Friday, August 30, 2013

Catching the Cork

The champagne cork has been around since the 1600's.
Plenty of alternatives have popped up over the past three hundred years or so, but the French have stuck with the mushroom-shaped, wire retained, flying party-popper that was invented so long ago. 

Sometimes I wonder if the French chose to stick with it out of respect for tradition, or because it's fun.
I think it was the fun factor.

In the early days of Gondola Adventures, we were young and foolish
(that means we enjoyed some raucus fun when it was available). 
It was common for gondoliers to shoot corks at each other at the docks.  Sometimes I'd talk my passengers into doing the aiming and shooting.

Now that we're so much more refined,
(that means older and more reserved)
We've come up with other ways to open champagne.

I like to begin by complimenting my clients on their choice of bubbly,
Then I'll ask if the gentleman would like to pop the cork or if he'd like
me to do the honors.
Nine times out of ten, I'm the guy doing the deed.

Next I'll ask if they'd like me to open it in the professional
bubble-conserving way,
or if I should "let it fly".

"Let it fly" is often the consensus, and it's my favorite.

I'll keep a finger on the top of the cork while removing the wire retaining basket,
Give the cork a gentle twist,
Then watch as the cork slowly begins to rise.

The object is to keep the thing perfectly vertical,
compensate for any wind,
and after it pops, try to catch the cork in your hat as it comes back down.

I'll be honest here:
I don't have the best record when it comes to catching the thing,
but it's great fun for the guests.

If you do it right, it should look something like this:
Notice how the lady is in the duck-and-cover posture.
photo by Cassandra Mohr
Although for the record, I think that particular effort yeilded
a magnificent example of bouncing off the rim and into the water.
Hey, it's a work in progress.
I don't think the Yankees will be calling me any time soon.

    "Champagne! In victory one deserves it; in defeat one needs it."
    Napoleon Bonaparte

Monday, August 26, 2013


This came in today from Joe Gibbons in Boston.
Hi Greg, now almost 13 years of rowing gondolas, and nearly a thousand marriage proposals, I finally got to witness every guy's worst nightmare.
She said no!! 
My heart went out to the guy. He even did it with a bottle message.  Years ago I was always cautioned to stay fairly close to your boarding dock for marriage proposals. Now I understand why. 
I was nearly a mile away when this happened.
Needless to say I was back at the dock in record time.
I had a good chuckle to myself when the girl being proposed to,
after saying no, had the nerve to ask to see the ring.  
If anything good came out of this: he refused to show the ring, 
and preserved what was left of his dignity.
For those wondering if I was tipped, yes  he dropped me $25,
but I thought to myself: 
"he got the biggest tip of the night,
he probably just saved himself from a life of misery with this gold digger".
Never a dull moment in the gondola business.

Thursday, August 22, 2013


We had a little emergency the other night.
Really, in the grand scheme of things it was equal to one-tenth of a blip,
but it got all my horns honking and sirens wailing.

Somebody ordered an extra long-stem red rose for a cruise,
and it was very last-minute.

Yes, like I said, not a matter of impending doom, but the timing was key.
I had to jump in the car, drive like a madman,
buy, bunch, bundle and bowtie in a short amount of time. 
There was lots of stress and frustration.

I arrived at the docks with the vital floral arrangement, and I was all in a huff.
Everything went seamlessly from the passenger's standpoint - he probably didn't even know there was an issue (then again, I think he was about to propose -
so he had other things to think about).
I handed the arrangement to the gondolier who needed it, and the job was done.
Small disaster averted.

As I looked over his shoulder, I noticed that the tide was very high,
so I went over to take a look.
What I saw, what caught my eye and made me stop and stare,
was the other side of things.

I saw our "dining room".

I've been in and out of restaurant kitchens since I was in high school,
and I've noticed that in a lot of restaurants - the dining room is relaxed,
and the kitchen is chaotic.

I stood there watching three beautiful gondolas, with happy, relaxed couples and gondoliers tending to their needs as they prepared to head out towards the setting sun.  As I took in the serenity of it, I realized how very different things are between the dining room and the kitchen.

Normally these details are arranged well ahead of time, and there are no emergency procedures required, but even then, when guys come in to do their thing, the gondolier's office is very much like one of those kitchens.

We love what we do, and I'll take the kitchen-stress to be a waiter in such a grand dining room.
I'm reminded of something President Harry S. Truman famously said:
"If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen"

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Stowing a Spare in Boston

photo by Efrain Jovan

This absolutely gorgeous image came in from Joe Gibbons in Boston yesterday.

Like many gondoliers, both in Venice and other cities around the world,
the gondoliers at Gondola di Venezia have strong feelings about being prepared, and as such, they carry a spare remo.

Joe writes:
Hi Greg 

Thought you may enjoy this photo for your blog. The old habit of a spare oar on the floor never dies. For 13 years now we have carried a spare oar on each of our 2 gondolas. This season, almost half way through our season I discovered that we forgot to place the spare oars. Oh yea they can be a nuisance but the day will come when it is needed. Being that it is 2013 and our 13th season maybe there is some message there. Its a good feeling to know that those remi are back where they belong.

Thanks for the photo, Joe.
As John Kerschbaum in Minnesota likes to say:
"Better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it".
As an aside, now that we've got this image up, I'd like to point out something I've always loved about the boats in Boston.  They're not really part of the boats.  They are...the chairs.  This design is unique, and was crafted by Thom Price, who is responsible for the gondolas there on the Charles River.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Long Haul

It's one thing to tow a boat a few miles, or even through a few counties.
Going state to state is a bigger undertaking, but when you start crossing deserts, you're trailering on a whole new level.

In my post "Tips on Trailering", we looked at many dynamics that affect any towing effort. This time around we're going to look at boat towing on a larger scale.

When you travel cross-country you are a ship at sea - gotta be able to fix and maintain things along the way.  Gotta be self sufficient.
Like sailing from island to island, you can stop for provisins, and if you're lucky, get things fixed in a timely manner (if you land on the right "island"),
but find yourself with an engine problem in the wrong place and you'll
also find yourself at someone else's mercy.

Looking back at the history of ancient mariners, we read accounts of sailors spending as much as a year somewhere to rebuild their ship. 
They would make land where they could with a damaged vessel, 
(often running low on provisions)
and they'd stay as long as it took to repair their ship. 

Mariners of that era had to also be lumbermen, carpenters, hunters,
and farmers - just to survive such an adventure.

There was no Triple A.

If you broke a mast, you'd have to find the right tree, chop it down, do all the things required to put the new lumber in place, and then hope it worked.

That was a long time ago, but some of the basic principles are the same.

Back in my yacht charter days, I remember hearing stories from friends who had crewed on large vessels making their way from the East Coast to the West Coast, by way of the Caribbean and through the Panama Canal.
I can tell you that some things haven't changed much.

Oh sure, most of them have swapped out their sails for engines,
their sextants for GPS systems, but when you're out there, you're out there.

Pirates still exist too, but they don't often use swords,
and some of them even have badges.

In preparation for this post, I spoke with my friend Matthew Schenk,
who currently manages my gondola operation in Lake Las Vegas,
and previously managed the one in Irving, Texas. 

In fact much of the following was either applied to or learned
from his recent trip between the two locaitons towing a gondola.

Get a clean bill of health
Yes, it's a good idea to make sure your body is up for the task,
but what I'm referring to here is the equipment. 

Get a clean bill of health on that trailer - actually take it to a pro and have them inspect and/or replace the bearings. 

Take a long look at the tires and ask yourself (and maybe a tire guy)
if you think they'll make the journey without incendent.  Trailer tires often sit for a long time with little use - this is great news if you're hoping to save the tread. 
The concern though, is the overall condition of the rubber. 
Leave a trailer in the Nevada sun for a couple of years and you'll end up with rubber that crumbles easily.  Matt had all four tires replaced for this recent trek and it contributed greatly to to both his safety and his peace of mind.

Make sure the tongue of that trailer will clamp effectively to the ball.
I speak from experience when I tell you that if the trailer should happen to come loose from the hitch on the freeway, things tend to get really exciting.

A clean bill of health also applies to the towing vehicle.
Fluids, lube, brakes, and you just might want to make sure the air conditioning works.

Tag, you're it!
This is something you don't want to hear from an officer with a ticket book.
So update your tags - license plate registration tags, that is.
If your trailer requires annual "tagging", update it too.
Expired tags are among the things that law enforcement officers routinely look for. 
It's a great excuse to pull you over.
And if you do get pulled over, or God forbid, get in an accident, you'll want to make sure your insurance is up to date and you've got that all-important
"proof of insurance" piece of paper.

Trust me, you don't want to be that flustered motorist who's frantically digging through the glove compartment, center console, and then under all the seats just to satisfy a routine request. It makes the cop nervous (and possibly angry),
and makes you look like you don't have your act together.
It happened to me once and I'll never let it happen again.

So many "little things" that can be easily handled in your driveway,
can become very "big things" if not tended to ahead of time.

Also make sure the boat is insured for the trip.
It wouldn't be nice to have your boat fall off the trailer or get run into by another motorist, but if it happened, wouldn't it be nice to know that the boat was insured for such a thing? 

Begin driving at your desk
They say every journey begins with a single step, and while that may be true, your journey should begin before you ever hook the vehicle up to the trailer. 
It should start at your desk and on your phone. It should be planned and mulled over, you should know as much as you can about the territory ahead.

Now, about that boat...

Find the balance point
Boat placement is very important.
Matt Schenk was driving: somewhere in New Mexico when I got him on the phone.  It was the middle of the night.

As we talked about all the prep he spouted off a few thoughts.
"make sure you get the boat placed right on the trailer. Too far forward or too far back and it could have a detrimental effect on things when you go to take a turn somewhere."

Balance is very important.

Also remember that the way the boat sits on the trailer can affect the way your towing vehicle makes (or doesn't make) contact with the road too.
There have been rare cases where someone had to slam the brakes on and then turn the wheel - only when they slammed on the brakes, the weight of the boat rocked forward, pressing down on the back of the vehicle. 
Guess where the front wheels were when the driver went to turn them...mhmm, they were off the ground.  Popping a wheelie isn't always a good thing.

Strip it down
for a cross-town trip, you can sometimes get away with leaving things like cushions and canopies in place, but when covering long distances, you're better off taking everything off the boat that you can.

At high speeds, wind tears canvas, hatches take flight, and you end up repairing or replacing things - custom made things.  Also, if the wrong item flies off at the wrong time, you may end up replacing someone elses windshield.

It seems like every time I drive the freeway I spot a couch cushion that someone was sure would stay in place.
They were wrong, and I'm sure they were angry (or had a wife who was angry) about the mysterious disappearance of a cushion.

If you want to keep those removable boat parts, remove them before the wind does it for you.

Strap it down
You can get away with a couple straps for short runs,
but for a long voyage I like to use four or more.
I place all the buckles on the left (or port side) of the boat - so I can see them all in my left rear-view mirror.

Four straps, all with buckles on the left.

Well placed zip ties can keep the hooked ends in place even if something gets loose.  If a strap snaps, it doesn't end up on the hood of the car behind you.  Also, you want to be able to repair and re-attach it, rather than go buy another one.

A little buffing material at edges and rails can go a long way toward preserving the finish of the boat - rags work, cut up t-shirt material is great, but my favorite is old socks.  Cut the toes out of some old cotton socks, run the straps through them, and place them over rails, bow crests, and any other place that a bare strap might rub against.
Lose your straps, and you might just look back and see this!

Screw it!
Tighten everything. Nuts, bolts, screws, anything that can come loose
(and may already have since the last time you serviced it) should be checked. 
On the water, things move smootly, but as your trailer rattles down the road,
it's easy for nuts and bolts to vibrate and come undone.
Next thing you know, you're looking in your rear view mirror, spotting a piece of the boat hanging by one last fastener, and praying you can get the whole rig pulled over before it frisbees off the boat and onto the road.

So how do you keep things from unscrewing?

Locking nuts are great, but if you don't have them in place, another solution is to fill the threads above each bolt so the nut can't spin past it.
There's a product called Plasti-dip that works well for this application - it's intended for use in re-coating the grips of hand tools, but you can paint it onto the threads of a bolt quite easily.
Thick paint, super glue, or even Liquid paper can sometimes also do the trick.

Ok, now let's drive.

Towing a boat on the highway can be a real test of your brain, vision, hearing, and especially your nerve.  It requires great focus, especially if you're sharing the road with lots of other vehicles - vehicles that may be moving a lot faster than you are.
You need to get in the zone, adjust the way you see and process the road ahead.  In some ways it helps to relax, but still try to stay hyper focused.

Backward thinking
If you need to adjust the way you see and process the road ahead,
the same is true for the pavement behind you.  
Remember that many of your fellow drivers are moving faster than you are.

Matt says "Don't just focus on whats ahead, when you're towing something big and moving at the speed you should be moving at, you need to watch whats going on behind you. People are passing you all the time, cars and trucks will come up behind you.  If someone's right on your tail, it's good to know that before you hit your brakes. "

Changing lanes also requires attention to not only what's behind you,
but what's coming up faster than you.

Yes, if an accident happens in many of these circumstances,
it won't be your fault.

The question is:
do you want to incur the damage to your boat, trailer, and vehicle?

No matter who is at fault, a fender bender can be disastrous.
What might seem to be minor damage to the trailer, can translate to a major problem if it keeps you from getting where you need to go.

Remember momentum
Your braking distance may be very short without the trailer, but with it, you may need the stopping distance of a big rig.  So as you move down the road,
you'll want to leave some extra space in front of you. 
Jerks will use that space, cutting in front of you; they may even wave a finger. 
I guarantee you, that if you spend enough time on the highway pulling a trailer, you'll gain a new level of respect for truck drivers.

As you come off the highway, you'll want to remember that extra stopping room.  You'll need to ask yourself "what if" questions all along the way. 

As you approach a stoplight, if the timing of the light is not on your side,
you may need to make a split second decision as to whether to run the red light or slam the brakes. 

Sometimes being annoyingly cautious is the name of the game.

Watch for traps
Beware of the small-town cop. 
I have a great respect for the men in blue, and most of them exemplify what's good about our country, but there are a few exceptions out there.
One occasional example is the small town speed trap.
It certainly is easy to come off a long stretch of high-speed driving,
and carry through with velocity as you enter city limits.

In certain parts of the country, you may encounter a sudden decrease in the speed limit as the road approaches a town.  There's a good chance that you'll see a police car just beyond that new speed limit sign. 
I've heard that some of these small towns cover most of their expenses through the "revenue" of speeding tickets.

You know, I could be wrong on this one.  It could be that I've just been given some bad information, but all the same, if there's a posted speed limit, it's still our duty to follow the law.

Bring some toys
If you're not sure what's ahead, you can always grab a map,
but a GPS will do some of the thinking for you.

If you've got one, a radar detector can alert you to some of those
small town speed traps.

Bring your favorite music. All of it. Bring that Jimmy Buffet boxed set. 
Bring some of the old cassettes you recorded off the radio back in middle school.  Bring a few books-on-tape (or their digital equivalents). 

Use your "Life-Lines"
Just like in some game shows, having the right person on the other end of the phone can mean the difference between success and failure. 

It's good to be able to get someone on the phone who's more knowledgeable in some areas (like towing, trailering, or the territory ahead), but the most important life-line is that person who you can call and talk to when you're just ten miles from a stopping point and can't stay awake. 

The simple act of engaging in conversation can get you safely
to the next place that you can sleep.

Talk about sports, politics, heck - get in an argument if it keeps your eyes open.
On more than one occasion, Matt has brought a list of people to call: old friends, clients, family members, ex girlfriends, even his boss (me). 

During his recent towing trip from Las Vegas to Irving, Texas, Matt called me one night as he was fighting off drowsiness. 

I heard it in his voice. 

I added a little edge to the conversation, made it a bit more annoying, joked with him about how I was purposefully messing with him to keep him awake. 
He was annoyed, but he got to his rest stop safely.  After a great night's sleep, Matt called me and thanked me for keeping him awake the night before.

The Beatles said it best when they wrote:
"I get by with a little help from my friends".

I won't claim to be an expert on the subject of trailering gondolas, but I have done it a lot.  I will tell you that just about every time I pull a boat down the highway, I learn something new, or am reminded of something I should have remembered from before.

Something I like about the gondola world is that most of the people in it enjoy talking to each other, and aren't afraid to share information like this. 
If you've got some tips of your own, I'd love to hear them, and share them here, so we can all "get by with a little help from our friends".

Monday, August 12, 2013

Just the Photo - Summer Silhouette

photo by Simon Atkins

Taken just under the Newport Boulevard bridge
on a perfect summer evening in Newport Harbor.

Gondolier - Steve Elkins

Saturday, August 10, 2013

No Windows Here

This is the view from where I work.
When I was a kid, my dad had an office overlooking a popular amusement
area in Long Beach, California known as "The Pike". 
I didn't understand anything about the work my dad did, I just thought it was really cool that he could see such a place from his office window.
I remember hoping that wherever I ended up working when I grew up,
the view would be great.
I mean, really, if you're gonna have to slave away at something,
you might as well enjoy a view while you're at it.
Well, this is the view from my office window as I slave away,
except there is no window, and I'd hardly consider it slaving away.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Rowing in Lotusland

photos by Elisa Mohr

After the adventure of getting the Contessa down to the water and dipping her in, we were treated to lunch by the staff at Lotusland and then my wife and I dressed the boat for the event.
I changed into my stripes and spent some time getting to know the waterway there.
Elisa snapped a few photos as I did my best not to look stupid - thankfully she didn't take any photos when I found myself tangled up in the Weeping Willow branches (which happened more than once).

Rowing in this small body of water was definitely manageable, but I think I now understand what it's like to be a big fish in a small fish bowl.   
Knowing what the pupparin was capable of, It was a bit like driving 
a race car around the floor of a basketball court.

Ah, but she sure did look great on that pond.

I don't want it to sound like I'm complaining, I had a ball that day, 
and when the event began, things got even better. 

This was a special event for Lotusland, one that they only do once a year. The theme this year was romance, and so bringing in a Venetian boat with a singing gondolier fit the theme nicely.
There were five hundred people on the guest list; each and every one of them entered the property at the edge of the lake before walking on to other parts of the property - meaning that the Contessa and I were their first impression. 

I rowed, I sang, I bowed and tipped my hat when appropriate. 
The event coordinator told me it was a hit, and I had a great time doing it.
I came in with a repertoire of ten Italian songs, and sang for two hours - 
singing each of them several times while doing my best to never sing the same song twice until I was sure I had a fresh group of guests on the shore.

Really, the most challenging part of this whole endeavor was the singing - 
I never realized how taxing it can be to sing non-stop for so long.

I had a small amplifier on the boat, which the event planner provided, 
it wasn't something I'd wanted to work with initially, 
but after about 45 minutes (and some poor vocal placement), 
I was thankful to have the assistance. 

With the exception of a few early run-ins with the willow branches, 
I managed to avoid bumping and grinding with any of the obstacles in and around the water. The lotus plants, which are so significant that the whole place was named after them, were never touched either. 

A gondolier once said:
"being a gondolier is like being a monkey at the zoo".

You are on display and people expect you to do certain things.

This was definitely the case that evening as I rowed and entertained the guests, but it was a blast. 

As is often the case with my passengers, I think I had more fun than my audience there at the garden. 

Monday, August 5, 2013

Chalk in New Orleans

Roberto in New Orleans, like just about every gondolier I've ever met, is fun, interesting, creative and loves what he does. That creativity has brought about a neat tradition there in City Park, which you can see in this video clip:
"Join the Under the Bridge Club with NOLA Gondola"

I've often said that at the heart of any successful gondola operation, you'll find a true fanatic.
Roberto refers to it as more than a job; he says it's a "calling".
I love that, and I can certainly identify.
But my favorite quote from this video is this gem:
"This is what I was put on this big rock to do"

To read more about this chalk tradition, check out my post from April of this year "The Under the Bridge Club".

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Just the Photo - Silhouette After Sunset

I snapped this last night on the water.

I've been saying it for years:
It's nice to watch the bright orange ball hit the horizon,
but the real magic happens afterwards.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The "Rugby Team" Approach in Action

photos by Elisa Mohr

 On Sunday morning, July 28th, My wife and I arrived at a very unique and beautiful garden in the Santa Barbara area: Lotusland in the city of Montecito.  We'd been contracted to provide a boat for a special event they were holding later that day.

A lot of research, planning, and preparation went into this before we even arrived with the boat.  We'd visited the location, took measurements, photos and video.  We'd met with the staff there and came away with a clear understanding of both the garden, and their concerns about such an unusual thing as dragging a boat through it.
I believe strongly in having more than one plan.  We had a Plan B, a Plan C,
and a semi-pathetic Plan D.  Thankfully, Plan A worked.

Tamara Jensen at I.D.O. Events was our contact, she and her staff were a joy to work with.
The staff at Lotus Land were consummate professionals - they love their location, but were patient with us, knowing that we too would soon understand how special the place was.
To learn more about the property and the rich history of the grounds,

For any boat moving job, there are options.
I've gone over some of them here before.
There's the hoist,
there's the forklift,
and then there's my favorite: the "rugby team" approach, also known as the "Samoan family moving method".  This method requires people, people who aren't afraid to do the heavy lifting.
Why do I like it so much?
Well, there are several reasons, among them are:
1. you're not relying on any one piece of equipment (that can fail)
2. it allows you to cover uncertain terrain
3. the boat usually stays fairly close to the ground (and therefore, no Humpty Dumpty).
The boat we used on this fine day was the Pupparin known as the "Contessa" -
a beautiful boat that I bought recently from Tim at Sunset Gondola.
Along with the boat, Tim also gave me a simple but effective two-wheeled cart.
Those measurements we took on a previous visit were not just to see if the boat would fit, but also if the cart would.  The folliage along side some of the trails in Lotusland is not to be stepped on, so getting four or five guys on either side of the boat was not an option in some places.
On this cool, overcast morning, I was fortunate enough to work with some great guys who were not afraid to do some of the heavy lifting. 
Never underestimate a valet parking guy - these guys are in shape. 
The ones I worked with were all valets for the event.
Signature Parking was the company, and the guys did a great job.
So here are the pictures:

 The briefing.
"Don't grab this part, do grab that part.
Don't grab your buddy, do grab the boat.
Most importantly, don't drop the boat...
especially not on my foot."

 The first move.

 Placing the boat on the two-wheeled cart.

Rolling the boat into position
to "launch" her into the wilderness. 

 And off we go, into the wild!

 Over the ivy and through the trees.
 We followed a narrow path through the
lush green Japanese Garden
portion of the property.

 At this point the boat was on the cart once again,
and the guys did their best to keep her on-course.
 Stopping to give some directions.
 Getting a firm grip on things.

 "Using my head".

 We lifted the boat over a tight corner and placed her back on the cart for the final approach to the water.  Yes, there was water.  Why else would we drag a boat through the forest?
 Talking to the boat.
Mhmm, I do that too. I'm weird like that.
  Many hands make light work.
 "Hey, uh, guys...the water's over there."

Lining up for launch. 

 And she's in!

Mission accomplished.
The whole operation went smoothly,
and took a lot less time than we'd set aside.
I must take a moment to give credit where it's due. 
The guys from Signature Parking who made it all happen were:
     Ansari Boumediene
     Daniel Escobar
     Ryan Gallegos
     Lucas Goldberg
     Eddie Grichanik
     Kevin Ledig
     Jared Samakosky
     Rafael Sierra
     and Alex Willett
Lotusland staffers Mike Iven and Greg Kitajima were instrumental as well, providing both brains and muscle.
Next up:
Part 2 - on the water.
For more fun reading about the various methods of boat moving,
see my post "Not Dropping the Boat" here on the Gondola Blog.