Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Rowing in Ft. Lauderdale

I arrived today at Stork's Cafe in Ft. Lauderdale, hoping to row.

It had been almost two weeks since I'd been rowing and I needed a workout.

I met gondola operator Pierre Meunier, he showed me around, and then we dug through a storage closet to find an oar.

Stork's Cafe is immaculate; the place is a local favorite, and for good reason. Located on Las Olas Blvd, Stork's is next to a tiny canal called the Himmarshee Canal, and passersby all stop on the bridge and look down at the gondola. It's a great location, especially when you consider that Las Olas has been described as the Rodeo Drive of the area.

As we were digging through the storage area for an oar, I got to know Pierre. For starters, he's a very patient guy: here's some crazy gondolier who just shows up from California and says "hey, I'd like to take your boat out", and then, even though the gondola is usually propelled with an electric motor, the visiting gondolier insists on rowing, and then talks his host into doing a full inventory of the storage closet in search of an oar. Through it all, Pierre was patient and personable.

We found an oar, way in the back, and then went about the business of extracting it. As I talked with Pierre, I learned that he is originally from Nice, France, but has been here in the US for twenty-eight years. He is a licensed captain with a 100 ton ticket, and has operated several types of boats in the waters here, including charter boats, water taxis and even amphibious "duck" boats. He's a funny guy with lots of great stories to share.

Once we removed the oar from storage, I realized it was a lifeboat oar, but was still determined to row. So we uncovered the gondola which was at dock there.
A number of gondolas tie up in front of Stork's:
there's Mike Novack's "Sr. Contendo" which is almost 100 years old now,
there's the "diesel gondola" (another story for another post),
there's the Stork's private gondola (a beautiful boat from the dei Rossi squero),
and then there's the gondola I was on today.

Today's gondola is very special to me because for many years it belonged to my friend Norm Warsinske in Seattle, Washington where he kept it in various places. I first stepped on the boat about ten years ago while visiting him on Lake Washington. A few years ago, Norm sold the gondola to someone in Miami, who then sold the boat to Mike Novack. If you're just joining us here, folks, Mike is a gondola operator in New Jersey, who recently took over operations in front of Stork's Cafe as well. Mike is also the Vice President of the Gondola Society of America, and one of the biggest gondola fanatics I know.

Mike and Pierre took over after the original operator, Angelino Sandri had moved on. Angelino is one of the best gondoliers I know, so I was really looking forward to rowing at Stork's, and experiencing firsthand, the area I'd heard so much about.

I was not disappointed.

The waterways were pristine, looking in any direction I saw beautiful views, complete with lush greenery, banyan trees, palms of many kinds, and gorgeous homes.
After uncovering the gondola, I noticed that a well had been installed with a trolling motor reaching down through and into the water. As Pierre and I set out from Stork's, we went down the Himmarshee Canal, a slow and easy piece of water, and then jumped into the fast-moving New River. The New River is a busy through-way for yachts and vessels of all types that travel to and from shipyards, many of them being towed. Also present on this river were tour boats and water taxis. As if boat traffic weren't enough, the New River has a strong current, which was moving at about five knots today. As we headed down the New River and turned into the Tarpon River, we watched two large vessels, a luxury yacht and a high speed motorized catamaran, trying to navigate one of the tight turns as they powered upriver. Heading up the Tarpon River, the current was moving against me at about one knot, and the water was as smooth as glass. Pierre told me about how the river had been used so many decades ago in a number of Tarzan films starring Johnny Weissmuller - one of the most popular actors to portray the ape man of the jungle.

I rowed up past the 9th Street bridge and turned around where most of the passenger gondola cruises do. Going back down with the current was easy and relaxing on the Tarpon, which gave me time to prepare for the New River.

photo by Pierre Meunier

This gondola is solid, with all the charm you would expect from a Venice-built boat, but she's got some extra weight due to the well, motor, and the seven batteries on board. Rowing it all up the river was a great challenge, and turned out to be just the workout I'd been looking for. Once we re-entered the Himmarshee Canal, it was calm again and I took a moment to wave to a huge riverboat which was giving a tour on the New River. At that point, Pierre told me that he'd been waiting the whole time for me to ask him to turn on the motor. It was a great row and I look forward to doing it again the next time I'm in town.

If you have the chance to visit Ft. Lauderdale, be sure to stop by Stork's Cafe and arrange to meet with Pierre; he's a gondola fanatic, great guy, and the kind of guy I like to see in the gondola business.

To learn more about Stork's Cafe, go to

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