Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Rowing for a Serviceman

"Courage is almost a contradiction in terms: it means a strong desire to live taking the form of readiness to die."
- Gilbert K. Chesterton

Now and then I find myself on the back of a boat with someone famous - sometimes they are great to have on board (funny, friendly, easy going), and sometimes they're an ass.
Often the best thing about having a famous passenger is being able to tell your gondolier friends that you took them out.
Most don't actually live up to the hype.

I've had people on my boat who I knew were there to evaluate the experience (travel writers, reviewers, etc.) and I tend to pay a bit more attention to details - knowing full-well that everything can and will be critiqued.

But there is one class of passengers who I take more seriously than any other - servicemen who are about to be deployed.
With two conflicts being actively fought right now, there are a lot more men and women calling my company and looking to do something special before their departure. I've had a lot of these folks on my gondola lately, and it affects me more than I would ever have thought.

In my twenties I came very close to joining the Marine Corps, since then I often wonder what my life would be like if I had signed up. Dreams of being stationed in exotic countries and "seeing the world" used to be common. Back then we had no wars going on.
If I had joined, I would likely have ended up in Kuwait; Desert Storm took place shortly after that point.
These days when I entertain the same wonderings,
I think about all of our men and women in uniform, who are willing to put their lives on the line for this country...and do. I'm humbled.
Whenever I visit my Texas operation, I pass through the DFW airport; it's impossible to walk through that place without seeing men and women in uniform - going and coming from long tours in dangerous places.
The ones coming home have a look of relief, of homecoming.
The ones shipping out have an entirely different expression - they know that they might not come home alive.

So when I find myself rowing for a guy who's about to be deployed - I take it seriously. When I tell him to kiss his sweetheart under the bridge, it's easy to get choked up, knowing that he's making a memory he'll need to hang on to for a long time - as he goes to a dangerous place and risks it all for the rest of us. When I sing for these couples - I give it my all.

As the 4th of July draws near, I encourage all of my American readers to think of these men and women. Think of how much they are willing to sacrifice for this country to keep it great.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Monday, June 28, 2010

An "All Blacks" Fan in Venezia

This one is for Andrew McHardy - my favorite Kiwi.

I was riding the vaporetto up the Grand Canal one day last year, taking it all in with camera in hand. As we approached the Rialto (an area that always has a bounty of beautiful gondolas), I raised the camera and shot this image:
Two gondolas, laden with passengers, headed in our direction with Venice's most recognized bridge behind and a long column of gondola-tails along the shore.

As we rumbled further up the Canalazzo, I zeroed in on one of those two gondolas - the bow deck of the gondola was decorated in an older style. Looking at the bow, I noticed something unusual - an "All Blacks" flag.

The "All Blacks" are a rugby team from New Zealand.
But not just any rugby team - they are the national team, and one of the best, if not the best the world has ever seen by historic standards.

Anybody who follows rugby knows the "All Blacks" - they are fierce. New Zealand has plenty of things to be proud of, but ask a Kiwi and you'll likely hear about this team.

The "All Blacks" got their name because of their uniforms, which are...all black (bet ya didn't see that one coming). They are known for winning, and they do it a lot. Search on-line and you'll find out why they are so popular. But the "All Blacks" are also known for the war dance they like to perform before each international match. Known as a "haka", this war dance comes from the Māori tribe, indigenous to New Zealand. There are many ways to interpret the effect of the haka (intimidation is certainly one component no matter how you look at it), and as you might expect - the fans love it.

The gondolier rowing the "All Blacks" gondola had an interesting way of wearing his pants and socks.

I must say that I love the boat, especially the way her decks are finished out.

I know that a rugby team flag isn't the first thing you might expect to see on the bow of a gondola, but admit it, it looks great there.
And don't disrespect the "All Blacks" on this gondola, or the gondolier might have to do a haka of his own!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Group Shots

Each time I've attended a get-together at Sunset Gondola, I've set the tripod up and taken a group shot.
Most of the time I've just posted one up here on the blog, but last time I came home with a number of them - each worthy of posting.

I found that there wasn't just one perfect shot.
Everyone was doing something different in each photo.
So I'm re-posting the ones that decorated the tops of each successive post from the last "Pilgrimage" so you can enjoy them one right after another.

Here's the first one:

People got a little more animated in this next shot:

John Synco cracked me up in this one (he's the one in red stripes on the right), but Erin Grissom upstaged everyone there (kneeling with black jacket and white pants), and I think she was just laughing about something, but the expression is awesome.
In between shots, I caught a few fun candids while everyone was getting in position.
Trish, John, and Eric were laughing at something Andrew McHardy said - he's not in the shot but his little white mug is (lower left)

"Basso" busts out a dance step while others crack up.

And then there's the guy who brought the camera, set it up on a timer, activated it, and was too stupid to turn around and smile for the shot (yeah, me), no wonder Chris was laughing at me.

Ahh, but there's one more, my friends.
This one's my favorite, and I haven't posted it until now:
I've said it before about these shindigs:
"If you were there, you'll recognize the goings-on in each photo.
If you weren't - you missed out."

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Getting to Know the Boat

Tonight I took some more cruises on the "Lucia".
Winds were gentler than I'd expected, but with the lunar phase, we had a rapidly moving tide. I passed under the Newport Blvd. bridge and checked the tide marker - our standard way of determining whether we'll fit under the smaller 38th Street bridge further along. The measurement was good.
But as we approached the smaller bridge I wasn't sure we'd make it under.

The "Lucia" has a canopy, but it's lower than the ferro by a few inches. For years I've rowed two Venice-built gondolas under that bridge - the Phoenix and the Wedding Gondola.
Yesterday I noticed that the ferro on this gondola seemed higher.
Gondolier Steve O made the same observation this afternoon on the dock.

Back at the 38th Street bridge, I inched closer, looking at it keenly.
At the last minute it became clear:
we weren't going to fit - even when leaning to starboard, the ferro was about an inch too high.
I spun the boat to the right, allowing me to catch the gondola parallel with the bridge.
It wasn't the most graceful thing I'd ever done, but collision and damage were avoided.
Getting to know a new boat is always an adventure.
You hope you'll learn most things without damage or injury.

Of course after I spun sideways a gondolier from another company cruised by, just in time to see me there looking like a doofus.
When I said that I was "just getting to know a new boat", he probably knew what I meant, but his passengers must have been convinced I was a loon.

Yes, my friends: remember me this way.

It wasn't the most impressive thing to look at, but it was an important moment; I learned vital information about the boat, and did so without "bad things happening".

I managed to avoid any scraping and informed my passengers that:
a. we wouldn't be making it under that bridge any time soon, and
b. tradition mandates that when the gondola won't fit under a bridge, couples must kiss twice! They loved it.


Ingo Stahl of Germany sent me these great photos of a film shoot he and his gondola were hired for recently.
The scenes were shot for a Bavarian daytime drama called "Franzi".

It's fun to watch as a film crew tries to cram their entire operation into the passenger area of a gondola.
Regarding the setting, Ingo writes:
"it seems to be Wörthsee, but it isnt - it's a small private pond in our region"
Many gondola operators I know have been involved in film shoots. From commercials to major motion pictures, getting contracted with your gondola is fun, challenging, and always makes for good stories later.
Here's what the TV viewers see - Ingo looks sharp in his white pants.
Since I don't get much opportunity to watch Bavarian soap operas, Ingo gave me a general outline:
"The story tells the daily lives in a middle countrytown, young love, with all the problems, when people are unable to look at and listen to one another. The main figures are Franzi and her ragazzo Werner, who is the son of a fashion shop owner, but would prefer to be a jazztrumpeter and owns a gondola most stories revolve around. I myself am not in the action. You see the best known tv-stars Jule Ronstedt and Sebastian Bezzel, and the Gondoliere Ingo Stahl with his gondola."

When TV producers are really serious, they throw a couple guys in wetsuits in the water too - just to make sure the boat is exactly where they want it.
Next time I see Ingo, I'm sure he'll have some great stories to share from this film shoot.
To read more about Ingo's gondola operation, check out his website.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Cruising with a Canopy

I took my first paying passengers on the "Lucia" this afternoon.
Everything went great. The tide was just low enough to make it under all bridges. There was some wind waiting out there for me, but nothing that I couldn't either force or finesse through.
The boat cuts through the water so well - evidence of a narrow hull that was hadbuilt by a master some fifty years ago.
My four passengers enjoyed the shading of the canopy, and we all enjoyed the numerous looks we got on such an eye-catching gondola.

Putting the Puzzle Together

photos by Elisa and Greg Mohr

I use the word parecio here a lot on the Gondola Blog.
If you've got a gonola or two of your own, or are a gondola fanatic, then you know the definition of the word.

Parecio is a broad term that refers to all the removable parts of a gondola.
Anything that can be pulled off the boat without tools or inhumane yanking is parecio.

Taking things off a gondola is fairly easy; as long as it doesn't get damaged in the process, you can make quick work of it.
putting parecio on is another story.

A few items are obvious - you know where they go just by looking at them.
Floorboards and step-pieces however, are like the pieces of a puzzle.

assembling the floorboards of the "Lucia" was a challenge, as was getting the trastolini (step-pieces) in place.
Once we had a safe surface to walk on, Steve and I were able to outsmart the canopy frame. We congratulated ourselves afterward for not dropping anything metal in the water. Everybody knows that water has an enhanced force of gravity and it will do it's darndest to suck things of value into itself.

Carpets and seats were easy to place, and the pusioli (arm-pieces) and cavalli were simple and fun to install.

Placing the five-sided portela and a little brass canon on the bow completed the project and the "Lucia" was ready for her christenning.

Janet Curci did the honors of placing roses and a small Italian flag in the canon, and everybody agreed that the gondola was now "fully dressed".

placing roses and flag into canon.

Champagne was popped for a proper gondola christenning (spraying, not whacking), there was no name change involved, but with the boat back on water after an extended period of time, popping the champagne was the right thing to do.

Gondola christennings in Newport always involve spraying rather than the traditional bottle-breaking which can be quite destructive.

Once Janet had finished spraying champagne on the bow deck (and a little on Steve too), everyone toasted with a good prosecco.

Pouring the Prosecco.

Toasting and talking (notice Steve shooting a photo with his cellphone).

Next, it was time for an inaugural voyage.

We made our way up the Rhine channel and back, smiling and waving to folks in boats and dining at waterfront restaurants.

Rowing the "Lucia" with all her finery alone would have been great.
Having Janet Curci on board made it a blast.
Everyone had a terrific time and on a sunny day in Southern California, I had no doubt that we were creating a memory that everyone would look back on and smile.

After her inaugural voyage, I jumped on the back once more and rowed the "Lucia" to her new home at the Gondola Adventures, Inc. docks. I made the trip with my daughter Isabella on the back with me - spending some great father-daughter time on the way.

Rowing a canopied gondola in the wind is understandably different. The wind likes to mess with you on the water, give it some canvas to grab onto and things can get interesting.

As I write this I prepare for my first cruise with clients this afternoon.
No doubt the wind will be there to greet me,
and I am up for the challenge.
hopefully I won't be back this evening with an embarrassing story to tell.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Launching the "Lucia"

photos by Steve Elkins and Greg Mohr

Launch day is always exciting.
For those involved with a gondola,
about to be hoisted high in the air above asphalt,
coffee really isn't necessary.

There are many things you can try again if you didn't get them right the first time - hoisting a gondola isn't one of them.

Everything must be checked and double-checked,
Looked at from all angles,
touched and even listened to.

Sometimes you've got to imagine all the most destructively terrifying worst-case-scenarios, picture them in your head, and try to maintain a calm demeanor.

A healthy sense of paranoia may be the only thing that allows you to notice that one little loose end before it can bring about disaster.

The gondola rests on her storage cradle while the hoisting straps are put in place.

Every time I oversee any kind of boat lifting, I put a hand on the boat. No view or collection of data can rival the tactile connection with a boat.

The initial lift this morning was good, but once the gondola was free of her cradle, she tried to swing - having a hand on the boat allowed me to prevent that swing from causing any damage.

There's no substitute for having a hand on the boat.

Once free of the cradle, the gondola was carried through the air, over asphalt and concrete, and towards the blue water of Newport Harbor.

Today's hoist was carried out by a remarkably over-qualified piece of equipment. The operators deserve praise not only for doing the job well, but for putting up with my many requests - which included shutting the equipment down at one point to listen to the boat.

The "Lucia" mid-hoist.

Once over the water, all of us who were emotionally attached to the gondola breathed a little easier.

On a day like today, few things can compare to the sight of the gondola kissing the water for the first time in almost a decade.
The moment of contact.
One final thing to check off the list:
making sure there are no leaks.
This gondola was fiberglassed a long time ago.
Everyone expected to see positive bouyancy - we just didn't know how positive, and if there might be a few leaks.

The report came up with a shout.

"The bilge is dry!"

Great news on a great day.

Stepping aboard was electric.
It was the final step in a long process,
and the first step in a new endeavor.

The Curci Gondola rowed nicely.
Every gondola has her own personality and feel.
The "Lucia" tracked well and moved forward with little resistance.

Even in reverse.

At the beginning of a launch day, you hope that all your planning will yield success.
You hope there won't be any accidents or damage.
You hope many things.

If you've done your job and luck is on your side, you end up with a boat on top of the water and no unpleasant surprises.

I'm happy to report that today was such a day.

For more on hoisting, read my post from August, 2008 entitled "Not Dropping the Boat".

The Conversation

Driving through Long Beach, I took a short detour into the Naples area where some gondolier friends of mine row.
Taking their passengers out in Alamitos Bay, they cross the water and duck into a neighborhood canal system.

I stepped onto a bridge and a pupparin emerged from beneath.

Gondolier Ignacio Villanueva rows a pupparin.

Next, a friend of mine, John Synco came into view. Rowing in opposite directions, the two gondoliers approached each other.

passing each other, the gondoliers had a short conversation before continuing on.

As John came closer we greeted each other briefly before he passed under the bridge.

Later, just as I was leaving the bridge, I shot this long-lens photo:
It wasn't until I put it up on my computer that I recognized Greg Garite. Looking good Greg!
Sorry we didn't have a conversation.

Lucia Press Release


Newport Beach, CA, June 21, 2010 – Gondola Adventures®, Inc. is excited to welcome to its fleet the oldest and most historic wedding gondola outside of Venice, Italy. The gondola, "Lucia", was built in1960 by the renowned gondola building family at Squero Tramontin. In 1964, she was imported to the United States by Janet Curci as a surprise gift for her father.
Janet Curci is a well-known philanthropist in the Newport Beach-Costa Mesa area. She has been an active supporter of Hoag Hospital, as well as the Eisenhower Lucy Curci Cancer Center in Rancho Mirage, which honors her mother. The gondola, "Lucia", was named after her mother.

Gondola Adventures® operates the only authentic Venetian gondolas available for cruises in Newport Beach. Wedding gondolas are known as the finest gondolas afloat. They can be easily distinguished by their carved decks and are typically more well-appointed than "standard" gondolas.

Most passenger gondolas are decommissioned in fewer than 30 years. Only the finest gondolas receive the kind of care that this boat has received. As a privately-owned gondola, the Curci Family has maintained "Lucia" using expert care by the best in the business. "Lucia" has been in storage for nearly a decade; both Gondola Adventures® and the Curci Family are looking forward to seeing her ply the waters of Newport Harbor once again, to create unique and special memories for exclusive clientele. The "Lucia" will launch on Thursday, June 24, 2010.

Gondola Adventures®, Inc. operates gondolas in Newport Beach, California, as well as in Nevada and Texas. The company's founder and President, Greg Mohr, is also the President of the Gondola Society of America, and the foremost authority on gondolas outside of Venice, Italy. He maintains a daily blog of all things gondola-related at He can often be found rowing the beautiful waters of Newport Beach in his authentic gondolas.

The "Lucia" will be available for photos on the launch date of June 24, 2010.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Unveiling of the Curci Gondola

photo by Rick Rosen
I arrived at the shipyard this morning to figure out what needed to be done before launching the "Lucia".
This is a very significant boat in Newport Harbor. In my mind she's like a city's version of a national treasure. Imported from Venice to Newport in 1964, the boat known by many simply as the "Curci Gondola" has played important roles both in the Curci family and the history of the harbor.

Influential and philanthropic families take many forms, and Newport certainly has a few, but the Curci family is my favorite because they are Italian - in all of the very best ways. Italians are known for their love of family and the reverence they pay to their heritage. It's no wonder then that this family has had their own gondola for over 45 years.

As is often the case with Venice-built gondolas, eventually the "Lucia" needed some restoration. Maurice Walsh was tasked with the project of restoring this great boat to her full potential. In my mind, Maurice is an "old master"; not because he's old, but because he does things in the traditional way - taking time to get them right, and always keeping the best interest of the boat in mind. I was honored to head up the restoration of all metal on the boat. The "Lucia" was launched once again in 2001.
After the restoration was complete, the Curci family joined us for a Festa della Sensa ceremony in Newport Harbor aboard their private gondola. Later we talked about doing a limited number of passenger cruises with the boat - a dialogue that continued off-and-on for many years.
For a while the "Lucia" resumed her spot in front of the Curci home. Not long after, the boat was carefuly cradled and wrapped for safe keeping. The duration of her storage hadn't been decided, but based on the way she'd been tucked in, I knew she'd keep well until the day she was unwrapped again.
Today was that day.
The shipyard staff moved the gondola into position for the launch tomorrow. This afternoon I returned to the yard, and with some help, removed a cover and support frame that had been on the boat for almost a decade.
Removing the cover was an obvious step in the process of preparing the "Lucia" for launch, but up on that ladder in the afternoon sun, it felt ceremonial.

Folding and rolling the canvas forward.

Maurice Walsh may be an excellent shipright, but his main craft is canvas. When he put together this cover, Maurice used a top-of-the-line material known as "Top Gun" - expensive but worth it.

Removing the canvas after rolling it all the way to the bow.

With potential longterm storage in mind, a frame of plastic pipe was erected to ensure proper rain-shed. Once we removed the canvas, the pipe frame had to be removed.

Temporary thwart-pieces were installed to reinforce the pipe frame. The system was ingenious and removal was easy.

The Tramontin family built this gondola in 1960.
I have no idea whether or not they knew she would survive 50 years, but they built her well enough to make sure she could.

The carvings on her deck attest to the fact the tha "Lucia" is a wedding gondola.
The carvings on this gondola were done by a craftsman known as an intagiadòr. I've been told that the design on this boat is a classic offering from an intagiadòr known as "Il Santo" a legendary carver who, along with most of the men who built this proud vessel, is no longer with us.
An old friend once told me "know where you're going, but never forget where you came from". As the "Lucia" has played a significant role in the Curci family, it's clear to me that they've never lost sight of their heritage.
Tomorrow the "Lucia" will grace the waters of Newport once more, and that passenger service dialogue has come to a head.
Starting Friday the "Lucia" will take a select number of lucky couples on romantic cruises through the canals of Newport.
I am honored and humbled to play a part in her journey.