Friday, November 30, 2007


This was shot on the morning of Day 4 as we were leaving the yacht club in Marlboro.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Building the pontapie

In Venetian rowing there is often an inclined surface for the rower to push off of with the rear foot – especially in competitive or athletic rowing. In cases where an actual structure isn’t present, the rower can usually take advantage of the curvature of the boat to gain leverage. On the back of the gondola, as with several other Venetian boats, you’ll see a little wedge-shaped section of the deck. For the other rowers, the pontapie is as useful as it is portable. Often it is braced against one of the boat’s frames, or “ribs”.

When I was planning the Hudson River Expedition, I knew I would need to include a few new pieces of equipment. I’d used a pontapie on many occasions, and in several types of boats, but I’d never really examined one. They were always under the foot and out of my immediate view.

I got some basic dimensions from friends in Venice (Nereo and Vittorio) and set out to design my own pontapie. Early on I realized that all of the surfaces of these little wedges were small enough that they could be cut from pre-existing scrap. Imagine my excitement when I realized that all those pieces of plywood and lumber I’d been hanging on to in the hopes that I might need them some day, were actually going to be put to use. By nature, I’m somewhat of a pack-rat, it’s a constant process of asking myself “will I really ever need this?” In the workshop it’s the same scenario. So not only did I get the opportunity to build something out of wood, use saws, drills, sanders and other tools, and play loud music in the process, but I also got to do it all with scrap. Yowza!

I began the project by determining how many I wanted to build and what sizes they would be. I chose to build six individual pontapie and to make them of varying heights (for different floor-angles in the gondola), and sizes (for different foot sizes). In truth, I don’t know how authentic my design is, I just know that it worked. These little wedges took a beating, none came apart and nobody complained about them (at least not that I know of).

Getting down to business, I would start with the actual foot surface, cut it to size, and prop it up on one end to the desired degree of height. I clamped the piece to the workbench and used a belt sander with 36 grit paper to bring down the underside of the front edge so it would sit properly on the deck. Next I measured and cut the side pieces (the only triangles in the structure). The side pieces were mounted to the foot surface by a third and fourth piece – 2x3 pieces of pine or poplar (all other parts of the pontapied were plywood). The 2x3 sections allowed for near-perfect 90 degree angles and solid anchoring of plywood pieces using stainless screw fasteners. After the side pieces, 2x3 sections and foot surface were all securely fastened together to form a single unit, I measured and cut a rectangular piece to cover the back of the structure. To make the unit easier to pick up, I drilled a hole in the very center of the back piece with a 1” spade bit. Finally, the back piece was mounted with stainless screws to the ends of the 2x3 sections. In each place screws were used, pilot holes were drilled with a countersinking bit that had a tapered end. This was to make sure that no fastening hardware stood higher than the wood surface it was attached to.

With the pontapie structurally complete, I applied two treatments of Smith’s Penetrating Epoxy, and followed with two coats of Interlux Brightsides in every gondolier’s favorite color…black. By applying the first coat of paint about 12 hours after the last epoxy treatment, I ensured good adhesion because the epoxy product continues to cure well after that and as a result, will bond to whatever product is laid on top of it.

I allowed my new wedges to dry for another day. Then in the same Interlux paint, I mixed a sand-like compound called Intergrip (also made by Interlux) until I had the non-skid consistency I wanted. I then rolled black non-skid paint on the foot surface of each pontapie. After another day of drying, I took a stencil and a can of blue marine spray paint (blue to match the floor of the gondola), and gave the pontapie the finishing touch – the logo of the Gondola Society of America.

In using the pontapie, we found that they stayed in place the best when nestled into a corner between the hull and a frame. In cases where we needed to move everything forward, scrap wood, and a multitude of other things were used to block the pontapie forward the desired distance. I placed little rubber “feet” on the underside edges – the same type used to keep cabinets from “whacking” loudly when closed – these were effective for the first 10 minutes, after that they would fall off and end up stuck to other things. Nailing them in with brass nails only added another 10 minutes before they popped over the nail head and fell off. This has been a learning process, and I will try some other ideas next time.

I’ve attached some truly exciting photos I took of the pontapie doing what they do best…sitting on the ground. Not a lot of activity there. As you might expect, I never thought about taking photos of them while rowing – once again they were “under the foot and out of view”. As I mentioned earlier, six were built. You’ll see five in the photos because I gave the sixth one to John Kerschbaum after the expedition. This spring someone in Minnesota will probably use it to row on the St. Croix River.

Five pontapie from various angles

Building the pontapie - additional photos

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Bacion Orseolo as it should be photographed

photo by Nereo Zane

This photo was shot by Nereo Zane on the morning of August 2nd, 2005.
The colors help to make the shot interesting: red floors, blue tarps, brass trim and fixtures.
The way the gondoliers raft their boats makes for a great pattern that challenges the eye at first.

You won't find this many Venetian gondolas rafted together like this anywhere else.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

VENICE TRAVEL TIPS – Evening at Orseolo

photo by Nereo Zane

In my last post I talked about shooting photos at Bacino Orseolo and how I’d like to go back there with something other than my “snappy camera”. I’ve been through there several times with Nereo Zane who is a professional photographer. He took some of the same shots I put in my last post (much better, of course). I’m scouring my e-mails for them and hope to put them up soon. The shot I have posted here was taken in the evening, when there weren’t as many gondolas there. It’s a neat shot and requires a better camera (and the skill to use that camera). One of the things I like most about this shot, as with many of the evening photos I’ve seen from Nereo, is the way he captures the mood of Venice through exposure. It is both beautiful and lonely at the same time. The water – green, the buildings – a sort of parchment color. Most shops are closed but then there’s that one bistro or ristorante in the background trying it’s hardest to light up the night.

When I look at this image, I see the Venice that awaits anyone willing to explore her late at night; after the hordes of tourists have gone back to their cruise ships, the locals are either at home or dining in a campo and the street vendors have all disappeared until morning.

Monday, November 26, 2007

VENICE TRAVEL TIPS – Morning at Orseolo

We all give suggestions to friends who are going to Venice. Great places to see gondolas, gondolier friends they should visit with or just ways to experience the “true Venice” are among mine. This first travel tip is entitled “Morning at Orseolo”. I’ll post a few more in the future. If you have some you’d like me to post, please e-mail me.

Morning at Orseolo

Supplies needed:

pastry and cup of coffee or cappuccino
Warm coat
Easygoing patience


Bacino Orseolo (Orseolo Basin) located behind the Northwest corner of Piazza San Marco


Bacino Orseolo has the nickname “The Gondola Garage”. Each night a fleet of gondolas, easily 30 or 40, can be found tied up in the basin. Gondoliers tie their boats together creating an amazing sight; they can be seen stepping from boat to boat to boat in order to get to or from their gondolas.

What to do:

Go in the morning. The earlier you go, the more gondolas you’re likely to see. Plant yourself on some steps with a good view of the basin. Watch the gondoliers unwrap, prep, and row out on their gondolas. The rowing alone is an incredible thing to watch – gondolas are over 36 feet long and challenging to maneuver in such tight quarters. Sip your coffee, watch the spectacle, and wait for that perfect photo – you know the one: that “I’m gonna sell this baby to National Geographic” photo. Morning at Orseolo is one of those rare places and times where you really could take such a photo.

Attached are some shots I took with my “snappy” camera. Next time I’m bringing a better camera and then I’ll call National Geographic – that is, if one of you doesn’t beat me to it.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The day I hit my stride

We had a great time on the Hudson River Expedition. Each member of the team has highlights to share; one of mine comes from Day 4. I had a good conversation the night before with Vittorio about how I could further improve my stroke. I cannot stress enough, just how lucky I was to row with Vittorio, Enzo and Bepi – they are among the best in the world…and very patient. Vittorio’s counsel was that I had good footing and great form, but that it was time to start pushing harder with each stroke. I recently took a crash-course in fencing and learned that footwork is everything to a fencer; once you get the footwork down, then you can start swinging that sword around. From what I’ve learned in Venetian rowing, I can tell you that footing is of equal importance.

The next day, when I stepped into the gondola, I had one goal: to push hard enough that everyone on board would notice a difference. This would require me to “reinvent” my stroke a bit, to evaluate each aspect of the way I’d been rowing up to that point. We rowed for a while in the narrow portion of the river just north of West Point. A few spectator boats came up alongside the gondola to take photos, and, as is common when boats go by and cameras come out – Bepi went nuts. He’s a very competitive guy and we all learned quickly that usually when another boat goes by, it’s time to race. Next, we rowed to the Bear Mountain Bridge with the bells of West Point chiming. This section of the row was, in a word, idyllic; a perfect moment that seemed to stretch for miles.

We took a break about 500 yards from the Bear Mountain Bridge. This is an impressive bridge, in fact according to The Hudson River water Trail Guide by Ian H. Giddy, “When the bridge opened in 1924 its 1,632 foot span was longest of its kind in the world, beating the previous record holder, the Williamsburg Bridge by 32 feet.”
Carrying US Route 6 and US Route 202, the Bear Mountain Bridge is one of the more photographed bridges on the Hudson.

After our break we started down-river and while passing under the bridge, we heard, and eventually spotted a guy way up at the base of the roadway where the bridge meets land. He was singing something that sounded like O Sole Mio.
Leaving the bridge behind us, the pace among the rowers quickened. The wind conditions were favorable and I was rowing hard. Bepi sensed this and increased the power. With the benefit of hindsight I’m still not sure if it was his way of saying “ok, now that you’ve found your stroke, let’s have some fun”, or “oh yeah? Let’s see what’cha got, kid”. We rowed for miles at this hot-and-heavy pace. Looking back at the charts and times that night, I realized that in this stretch of river we were averaging over 6 miles per hour (4 was standard for this group). I had hit my stride by changing the way I followed Bepi’s rhythm and by concentrating on a longer stroke.
As we got about a half mile from the Peekskill Yacht Club, it became a sprint to the finish.
Bepi had established an aggressive stroke at a fast pace and was shouting “LUNGA!” (long – as in longer strokes).
From there it just got faster and more powerful until, about 80 yards before entering the Yacht Club marina (the obvious mental finish line for all of us), when I felt like my arms would explode, but kept rowing. A hundred feet from the end, Bepi shouted “A LA MORTE!”, meaning “to the death” (a phrase often jokingly used by the team).
We careened into the marina and executed a fast stop, known as a “schiare” as club members and support staff watched in amusement.

There have been times in my rowing career that I can pinpoint as moments of change where I can look back and say “that’s when it happened”. For years I’ve gratefully credited Mark O’Brien, Angelino Sandri, Nereo Zane, and the late Arturo Moruccio for facilitating these moments. Now I thank the three Venetians on the team for another moment of change.

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Computer Gondola Racing Game

This came out some time last year, and it's been e-mailed around between some of my gondola friends. It's a computer game on the Orbitz website. My guess is that the folks at Orbitz are hoping people will play it and consequently want to tour Italy - using Orbitz of course.
The gondolas aren't exactly accurate (ferro on the back and no forcola for example) but it's a kick in the pants and can be addicting - just ask my kids.
When I'm stuck at my desk with stacks of the proverbial "stuff I don't wanna do", the Orbitz Gondoliero game can be a fun diversion.
Play it and tell me what you think. You can post at the bottom of the game, respond to this post here on the blog, or send me an e-mail:

Here's the link:

"Tre, due, uno, VA!"

Thursday, November 22, 2007

IMAGES OF THE EXPEDITION – final remo raising

As the gondola pushed away from the dock in Albany for the last time, Vittorio shouted “In alzo i remi!” – a command to raise the oars. Raising of the oars, or “remi” is a way to salute someone. When gondolas and other Venetian craft pass the judges stand in the Regata Storica, they salute by raising the remi. When we were rowing off Manhattan, the FDNY fireboat gave a grand display, with water shooting in all directions, Vittorio responded by telling us “In alzo i remi!”

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

IMAGES OF THE EXPEDITION – Vinny and Vittorio after the parade

If you followed the 2007 expedition down the Hudson River, or if you’ve been through the gondolablog a few times, you know that the man in the striped shirt here is Vittorio Orio. The man on the left with the red, white and green sash is another “unsung hero” of our expedition. His name is Vincent Tummino and he was instrumental in so many ways. “Vinny”, as we call him, is a retired FDNY firefighter with over 36 years of active service and is the current president of the International Columbia Association

Why is Vinny an unsung hero?

He helped me plan things logistically,

interfaced with city authorities,

picked up Vittorio, Enzo and Bepi from JFK airport and brought them up to Albany,

transported the gondola trailer back down to the NYC area,

found a place to store it for a week,

organized and hosted the ceremony at Ground Zero,

arranged the towing of the gondola to Staten Island,

hauled her out on trailer,

got us a spot in the Columbus Day Parade,

provided a tow vehicle for the parade,

got me in touch with Staten Island Towing Service,

and brought the gondola to Staten Island Towing so she could be placed in the truck for her ride home to California.

Vinny also handled lodging for some of the team while in the NYC area and handled many other things I can’t think of right now – probably because I didn’t have to think about them.

For these and many other contributions, I speak for the team when I say “thanks Vinny, we couldn’t have done it without you”.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


One of the “small things” on my list was having a blessing before the team departed on October 1st. As things got crazy during the days leading up to that day, I found myself more and more drawn to my faith. It seemed like there was always some task going on that I would be silently praying over, quite often as I was doing the task. I don’t see this blog as a soapbox to preach my beliefs from, but it seems fitting to mention such things in a post about the blessing. In many ways, leading this expedition brought me closer to God. When Father LeFever showed up on the morning of October 1st, I had closure. I knew that his blessing was the last thing we needed to do before we took to the river. And as we raised our oars and the blessing began, it wasn’t one of the “small things” anymore.

Father Lefever delivers his blessing.

The team members each shake hands with Father LeFever.

Monday, November 19, 2007


A couple of days ago I published a post entitled “ZEBRA AND QUAGGA MUSSELS”. The post was based on my experience last July at the Yermo Agricultural Inspection Station. In the following weeks I learned a lot about invasive species, and while I’m not an expert on Zebra and Quagga Mussels, I knew I’d recognize them if I ever saw them. The post I put up the other day was the product of much reading and research, and it took me a while to finalize it. By coincidence, when the post was finally ready, my family and I took a quick four-day trip across the desert to Henderson. I ended up at my Lake Las Vegas operation and published the Zebra and Quagga post. As I worked on my gondolas, I talked with some folks who told me that people are worried about the mussels, I noticed traps in the middle of the lake and a sign in one of the marina offices warning about their spread. Most of all, I looked in the water. I saw the same growth I’d seen for years in the lake, but no mussels. I was relieved…until today. I thought I’d recognize the mussels when I saw them, but I didn’t look hard enough. It took sticking my head between the gondola and the dock, and practically putting my nose in the water before I noticed a little tiny mussel – alone in a crevice of the float that the dock sits on. I had been cleaning the side of the gondola and immediately reached down and pulled up an adult Quagga Mussel – as tiny as a fingernail. I looked further and found none. Several more docks showed no Quaggas. As ridiculous as it may sound, I hoped I’d found the only one - then I found a small colony. I easily pulled fourteen of them and put them in the palm of my hand.

Take a look at my new "pets!"

Now I’m thinking about how things will likely change on the lake.
They are officially here.
Lakes Mead and Mojave are well-ahead of us in the proliferation of Quaggas, so hopefully we can learn from their struggles.

A familiar sight in marinas throughout the West these days.

If you operate on a fresh-water lake or river, learn all you can about these invasive species, and take action to prevent them from spreading to your waterway.

In my previous post, I said: “One thing is certain: once they take hold of an area, things are not the same again.”
I guess now we’ll have a firsthand opportunity to see if I was right.

And there they are - 14 of those lttle buggers fit loosely in the palm of my hand.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Gondolier's Shoes

“Gondolier’s shoes”, this got my attention. I knew about all the other things worn by gondoliers; the striped shirts, the black pants, the sailor-collared over-shirts which vary from black to white depending on the time of year. Hats? Yes, got a bunch of ‘em, but I had never heard about a particular shoe being chosen. I must give credit where it’s due: El Felze – a wonderful group of people in Venice are responsible for making me aware of the shoes. El Felze is a group who meet in and around Venice; they are mostly involved with gondolas, the gondola trade, and the preservation of other things which are trademark Venetian. I had the good fortune of attending two El Felze meetings when I was in Venice in September of 2006; one at the Café Florian, the other at the famous Squero Tramontin. It was so great to be in a room filled with people as enthusiastic about gondolas as I am (I’m used to being the “weird one” in the crowd who has a one-track mind for gondolas). Before my trip to Venice, I had read a lot about El Felze and checked out their literature. Under “caleghèri” I first read about the traditional Venetian shoe craftsmen, and by the time I was packing for the trip, I had determined that I would not bring any black shoes because no matter what it took – I had to have a pair of those “Gondolier’s shoes”.

On my first full day in Venice, my good friend Nereo Zane and I went hunting for the caleghèri I had read about. Nereo is a Venetian who grew up in the area and currently lives in Padova so I felt I had an edge. It wasn’t easy finding parking in Mestre, the industrial city on the mainland that we were in, but when we found Sergio Segalin, we were not disappointed. Mr Segalin is exactly the kind of guy you’d want to buy handmade shoes from in Italy: older and wiser, but seemingly younger in spirit than most. He gives an air of remarkable expertise while still being quick with a wink or a smile. In short, Sergio Segalin is all the things that are great about old men in Italy. I can only guess that Americans would be a bit more sanguine if we spent more time enjoying wine with friends and focusing on family.

Enough about the man, let’s talk about the shoes. While Venetian caleghèri have been crafting shoes for centuries, the “gondolier’s shoe” or “funzionale” as it is called, has been a recent incarnation. The Funzionale is functional, just as the name indicates; this shoe, while good looking and dressy, is designed with function in mind. As I understand it, these were not intended specifically for gondoliers but rather as a comfortable walking shoe for Venetians. The first thing I noticed as I was trying on various pairs; was the weight – these things were about as light as a pair of flip-flops you might wear to the beach in California. When I commented on the weight, to Sergio, he picked one up and twisted it up in his hands – something I wouldn’t, and probably couldn’t do with most shoes – then he let go and the shoe just went back to its original shape without even any sign of stress on the leather. As if he knew what I was thinking, he mentioned that this shoe is a good choice for travel because it’s lightweight and packs well. I have since, brought mine on two business trips and they are definitely up to the task. The look of the shoe is Italian while remaining a bit conservative; perfect for wearing on the gondola, or with a suit. I have actually performed a dozen or so wedding ceremonies in both suit and captain’s uniform in my “Gondolier’s shoes”. The leather is remarkably soft and the soles are made of a non-skid rubber, so, unlike regular dress shoes with leather soles, these won’t betray you on a wet deck. No wonder gondoliers have adopted this “comfortable walking shoe” as their footwear of choice.

At one El Felze meeting I sat next to Saverio Pastor – the well-known remo and forcola maker. Saverio is the President of El Felze. I noticed that he had on a pair of blue ones with the El Felze logo embroidered on the top.

I ran into Mr. Segalin a few times in my travels in Venice and it was always a warm “Oh, hey, how have you been?” type of encounter, as if meeting an old friend. Sergio Segalin: a great guy who makes really great shoes.

If you happen to be in Venice and want to find Segalin, the contact info is on El Felze’s website

Saturday, November 17, 2007


It was a little cold in the mornings, especially with the wind that blows up the river. What’s the difference between a man from Minnesota, and guys from Italy, Texas, and California? Just take a look. Like the rest of us, Vittorio is wearing at least two layers of long-sleeved clothing. John’s in a T-shirt!

Friday, November 16, 2007

Zebra and Quagga Mussels

Several months ago, I went out to our Gondola Adventures™, Inc. location on Lake Las Vegas, in Henderson, Nevada. It’s about 15 miles off the Las Vegas strip and a few miles upstream from Lake Mead. I enjoyed no shortage of heat and had no problems getting paint to dry in little time. The only hassles were the second-degree burns experienced when touching any metal surface that was in direct view of the sun – and then there’s that whole “heat exhaustion” thing – gotta watch out for that.

At the end of my week in Nevada, I hooked my truck up to one of our gondolas, recently trailered, and made my way across the desert towards home in Newport Beach. The date was July 4th, and my wife and I were looking forward to arriving home in time to see some fireworks. It’s not unusual to move boats around between our three locations (the third being Irving, Texas). The gondola at the center of our story is the Isabella Celeste (named for our second daughter), a 25 foot-long, US-built replica. This gondola had operated in all three locations by the time I started across the desert with her. All went well from the driving and trailering perspective; I’ve dragged boats across that stretch of road a dozen times or more, and many of them much bigger than this one. The story got interesting when we pulled into the Agricultural Inspection Station in Yermo, California. Usually they wave you through with an “I hate this job, it’s so unnecessary” kind of look. Not today. Today they were quite interested in my little black boat and had all kinds of questions about her. At first I thought it was the typical curiosity I encounter whenever I’m operating or trailering a gondola, but then their questions zeroed-in on where the boat had been. Which waterways? Which marinas? What are all those little tan specks on the side of the hull? This was all quite unexpected. The folks there were all nice and understanding, knowing full well that most boaters in the US are not aware that we have some “new species” in our midst. I was surprised to learn about both Zebra and Quagga Muscle infestations taking place in US waterways. They were quick to assure me that there would be no fines or charges but I would need to repaint my boat (something I’d planned to do anyway) and I would receive a “free powerwash” (whether I liked it or not) compliments of the US Department of Agriculture.

In the office there, I was given instructions on who to contact after the repainting was complete, as an inspection of the hull would be required before I’d be allowed to launch the gondola. My experience at the Yermo inspection station made me realize two things: first, that the folks there have an mportant job to do, and while I may have complained about having to slow down from time to time, their presence there is vital. While in the station, I witnessed dozens of truckers being questioned about what they were hauling, where they’d come from, where they were going. They were vigilant. The second thing I realized is that all boat owners, including us gondoliers, need to be informed so that we don’t contribute to the problem.

Now for a brief history lesson: if you’re like I was back in July, you’ve heard little or nothing about these shellfish, known as “invasive species” by the authorities. It all started in the 1800’s when these freshwater mussels were inadvertently imported from rivers and lakes in Russia and the Ukraine, to other parts of Europe. They didn’t pose as much of a threat to society until we started using things like “intake pipes” for cooling systems on ships and shore. The little plankton-feeding bivalves are fast reproducers and can clog a system in a short time.

The first appearance of Zebra Mussels was in 1988 in the Great Lakes; Quaggas followed in ’89. The most commonly held belief is that they were sucked into ballast tanks of cargo ships in places like the Caspian and Black Sea; ships which crossed the Atlantic and made their way into the Great Lakes chain before purging their ballast tanks to accommodate the changing balance of the vessel due to cargo loading and unloading. Once these little striped mussels (often as small as a fingernail but sometimes as big as two inches in length) were in our waters, they thrived with few natural enemies to control their numbers.

They don’t just clog systems however, they are filter feeders that live on plankton (the base of most marine food chains). By reproducing quickly, these mussels not only crowd out other species, they starve them by taking the lion’s share of the food. They do such an effective job of filter feeding that they leave the water cleaner than it was. Arguments abound on both sides as to whether these aggressive filter-feeders are beneficial or detrimental to our American aquatic ecosystems. They are becoming famous for cleaning up the water because they remove pollution along with everything else they take in. Their filter feeding prowess is so effective that Chicago residents have been known to compare some shallow water areas of Lake Michigan to those of the Caribbean. Areas which were dark and where one could not see the bottom are now depth-discernable due to the remarkable clarity of the water. This water clarity has allowed bottom-feeding fish to thrive, and the new mussels have been credited with increasing Lake Erie’s Small Mouth Bass population.

Negative effects are easy to find. As mentioned earlier, Zebra and Quagga Mussels crowd out, and in many cases irradicate, other competing species, often attaching themselves directly to the shells of other mussels in the process. They can cover anchors, pier pilings, the undersides of boats and float-docks, and are even capable of covering the entire floor, or “substrate”, of a waterway. There are many shellfish with sharp edges out there, but the dorsal edge of the Zebra can slice as deep as an inch into human flesh. The razor sharp edges have been known to cut hands and feet of swimmers and waders who often don’t initially realize they’ve been cut. And then there’s the problem of clogging intake pipes. This becomes a giant-sized problem when it happens at a power plant which relies on water to cool its systems.

This “invasive species” situation is nothing new; many continents have experienced much more extreme invasions throughout history.

The deliberate release of European Rabbits in Australia had a devastating effect on the continent. It started with 24 rabbits in 1859, and ten years later the population was so strong that an annual count of two million hunted or trapped made no impact on the strength of the species.

In Plague situations, literally millions of people throughout the world died due to illnesses spread in part by rats that travelled on ships to many parts of Europe and Asia.

In North America: European Honeybees were introduced to the American colonies in the 1600’s, making no apparent negative impact. In the 1970’s however, Africanized Honeybees were one of the most worried about species of the decade.

From the Asian Tiger Mosquito, to Fire Ants, to the recently infamous Snake Head fish, we’ve seen our share of introduced species. Mention the West Nile Virus anywhere in America and you’re likely to get people’s attention.

Not all introduced species have been viewed as bad. The House Sparrow, Rock Pigeon and Wild Boar have become so commonplace in North America that most folks probably don’t even know they aren’t indigenous.

Some obvious questions about Zebra and Quagga Mussels arise:

1. Where can they survive? These two bivalve species are freshwater only. If they are attached to your boat and you park it in salt water, they will die. The only reason they were able to make it across the Atlantic is that they made the trip in sealed ballast tanks. They seem to be capable of living and multiplying in several climates. They have been discovered as far north as Sweden and all the way to the equator.

2. Are they in my waterway? If your waterway is fresh water, quite possibly. They don’t need to travel in ballast tanks or attached to the bottom of your boat. A rubber boot or bait bucket with a few inches of water can be sufficient to transport them.

3. How can they be eliminated/irradicated? Some aggressive chemical programs have worked in isolated bodies of water but there are obvious negative effects on other organisms in the water. Some applications of electrical or sonic fields have yielded some results but the “cure” hasn’t really been found yet. The biggest struggle right now is simply to prevent the spread of Zebras and Quaggas.

4. How can I help prevent the spread of these mussels? The biggest problem area is transporting boats between fresh water locations. If you are doing so, make sure your boat is clean, not only under the water but alongside the hull too. Watch for standing water in the boat, on the deck, and even on your trailer. These shellfish can be tiny at first so if you see something but think it’s too small – think again. Most of all, report anything you see that could relate to the problem.

So, back in Yermo, after having been stopped, questioned, educated, and after having my gondola washed by a kerosene-heated power washer that was about the size of a compact car, I was finally dismissed…with instructions, of course. It turns out that we now have Zebra and Quagga Mussels in almost every major river in North America, all the Great Lakes, and in January of this year they were discovered in Lake Mojave, Lake Havasu, and Lake Mead.

No wonder they stopped me in Yermo.

The verdict isn’t in yet as to whether these “invasive species” are a blessing or a curse. One thing is certain: once they take hold of an area, things are not the same again.

Here are a few interesting links: scroll down to “exotic species” for a great shot of a shopping cart covered with Zebra Mussels. great photo of Zebra and Quagga side by side, as well as more information on both species. A Lake Powell Quagga Mussel alert.

“spread the message, not the mussels”

Thursday, November 15, 2007

IMAGES OF THE EXPEDITION – Big bridge, small gondola

This was taken as the gondola was about to pass under the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge on Day 4. A gondola is a big boat…by some standards. You’re out there rowing, the chase boat comes alongside and it’s only twelve feet long. At that point, at thirty-six feet long, the gondola feels big. Then a cargo barge pushes by, setting up a rolling wake and you realize that your boat isn’t quite so big. A while later, when you pass under one of the many bridges that span the Hudson, you feel small, very small.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


A close-up shot of the van, jam-packed with suitcases.

Here’s a salute to the unsung hero of our expedition: my wife Elisa.
While we were rowing down the river, she was:

Checking us out of our hotels (often the group stayed in two hotels)
Packing everybody’s luggage into the van (from both hotels)
Driving it down to the next two hotels
Checking us in to the new hotels
Getting the luggage distributed properly
Taking phone calls from the press
Answering e-mails from the press
Shopping for last-minute items
Keeping our business interests at home on-track
And half of the time, with our two daughters in-tow

You want to know who my heroes are? I mentioned some of them in my post on November 9th, but above them all is the woman I married.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t also give a big thanks to Martina and Daniela Zane for helping with some of the above items when they were on-hand. This expedition could not have been a success without the kind of “backstage” support we received.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

IMAGES OF THE EXPEDITION – Chase boat repair

photo by Nereo Zane

I learned a lot of things about outboard motors on the expedition. Thanks to Bepi, we all know how to do a “points job” on the spark plugs using a Swiss Army knife and some sandpaper. Chris learned that if you hold on to a spark plug while it’s connected to the cable, and someone pulls the cord, you get a big shock. Very exciting stuff. It might not surprise you to know that I was the one pulling the cord (sorry Chris). Early on we also learned that when you pull-start an outboard, you need to pull the first few inches gently before giving it a good hard yank. If you don’t do it that way, you’ll break a plastic “spinning thing”; a spinning thing that costs about $40. It might not surprise you to hear that I was the one who learned this first-hand. Thanks again to Jim Costello at the Coeyman’s Landing fuel dock for furnishing the part and the repair.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Stuff I found in the gondola

After the Hudson River expedition, the gondola was loaded into a moving van, where she was transported all the way back to Southern California; securely riding on her trailer like a shipping cradle. She was delivered to the headquarters and storage facility of one of our sponsors, Rudd’s Transfer and Storage, and I towed her on-trailer back home. With the gondola parked in front of my house, I pulled everything out and laid it on my garage floor to sort through. There were a lot of things I recognized, but I came across a few things I didn’t expect to see as well.

Here is a list of some of the things I pulled out of the gondola:
Red cover – This canvas cover came with the gondola when I bought her. It’s not your typical gondola covering approach (like the two deck triangles you see on most gondolas in Venice), but it covers everything nicely with a bungee cord around the perimeter. It’s more effective at keeping snoops out of the boat than protecting from rain. We also found it quite useful as a windbreak on the bow of the chase boat.

Bilge pump – I brought a 500-gallon per hour pump that I keep for “emergencies”. Complete with long pre-stripped wires and a portable jump-start battery with built-in jumper cables, I wanted to be totally ready to deal with leaks, dribbles, or even gushers. Fortunately it never had to be put to use. In the wise words of John Kerschbaum: “Better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it”.

Floorboards – With interesting wear patterns telling who stood where, and how they moved around.

Fodra boards (the ones facing inward in the passenger area) – One has a small chunk taken out of it. This is really the only damage to removable pieces I’ve encountered. I’ll have to repair and re-paint but it’s a small price to pay considering all the different ways things could have gotten knocked around and scratched.

Seats, chairs, pusioli (arm pieces) and of course, the big brass seahorses – All in great condition. They were mounted on the gondola for her launch and some press photos. After that they were stored at the Albany Yacht Club until right before the Columbus Day Parade. Elisa and I drove back up, loaded them into the rental car and brought them down the The City. We dressed the gondola on the morning of the parade.

5 pontapiedi – The foot wedges we used to push off with the rear leg. I made six but gave one to John Kerschbaum.

6 remi – My new set of four that Franco Furlanetto made for this expedition, one of my older ones which was brought as a backup, and one that I inadvertently swapped with Joe Deverrel.

A soap-and-water spray bottle from the Albany Yacht Club - As if I didn’t already owe a debt of gratitude to the dockmaster, Ed Larvia. Hey Ed, I owe you a spray bottle now too, don’t let me forget.

Extra forcola da poppa and prua – I didn’t expect to break either forcole but I also didn’t want to find myself sitting on a gondola in New York, looking at a broken forcola and saying to myself “Dang! I’ve got another one of those at home!”

Wedges, roofing shims, mallet, hammer, Crisco – On any rowing boat in Venice, you’ll find wedges, some kind of hammer, and of course, a forcola lubricant. Most lubes are of the animal fat type – like lard but more likely poured out of the pan after Mamma fried up some bacon. We tend to use Crisco here in the US; not everybody but a lot of guys do. I thought the Venetians would burst out laughing when they saw the Crisco but they didn’t. Maybe they just waited till I was out of earshot. The wood wedges were cut from scrap wood on my band-saw in the garage. I picked up the roofing shims at a Home Depot in Albany.

Portable bow light from Outdoor World – Joe Deverrel gave this to me just in case we needed to row at night. He’d used it on his gondola when he rowed from Cross Lake to Albany. Joe’s advice and words of encouragement were very helpful.

Bag of nuts – Probably John’s.

Moleskin – Great for dealing with blisters or high-friction areas on the palms and fingers.

A camera case I misplaced halfway through the trip.

Two of my gondolier hats – Un-crushed, thank God.

Ratcheting tie-straps – Used to secure the gondola to her trailer during transport.

Dock lines, fenders, lifejackets.

Hitachi 18 volt cordless drill kit – I’ve gotta have tools! This was invaluable on a few occasions.

Empty cans and bottles – These were mostly from water, Gatorade, and orange soda. Also an empty Heineken can from Day 4. We were floating along during a fruit break and a couple cruised by in their pleasure boat. Bepi stood up and began shouting “Acqua, acqua!” like he’d been stuck in the desert. They didn’t have any water so they tossed over a bunch of sodas…and for Bepi: a big 24 ounce can of Heineken. Hey Bepi, you’ll have to teach me that trick!

Torn FDNY shirt – this one puzzled me. The navy blue polo shirt was torn in half, and I found the bottom half first. Because it had no markings, I assumed it was just a rag from one of my old shirts. When I found the top half, with its FDNY lettering, I realized it had probably come from the guys who towed the gondola to Staten Island. Funny thing about that shirt – I’m sure it was just “another old shirt” to the fire boat guys, but once I realized what it was, I felt like I was handling something sacred.

A product called “Friliver – Energy” with packaging all in Italian. I’m guessing this was Vittorio’s because it was at the very aft of the gondola, under the poppa deck. It appears to be an energy drink mix, with powder in foil packets. I haven’t tried it though. I’m not big on energy drinks – I tend to be fairly hyperactive to begin with.

Toilet paper roll with the hotel wrapping still on – This was my favorite discovery. Many times I’d wondered to myself “what do I do if I need to go number two?” Remaining regular was a priority because of this concern. It appears that I wasn’t the only one worried about such things. The wrapping was from a hotel so I have my suspicions. Again I must Quote John: “Better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it”.

Sunday, November 11, 2007


There are some things you just don’t do with a camera, one of them is aim it toward the sun. There are always exceptions though, such as this shot, taken on the morning of Day 2. The gondola had just pulled away from the dock in Athens and was heading down river when Nereo snapped this. The clouds made the lighting even more unique.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

IMAGES OF THE EXPEDITION – John Kerschbaum on Columbus Day

This photo was taken during the Columbus Day Parade; just a few car-lengths from the judging area. In the background you can see some of the grandstands.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Gilberto Penzo

photos by Nereo Zane
Gilberto and I in his Lab

There are several different types of people who can be considered “famous” among those who love and/or operate gondolas.

There are guys who are known for their success in regatta rowing – guys like Ciaci, Bepi Fongher and Franco Crea are good examples. Paolo D’Este has made an impression in the same way. Ask any of our Hudson Expedition team members about Bepi Suste and it becomes clear – rowing champions are larger-than-life.

Gondola builders like Bonaldo, dei Rossi, and the Tramontin family certainly rank high; where would we be without their handiwork? The same can be said for remers Saverio Pastor, Paolo Brandolisio, and Franco Furlanetto, and who can talk about remers without the name Giuseppe Carli coming up?

Vittorio Orio and Enzo Lizska have caught the world’s attention by rowing some high profile expeditions.

One of my favorite people in the gondola world is Gilberto Penzo. He has dedicated his life to the preservation and archiving of traditional Venetian boats. He is the one to talk to about plans, models, history, and even the people who have been involved with Venetian boats, both today and throughout history. When the authorities find an old vessel, preserved in the mud at the bottom of the Venetian lagoon, they call Mr. Penzo. He is the authority, and he has earned the title.

Gilberto has published a number of great books, with topics ranging from old traditional small craft to a complete hardbound volume chronicling the well-known vaporetto, past and present.

In a previous post I mentioned one of Gilberto’s books:
“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.”

The book has an English translation in the back, along with great photos. Penzo collaborated with Saverio Pastor, and it shows. You get a real insider’s view of the world of the remer. I risk sacrilege here, but on more than one occasion I’ve called it “the Bible for Venetian rowing”.

“Forcole Remi e Voga alla Veneta”

I must admit that in my fanaticism for gondolas, I’ve become a collector of Gilberto’s books. In fact I didn’t realize it until I had six or seven of them that I’d gotten caught up in the whole “be the first kid on your block to collect the whole set” mentality.

His website is a great resource for information regarding Venetian boats. From the small S'ciopon to the legendary Bucintoro, you can get a quick description of all types of craft that are floating or once were floating in Venetian waters.

Last time I was in Venice, I had the opportunity to tour the city with Gilberto in his boat. It was a real treat, and a tour I won’t soon forget.

Gilberto explains something to me in his shop, with models in the background

To learn more about Gilberto Penzo, his projects and publications; go to:

Thursday, November 8, 2007


On Day 3, the guys spotted a large recently-dead carp fish floating in the water. This fish was easily 2 feet long and they couldn’t pass up the chance to pick it up and pretend they’d caught it for the camera.

Gross? Maybe.
Memorable? Definately.
Funny? Heck yeah!

Wednesday, November 7, 2007


On the morning of Day 5 we left the Peekskill Yacht Club in thick fog. Rowing along the Eastern shore, we entered the north end of Haverstraw Bay. This is a big, wide part of the river, under foggy conditions, we couldn’t see to the other side. Our official striped jerseys were getting a bit “ripe” so we chose to wear the red Casino di Venezia T-shirts on day 5.

In the above photo you can see Vittorio rowing a-poppa (on the raised deck at the back), Chris in his black Stetson, Enzo is in front of Chris and you can barely see his signature black vest that he wore each morning, and Bepi is at the front of the gondola, wearing his “Geronimo head band”.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

One-of-a-kind gondola

Several years ago I met Giovanni Guidice and Davide Scarpa while surfing around on the internet. They were rowing at the Santa Maria del Giglio traghetto/servizio. As is the case quite often with such friendships, we swapped stories, jokes, and photos. One day, back in 2001, I received some great photos from Giovanni – the subject: Davide’s new gondola. This was a special boat; she was his first new gondola, commissioned by Davide and built at Cantieri Crea. For a Venetian gondolier, his first new gondola is a milestone. I’ve seen a lot of gondolas over the years; many different colors and combinations stand out in my memory. I still haven’t seen this gondola first-hand, but she still stands out - based on the photos alone.
Davide took an approach which was unconventional but still looked classic.
Seats were upholstered in light gray with charcoal trim.
All rub-rail trim was done in stainless steel rather than brass.
And while most gondolas have brass cavalla (seahorses), Davide’s cavalli and other foundry-work appears to have been nickel plated.
All of the above factors make for a boat which is almost completely “gray-scaled”, as if the gondola where in a black-and-white photo.
This gives the varnished wood a real opportunity to shine. The banchette (little benches), chair, floorboards, and even some interior surfaces were finished in clear varnish. Add a freshly oiled forcola to that and you’ve got wood that projects a level of warmth not usually seen on a gondola.
I finally met up with Giovanni last year in Venice. It was fun to talk face-to-face for the first time after all the e-mails. I still haven’t met Davide in-person, but when I do, I want to see that gondola.

IMAGES OF THE EXPEDITION – morning routine

Each morning we would arrive at the gondola, usually in a bit of a hurry to keep up with the tide schedule. The gondola would be uncovered, forcole would be checked or installed if they’d been stowed for the night. The chase boat also needed to be prepared and the engine checked. On the gondola, guys would make sure their remo was wrapped well, set the foot wedge known as a “pontapied” the way they wanted it, and stow a banana or apple and a few bottles of water where they could reach them during a “fruit break”. This was also a time to make sure you’d gone to the bathroom, put on some sunscreen, and make sure your shoes were tied tight. Once the group starts rowing, it can be embarrassing to have to stop and tie your shoes.
Nereo Zane took this shot on Day 4 at the Marlboro Yacht Club.

In the above photo, Bepi and Vittorio adjust the mounting of one of the “clamp-on forcolas” while Enzo looks on. Chris stands in the chase boat, doing something with one of the back-up remi.

Monday, November 5, 2007


From left to right: Dockmaster Ed Larvia, Bepi Suste, Enzo Lizska, Greg Mohr

Ed Larvia is the Dockmaster at the Albany Yacht Club. I was in contact with him several months before we arrived to begin the expedition. He helped us arrange tow truck and hoisting services to unload the gondola, gave us a place to park our gondola and chase boat, let us store our seats, chairs and other stuff for a week in his office, and not once did he complain.

His hospitality was exemplary.

I would like to do this expedition again one day, and this is due in part to folks like Ed.
As if the Dockmaster hadn’t done enough for us, right before we pushed off for our trip down-river, he came out with six crisp white polo shirts, each with the yacht club emblem. The photos in this post were taken at that moment.

Vittorio Orio

Chris Harrison

The whole group. From left to right: Dockmaster Ed Larvia, Bepi Suste, Enzo Lizska, Greg Mohr, Chris Harrison, John Kerschbaum, and Vittorio Orio.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

IMAGES OF THE EXPEDITION – the trailer banner

The Venetians brought this banner from Venice.
The main line translates to "To not forget the victims and the heroes of New York"

Saturday, November 3, 2007

IMAGES OF THE EXPEDITION – “the fruit break”

On a week-long expedition like the one we just completed, diet is a major concern. Each meal receives much contemplation:

“Do I need more fiber?”

“Am I getting enough natural sugars?”

“Is there enough protein in this?”

And of course, “I need more water.”

Every 5 to 7 miles; or whenever someone felt it was necessary, we would stop for water and fruit.

Guys would tighten their shoelaces, adjust their forcola, or change their shirt. Each time we stopped, I would check my chart to see where we were and how much further we had to go. Most of the time it lasted only 2 or 3 minutes, but sometimes this break would result in floating along for 10 minutes or more just eating fruit and telling jokes.

Bananas and apples were popular with everyone, while some of the guys also went for tomatoes. John was successful in getting most of us to accept large helpings of mixed nuts too.

Honestly, I think I ate better during that week than I have in a long time.

The above photo, entitled “the fruit break”, was taken about 500 yards north of the Bear Mountain Bridge on Day 4 as a freight train crept by, headed north towards West Point.

It truly was a perfect moment.

Friday, November 2, 2007


This photo was taken at the end of Day 3 in the Marlboro Yacht Club.
On the left you have the hands of Chris Harrison – he’s six feet, five inches tall, with big hands. On the right is Bepi Suste– a man who almost defies description, really. He’s one of the most fun-loving, capable guys I’ve met. He enjoys life and goes full throttle like it’s the only way to do things. He’s one of the strongest rowers I’ve ever shared a boat with. He’s only five and a half feet tall, but Bepi has monstrous hands – the kind that would strike fear in your heart if they started reaching in your direction.
Any interaction with Bepi is memorable, but shaking hands with him can be humbling. Rowing with him, and Enzo and Vittorio, was truly an honor.

Thursday, November 1, 2007


The Phoenix is officially back in the water, and, I dare say, I think she’s happy.
Yes folks, I believe my gondola is happy.
She got a complete makeover, took a nice long vacation where she got to tour the Hudson River and be rowed by gondoliers from interesting places. After the rowing, she was in a parade down 5th Avenue, and all the time, wearing cool decals and paying tribute to the fallen heroes of 9-11. Everywhere she went she was the center of attention and received great care from doding Venetian and American gondoliers.
I re-launched her tonight and rowed her back to the home dock in Newport Beach. It was a beautiful night. The harbor was quiet with an overcast sky that almost made me feel like I was rowing indoors.
The Phoenix cut through the water so well that at times I forgot I was the one doing the rowing. When I decided to really “step on the gas”, it was downright fun. The other day I had a conversation with John Kerschbaum and he told me his stroke had improved quite a bit from the time spent rowing on the expedition. I’ve experienced the same thing and can’t wait to row in a group again.
So she’s back in the water, she doesn’t leak (that’s always a plus), and she’s ready to take passengers again.

photo by Cindy Meadors

Happy passengers, happy owner, happy gondola.


In my last post, I described the underground boat operation in Bowling Green, Kentucky known as Lost River Cave. I got curious about the boats there, so I called and spoke again with Annie Holt; she’s the Operations Supervisor. I found out that the boats in the Lost River Cave originally took passengers in Mammoth Cave, about 30 miles north.
Mammoth Cave is over 350 miles long, with a number of subterranean rivers running through different areas. The Echo River is one of those rivers and until the early 90’s, there were boat tours given there. The boat tours were discontinued for reasons including environmental impact and cost to operate in a passage which can flood frequently.
The tour boats sat in Mammoth Cave until Nick Crawford, founder of the Friends of Lost River, secured them for the operation in Bowling Green.
The boats are 23 feet long and 4 feet 8 inches wide. They can seat 20 passengers and stand about a foot above the waterline, allowing the tour guide to take his or her passengers under some pretty low-hanging rocks.
Annie Holt told me that when they went to remove the boats from Mammoth Cave, they had to be cut into six-foot sections and carried out, piece-by-piece from 350 feet below the surface. Once out of the cave, the boats were welded back together and launched in the Lost River Cave waterway.
What do they do when the motor fails? They hardly ever have such problems because they maintain things quite well (I would too if I operated boats in a cave). In case there is a motor failure, each boat has a long pole (for punting) and if all else fails, tour guides are willing and able to jump in the water and pull the boat back to dock. The water is about 3 feet deep in most of the cave.

Here's a photo I took during our trip into the cave. This boat was docked and waiting at the mouth of the cave.

Special thanks go out to Rho Lansden, Annie Holt, and Steve O’Nan for providing the above information.