
Rowing with Joe Gibbons in Boston.
Central Park gondolier Andres Garcia explains the history of the famous Bethesda Fountain.

My wife will say to me, “Hey Honey, do you want to go to Omaha, Nebraska?”

My answer: “Ooh, yeah, there’s a gondola operation there that I’d like to visit!”
Pick any location on the map and I’ll come up with a gondola or similar boat operation either in the city or a short drive away – one that I must visit.
My wife, as if on cue, rolls her eyes.
On a recent trip through Denver we went out of our way to visit with a punting operation. We swapped stories, took turns pushing a pole off the river bottom,

and I kissed my wife under every bridge. It was a great time.
If you’re reading this with the attitude of, “Wow, this guy knows all the gondolas”,

then you’re reading it wrong.
The truth is that I’ve got one of the worst cases of “gondola fever” the world has ever seen. My wife, God bless her, has learned to tolerate it.
Gondola Fever is easy to diagnose. If you are travelling in a car or train and see a waterway (ocean, lake, river, water hazard on a golf course, or even a drainage ditch) and think to yourself, “Hey, I could row a gondola on that”, then you may have the Fever.

If you find yourself looking down at the earth from your window seat on an airplane, saying the same thing about everything from irrigation aqueducts to the Great Salt Lake, and if you can’t stop looking down throughout the flight, you’re likely infected. When you notice that the last five times you’ve left town have all involved gondolas in one way or another, you’ve got Gondola Fever.
There is no known cure. Fortunately most of the side effects are positive; a good sense of balance, relaxed disposition, slight suntan, and good physical fitness level are all results of this syndrome. Sure, you’ll get unusual calluses on your hands and your right calf will be bigger than your left one, but who needs symmetric calves anyway?
Social gatherings often lead to awkward feelings such as being the only one in the room who knows (or cares, for that matter) what a trasto da prua is. You find yourself becoming a sort of “gondola geek”. You’re the outsider when the guys are watching football and you’d rather watch a regatta.
But then it all comes back to a head when someone needs to propose or celebrate something. Now, all of a sudden, you’re like that one guy in the dorms who has a pick-up truck on moving day.
Guys ask you for advice on how to be more romantic; girls ask you how to get their guys to be more romantic. Heck, in fewer than five minutes you can go from “gondola geek” to “Cupid in a striped shirt”!
Like I said, there is no known cure, so just learn to accept the fact that you’re different and enjoy the times when it’s to your advantage.
Oh, and if anyone reading this has found a cure, don’t tell me; there are worse things I could be obsessed with.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Rowing like a Venetian

Photos for this post were provided by Ina Mierig: gondola owner and operator in Hamburg, Germany.

As is typical of so many things related to gondolas, the rowing is different from that of other types of boats. Most rowing styles are accomplished while sitting down, but Venetian boats are rowed while standing. And while most methods of rowing require that you face backwards, the Venetian rower enjoys a forward-facing position. Yes, it requires a bit more balance, but the trade-offs are worth it. Facing forward, you can see where you’re going, and standing up offers a high vantage point and gives you the ability to interact more with your passengers and passing boats.
In “voga alla Veneta” (rowing like Venetians), the first stroke is a push forward known as the “premer”. Many Americans pronounce it “premi”. It’s an easy concept and while there are subtle nuances involved in doing it properly, a beginner can usually get the main idea of the premer in a couple of minutes.

Gondoliera Ina Mierig executes a premer stroke.

Photo by Steinmetz

After the premer, the gondolier needs to return the oar to its original position to push again and again. Rather than lifting the blade out of the water, a single gondolier will return the blade forward while keeping it submerged and adding a slight downward turn, thus adding resistance. This resistance helps to keep the oar from popping out of the oarlock. More importantly, however, it corrects the lopsided movement caused when rowing from only one side of the gondola. This return stroke, which is responsible for correction, is known as the “stalia” – often pronounced “stai” (rhymes with sky).

Here Ina demonstrates a proper "stai"

Outside of Venice, people often assume that the gondola is pushed along with a pole like the punt boats of England. This misconception is partially due to the fact that a gondolier typically does not remove the blade of his oar from the water.
If you are familiar with canoeing, you know the “J-stroke” – another stroke which involves a correction upon return. The difference of course is that in voga alla Veneta, there is a type of oarlock known as a “forcola”. The oar is referred to as a “remo” by the Venetians. Using a remo and forcola, a gondolier can achieve remarkable levels of control with the right training, especially considering that the gondola is 36 feet long. I began as a gondolier on motorized gondolas with electric power, and while I still see many benefits to having a motor, I much prefer rowing. There are no mechanical or electrical systems to fail - just two pieces of wood and a problem-solving mind. I also find that folks enjoy the gentle movements associated with rowing.
When two or more people are rowing a Venetian boat, they do not stai with the blade submerged, but rather return by lifting it out at the end of the push, bringing it forward and dipping in to premer again; this eliminates the extra drag associated with a correcting return stroke. Most American gondoliers row exclusively solo. The “premi and stai” method is standard procedure. Group rowing requires some adjustment to eliminate the typical solo-rowing stai.

I’ve spent years assembling a small library of gondola and Venice-related books. By far the best book for learning about how to row like a Venetian is Gilberto Penzo’s “Forcole Remi e Voga alla Veneta”, available at

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Update on Vittorio and Enzo's expedition to Rome

click the map to enlarge
Vittorio Orio and Enzo Lizska left Venice, Italy for Rome and the Vatican on September 3rd. They made their way from the Venetian lagoon, through the Po River Delta and along the coast of the Adriatic. By the 9th they had reached Cervia.
On September 10th Vittorio headed South, the weather conditions and seas were good enough that Vittorio decided not to stop in Cesnatico, and rowed to Rimini.
The stage on the 11th from Rimini to Pesaro was more demanding due to changing conditions of wind and sea. Enzo stepped aboard the gondola and rowed with him for the 17 miles to Rimini.
September 12th brought good weather as Vittorio departed Pesaro. The entire row was 18 miles and conditions remained favorable until right before Senigallia when Enzo helped his friend reach port for the night.
Weather was good on the 13th and Vittorio had no problem reaching Ancona and the halfway point of the voyage.
Having caught up considerably on the lost time earlier in the expedition, Vittorio took a scheduled break and planned to resume rowing on Monday the 17th. Updated information will be posted as it becomes available.
A special thanks goes out to Nereo Zane for contacting Vittorio and Enzo and for providing the above information.I am told that they are greeted at the end of every stage by port and municipal authorities as well as many tourists still there for summer holidays.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Previous Expeditions of Vittorio Orio

If you’ve been reading the Gondola Blog for a while, you can tell that I hold Vittorio Orio in high regard. As gondoliers rank, there are a few guys out there who stand out; most are well-known among their peers, some have been featured in movies, while others have excelled in competitive rowing (like Paolo D’Este and our team member Bepi Suste), and then there’s Vittorio Orio. The guy is a legend - a rowing superstar.
Here is a list of his past rowing expeditions:
1994 from Venice to Trieste - Gondola with 1 oar
1996 from Venice to Ravenna - Gondola with 1 oar
1997 from Cremona to Venice along the Po River - Gondola with 2 oars
1997 from Venice to Portorose (Slovenia) - Gondola with 4 oars
1999 Traverse of the lago di Garda from Riva to Peschiera - Gondola with 1 oar
1999 from Trieste to Venice - Gondola with 8 oars
2000 from Basel (Switzerland) to Amsterdam along the Reno - Gondola with 2 oars
2001 Traverse of the English Channel - Gondola with 2 oars
2003 Traverse of the Strait of Messina - Gondola with 1 oar
2004 from Pola (Croatia) to Venice via Pirano (Slovenia) - Gondola with 2 oars
2007 from Pordenone to Venice along the rivers Noncello and Livenza - Gondola with 1 oar
2007 from Venice to Rome, via sea until Ancona and then along the Tiber (previewed in September 2007) - Gondola with 1 oar
2007 from Albany to New York along the Hudson river (in preparation) - Gondola with 4 oars
Vittorio and Enzo are currently rowing to Rome from Venice. Once that expedition is complete, they will have little time before they meet the rest of our team in New York.
I can’t wait to talk with them and hear all about their last adventure.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Update on Vittorio and Enzo's expedition to Rome

click the map to enlarge

As I write this, Vittorio Orio and Enzo Lizska are rowing south along the coast of the Adriatic on their way to the Vatican and an audience with His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI.
Their progress has been hampered due to some strong winds and rough seas.
As a result of these difficult conditions, Vittorio and Enzo were forced to halt their expedition for a day, and now they are back on the gondola and rowing hard to make up for the lost time.
They began on September 3rd and rowed to Isola di Albarella – an island just south of the Venetian lagoon in the Po River Delta. It was here that they were forced to wait for a day due to wind and sea conditions.
On the 5th Vittorio and Enzo rowed to Porto Tolle in the middle of the Po River Delta where they encountered more adverse conditions.
On September 6th they made their way from Port Tolle to Goro; this part of the row was in the canal system of the Po River Delta. It was a 22 mile row with no wind or sea conditions to contend with.
On the 7th, with light winds blowing from variable directions, Vittorio and Enzo rowed along the coast to Porto Garibaldi.
On September 8th, Vittorio rowed alone, covering 16 miles in very good wind and sea conditions, docking at Porto Corsini.
By the 9th of September, the gondola arrived in Cervia, received with enthusiasm from the people there.
Vittorio and Enzo are making good progress now and hope to complete their expedition on schedule.
While this is a separate rowing expedition from our Hudson River enterprise, we feel compelled to cover its progress as the men rowing from Venice to Rome are members of our Hudson river team.
Updates to this expedition will be posted as they become available.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

The "Wind Fight"

As I train for this expedition, I'm employing several methods to make sure I’m up for the task of six days of solid rowing with some of the best rowers in the world. Taking lots of passenger cruises help, and I like to incorporate some running and light weight-training. Setting out for a day of rowing at a moderate pace helps with the endurance, but one of my favorite training rituals is the “wind fight”. The wind fight involves rowing against a strong wind in a situation where you can’t really slow down or take a break. It’s a hard workout combined with the inability to quit. On top of this, you have the balancing act of rowing into the wind without getting blown too far to one side or the other. Add the right music (I like Metallica) and you’ve got a great workout. Some reading this may think my wind fight approach is unorthodox, or just downright nuts…but it works.

In my twenties, I was a cycling fanatic. My favorite workout was a long, steep hill climb. My friend Steve Ruby and I would clip in, gear down, and climb one of the more ridiculous hills in Palos Verdes, California. We were in amazing shape back then. The fact is, I didn’t see the similarity between the wind fight and the hill climb until I started writing this post.

Tonight I had a good two-hour wind fight against the strong west-northwest winds that are typical in Newport Harbor this time of year. Rowing aggressively against the wind on the back of an 11 meter gondola with Metallica blasting tends to turn some heads. Fishermen on the docks and folks cruising around in their Duffys had some interesting expressions on their faces, but the wind was strong and the music was inspiring. It was a great workout.I wonder if the Venetians like Metallica.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Big thanks to Scott Keller

Early in my research, I found out that a bunch of kayakers paddle down the Hudson River each year and I knew that if anyone would have good advice for us, it would be those guys. After some research, I found the Hudson River Valley Greenway, a state agency charged with developing and preserving the Hudson River Greenway Water Trail and the Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area. In short, their job is to keep the Hudson beautiful and healthy, so it’s there and in good condition for future generations. I learned early on that the guy to talk to was Scott Keller – he’s the Trails and Special Projects Coordinator and, among other things, in charge of the annual kayak trip. I found Scott to be incredibly helpful. His knowledge of the river was an extremely informative. He suggested some stops based on our needs and schedule and was able to tell me about each stop -- whether they had docks, campgrounds or launch ramp. It became clear to me that I had found the expert. I gained a new understanding of his commitment to paddling when he told me that he had commuted to work for a year by canoe! I think that if they hadn’t moved his office, he would still be doing it.
This expedition owes a great amount of thanks to the folks at the Hudson Valley Greenway, and especially Scott Keller.

Vittorio Orio rows to Rome

Today, September 3rd, 2007, Vittorio Orio, the heart and inspiration of our Hudson River expedition is setting out on his second row of the year. In conjunction with the well known Regata Storica, Vittorio has set out for Rome by gondola. He started from the Arsenale of Venice and will row along the Adriatic Sea to Ancona and then along the Tiber until he reaches Rome. This history-making voyage has been made possible by the generous contribution of the president of Fenacom. In addition, George Affabri, master craftsman/artist of Murano glass has created a “capitello” (a sort of shrine) which will be presented by Vittorio to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI.
Shortly after this expedition, Vittorio will leave for the U.S. and our expedition down the Hudson.

George Affabri's "capitello"

Saturday, September 1, 2007

So what's it like to row a gondola?

photo by Cindy Meadors

When she’s not being rowed down the Hudson for a great cause, our gondola takes passengers out for relaxing cruises in Newport Beach, California.
I am one of the lucky guys who gets to row her. Most of the time we take out couples; many of them are celebrating something, but we do get a lot of “just because” cruises and marriage proposals.
The proposals are my favorite. The guy usually tries to surprise his lady with the cruise, and most of the time he succeeds. This is no small feat – in my experience, women are much harder to surprise than men. Often they will have dinner at a restaurant on the waterfront and take a walk afterward , miraculously happening by right about cruise time. Sometimes they’ll pretend to try and “strike up a deal” to take out the boat, but usually they will gracefully “fess up” to having arranged the cruise ahead of time and enjoy the hugs and kisses that follow.

I get them on the gondola, bundle them up in blankets if the weather requires, add some romantic music from the stereo, open and pour the champagne. We cast off and with champagne flute in hand she settles in with a smile on her face and her head on his shoulder. At this point it really doesn’t matter if she suspects a proposal; he’s already gone beyond what most guys can pull off. After the safety speech and a few songs from the stereo,
I’ll bring them under the first bridge. Tradition states that couples must kiss under bridges in a gondola. I tell them “you don’t need the bridges to kiss – they’re only there to remind you. When you start needing the bridges, well that’s when you need to come back and see us”. I’ll sing to the couple several times during their cruise, mostly in Italian but there are songs in Latin and English that get thrown in there as well. The first song is always sung beneath a bridge; my thinking is that the first impression is key, and it doesn’t hurt to have some nice acoustics for that first song. Our gondoliers have a number of guidelines we try to follow, one of them is “beyond the safety speech and points of interest, don’t speak unless spoken to”.
A good gondolier learns to read his passengers and determine whether they want to have conversations with the guy on the back of the boat. Some want very little – the classic case is the insecure tough-guy who wants all of her attention. Then there are the grandmas and grandpas who want to pick your brain about every little thing to find out “what the young people are into today”. I love people, they fascinate me, and being a gondolier is a terrific job if you like people.

You can tell a lot about a guy by the way he pops the question. Does he go down on one knee or just turn in his seat? Does he “ask” or just deliver a demanding “marry me”? There are so many variations. Many of our proposal cruises involve a message in a bottle. The gentleman can spend a little more time thinking about just what he wants to say and how, he e-mails it to our office, they print it out on parchment paper and place it, rolled up in a corked bottle. The bottle message is then hidden on the back of the gondola until the right moment. Bottle messages are fun and challenging for a gondolier; you have to place it in the water discreetly and double-back on it (not always easy in the wind or on a night with no moon). A little bad acting about how it got there is sometimes in order. By the time the lady is reaching for the bottle, she realizes that it’s not the “trash” you asked her to fish out of the water so it can be recycled. She opens the bottle, pulls out the wrapped message, and unfurls it – usually the first thing she reads as she is unrolling the message, is her name. Everyone loves to receive a message in a bottle, it’s so timeless and makes for great stories later. As she gets to the bottom of the message, things get even more exciting because this is when the gentleman speaks up and delivers his proposal. Any guy who has gone to this much trouble to make the proposal perfect is likely to pop the question with just as much class. Whichever way he chooses to do so, it always ends well. I have yet to take out a marriage proposal cruise where the lady didn’t say yes. Maybe it’s because guys think it through a bit more these days, or maybe as a gondolier, I see the best of the best. Heck, maybe it’s because she’s trapped on a boat, a captive audience, afraid of having to swim back if she says no. As we cruise the canals of Newport, other gondolas pass by, and if I know they are not on their way to their own proposal,
I’ll announce “she said yes!”

Usually there are some people they need to call on the cell phone to share the news with. We cruise under a few more bridges, I sing a couple more songs, and the evening ends with the couple both relaxed and excited, with much to look forward to as I bring the gondola back to dock. I escort the couple out of the boat and encourage them to return and cruise with us again.
Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I’ll get to take them out again years later, sometimes with friends who are visiting them from out-of-town, sometimes with new children. At the end of the day, a gondolier knows that he has been privileged to play a small but positive roll in many people’s lives. Rowing a gondola is fun, challenging and memorable.

Wanna go for a cruise?