Monday, September 30, 2013

Flugtag in Texas

A few days ago I returned home from a twelve day visit to my Texas operation
in Irving (Dallas/Ft. Worth area).

As is typical when I travel, it's a little more challenging to get fresh posts up on the Gondola Blog. This is especially true in Irving, as I have a huge amount of work to do whenever I'm out there.

This trip to Texas revolved around a rather entertaining event which took place on Saturday, September 21st on our lake there in Irving.

Red Bull's "Flugtag" is, as one person described to me
"one of the more ridiculous events I've seen",
and yet he followed with "and I look forward to seeing it again".
The night before the event, in the midst of all sorts of mad planning,
I got my hands on some cheap stick-on lettering and marked
one of the oars with "FLUGTAG".
Here, gondolier Fred Craven shows what happens to cheap
stick-on lettering when you row on it.
Fred looks great, the lettering, not so much.

So what exactly is Flugtag?
My sources tell me that it means "flight day" in German.
The whole crazy pushing-things-into-the-air thing first occurred in England in the early 70's under the name "Birdman Rally".  If you're as old as I am, you might have seen it. 
When I heard that Red Bull had started doing their own version, I was thrilled.

Red Bull is serious about this event, and they go big. While we were watching Flugtag on Lake Carolyn in Texas, there were four more Flugtag events going on in Miami, Chicago, Washington D.C., and Long Beach, California.

It's hard to describe this event.

First, Imagine 30+ teams of people building things they THINK will fly - often out of plywood, cardboard, and paper mâché.

Next, assemble an enormous crowd to watch; on Saturday there were more than 92,000 people in Irving, all watching the action on (and flying off of) a large platform extending out over the water.

Behind gondolier Derrick you can see a small portion
of the hordes of people who showed up.

Each team takes their turn on this "flight deck" - first they do some kind of dance/drama/other kind of silly choreography, all accompanied by music of their choice, pumped out through a sound system worthy of a Bon Jovi concert.
After the crowd is sufficiently fired up, and the team has completed their fancy dancing, they all grab hold of their makeshift creation (the one they HOPE will fly), and push like mad towards the end and out over the water.

The "flight deck".

Oh, there is one person up there who doesn't have the burden of pushing - yes, that lucky soul gets to be the "pilot" of the thing that's about to get shoved off the end.

Out of the hundreds of thousands of people watching, both in person and on TV, that "pilot" is the one person hoping more than anyone else, that their vehicle will fly.

Ok, in some cases, the mother of that person might be hoping a little bit more.

The best place to watch the action is from the water.

My Texas gondoliers and I took groups of spectators out for viewing sessions, moving amongst pedalboats, kayaks, and stand-up-paddle boarders.

I was able to snap off a few decent photos and grab video footage of some of the "flights".

I must point out that the word "flights" is somewhat inaccurate when applied to most of the contestants on that hot, windy Texas day.

All in all, only a handful of the thirty-two vehicles pushed down the runway did anything that would be considered "flying" by the Air Force, FAA, Texas Air National Guard, or any of the other authorities on avian activity.

Diving dramatically towards destruction might be a better description in this case.

I must apologize for the diminutive size and quality of these video clips.
Some might be a bit jumpy as well, because I was rowing against the wind with one hand and trying to focus on the action with the other.

The builders of this next craft did a really great job with the theme - making it look like a space shuttle, I'm sure they won points for that, but as you'll see, they did not do well in the distance scoring.


Entrants were judged on several fronts, including how far their craft flew.

I heard one team member say "we're certain that our craft will go at least thirty feet...becuase that's the vertical distance from the deck to the water".
Many "flights" accomplished just that.
I'm sure that many of the teams up there would have enjoyed greater success if the wind conditions had been different.

The wind was strong, quite strong,
and blowing directly at the end of the flight deck.

It's a funny thing how wind direction can have such a great effect on flight.

And in this scenario you'd think the wind direction would make for perfect flying conditions.  After all, don't they turn an aircraft carrier towards the wind when it's time to fly the planes off of it?
I suppose it would have been better if the vehicles attempting takeoff had engines.

Sadly, they did not, so here's how it played out for most of our would-be heroes of DIY flight:
1. Host makes bold announcement, introducing the next team
2. Team and their craft are on the flight deck as loud music thumps (often loud enough to be heard in Oklahoma)
3. Fancy dancing and other choreographed and not-so-choreographed business takes place.
4. Crowd gets whooped up.
5. Music either ends or comes to the point where it's time to push.
6. pilot gets in or on the vehicle.
7. A great effort is made to get the vehicle going towards the end of the deck.
8. At first the whole things moves swiftly towards the edge, but...
9. As the craft approaches it's date with gravity, it slows down.
(I couldn't tell if this was due to extra headwind coming over the edge,
if the pushers ran out of steam as they progressed on,
or if there was a general sense of worry or doom)
Almost every single vehicle hit the end so slow that...
10. The first thing to pass over the edge is the nose, and because it's goig too slow, it drops.
11. The headwind begins to press down on every surface of the craft, and as the rest of it leaves the deck...
12. It is unceremoniously blasted, all hopes of actual flight are dashed, and then the whole thing gets bashed into the water just below the flight deck (30 feet below).  Most pilots managed to bail out before impact. Most.
13. All pushers jump off the edge and into the water as well, some did flips, none did belly flops.

Some entries never made it to the end of the ramp.
I think this guy was lucky to walk away from his "landing":

A couple of the more fragile ones came apart during the "push" phase - some ended up dead on the deck, others got pushed off in pieces.
This one went down sideways.

Here's a much better look at it:

Not everything was built by someone who knew what they were doing
(yes, I just overstated the obvious). Here’s a case in point.

Nobody died at this event, and I was told that there was only one injury requiring attention.

These same winds created some challenges for gondoliers too,
we had to work to keep from getting blown into the "landing zone"...

A few months ago, I was in a meeting with some of the Red Bull people and I asked them:
"What's the craziest thing you've seen at one of these?"
I thought the answer would involve nudity or death.
The answer was:
"You know what," he said in amazement, "some of these things actually fly".

And last Saturday we did see a few examples of what I'd consider actual flight.
Here's the flight of "Duct Tape Dynasty" - they took second place.
I'm convinced that in different wind conditions their craft would have soared magnificently.
The official video gives you a much better look:

The winning entry was a group called the "Texas Tomcats", who had a fighter jet theme.
They blasted the music from Top Gun, two nuts ran around carrying cardboard fighter jet costumes, there was a carrier-deck flag man, and their vehicle resembled an F-14.
I had the best view possible, and then I pushed the wrong button on my phone.
Luckily, someone posted this on YouTube:
and here's the official video:

All in all, it was a great day, I will never forget it, and I'm sure that every person who "flew" off that platform will look back on the day in amazement:
amazed either because their vehicle did fly, didn't fly, or that they did that crazy thing in front of so many people. 

Friday, September 20, 2013

Caorlina Racers

video by Andrew McHardy

Once again I receive a message from Andrew.
Once again I'm jealous.
Here's a front row view of the Caorlinas racing by in the Regata Storica.
These are wide boats; their shape is almost more like a lifeboat.
This makes it all the more remarkable to watch them literally plow through the water, moving much faster than you might expect.

I might suggest going full screen with this if you can.

As you can hear in the video, the crowd really gets involved in this race category.
I don't know if it's because with six guys on the boat, it's more likely that spectators might know some of the rowers.

I've always been impressed by the teamwork on these big boats.
Watching six rowers stay in time with each other, while giving it all they've got, is worthy of respect.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Boston Boat Burglar

This past Friday the 13th was very unlucky for one guy in Boston.
Joe Gibbons of Gondola di Venezia writes:
Hey Greg, Here's a crazy one for your blog.
Last Friday night , that is Friday the 13th of September 2013.
After bailing out twice from 2 very heavy downpours, I departed
from our mooring dock with Maria, the newer of our 2 gondolas.
Its about a 4 to 6 minute row to our boarding dock. I left the covers on Firenza our 2nd gondola ,just in case another down pour!
After tying up Maria safely , setting up her furniture,
and tiding her up, I once again rowed our little row boat back out to the mooring dock to retrieve Firenza.
WOW!!   what a shock I got.
As I approached the gondola, I could see my stern covers pulled away and as I got even closer a man's head peeked out by the divan. Someone was rummaging through our boat, with the secure ropes partially untied and 2 oars set up by the divan
(I guess he thought he could row it like a row boat).
My first fear was that this crazy guy ,no kid, this guy was probably about 50 years old and looked like a psycho! 
My fear was that he would swamp my row boat,
I would have a physical confrontation in the water and someone would never be rowing this gondola again. 
Common sense took over and I kept my distance, called State Police and proceeded about 50 yards away to get my motor boat.
My adrenaline was pumping, I felt like I could really hurt this guy if I chose to. Common sense said, Joe (me) he has no boat other than the gondola, he either has to row real fast or jump in and swim real fast.
He did neither! The State Police were on site in 2 minutes and with my trusty little Boston Whaler, I escorted the trooper out to my mooring float and watched with a very satisfying grin while this jerk was cuffed and arrested for grand theft larceny. Just another night rowing gondolas. 15 minutes after the arrest, Firenza was once again entertaining  and plying the canals of The Esplanade.
Steve and I are considering getting our girl (Firenza) some therapy, she was violated and it's not right. Any suggestions?
PS: for those wondering if we lock our gondolas, the answer is yes. Our mooring float is about 100 yards from shore and we lock and cable at the end of every shift. The fear has always been that some big motor boater that left a big wake and got a tongue lashing from one of our gondoliers, would seek revenge!
Having been to that operation and seen the mooring platform,
I can imagine exactly how it looked as it played out.
Thanks for the report, Joe.
Glad you were able to keep a clear head during all of the madness.
What an adventure.
I think your boat needs a buff and wax, a good bit of primping, followed by an outing with family members.  I think red wine, strong ale, the best pizza you can muster, and chocolate will make the boat (and everyone else) feel a lot better.
If that's not sufficient, I might suggest a full re-christening, complete with prosecco, a full meal, gondolier friends flown in from all over, and of course a Catholic priest.
Who's in?
I think I'm not alone when I say:
please find out what the heck was going through that guy's mind, and give us an update.
Funny thing about this whole attempted theft - if he'd succeeded, you'd have gotten the boat back pretty quickly...because one of us gondola operators would be approached with a used gondola for sale!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The "Family Cruise"

Most of what we do as gondoliers here in the US involves romance,
and here in my Newport Beach location about 80 to 85% of our cruises
are for just two people. Of the remaining 15 to 20%, we get double dates,
and of course families.

The dynamics are very different when you've got a group on the gondola.
Typically you've got a heavier boat, with people who want to interact more.
Sometimes they want more of a tour guide on the back of the boat.
More emphasis is often placed on "seeing things", versus just having a nice relaxing cruise.

And then there are the little ones.
If ever there were such thing as a true "element of chaos" in the gondola world, it's children on a boat.

If you've got kids in your boat,
          expect it to rock,
                    and at unexpected times.

So how do you survive, and even shine as a gondolier with families aboard? 
Here are a few ideas:

Break out the lifejackets
No, I'm not saying that you should inspire widespread panic among your passengers, but talking about safety in a routine way can send a message to everyone that there are good reasons to not act without thinking.
Showing the lifejackets helps.

I like to ask the parents if their kids will need lifejackets.
Nine times out of ten they say no, but I almost always see it register in their eyes.  Next thing you know, they're telling their kids that they'll need to sit still and not crawl all over the boat.

Now and then a parent does take me up on the life jackets.
In those cases, it's one of two things:
1. the kids really are wild and crazy
2. the parents are much more control or worry oriented people - the kind of people who are likely to complain later that their kids weren't offered lifejackets.

Oh, and if those kids do end up wearing life jackets,
they'll be a lot less likely to run around and do crazy things. 
Lifejackets do a great job of limiting spastic children (and adults).

Get ready to sing
More people on the boat may mean more people who want to be entertained.
This may (or may not) be a good time to lead everyone in a rousing chorus of "That's Amore", or "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" if they don't know "That's Amore".
During the holidays I've had many cruises where they want to sing Christmas carols - making for great memories for everyone, including folks pasing by on shore and in other boats.

Guide the tour
Often I find myself pointing out a few interesting things to my more
romantically-inclined passengers, but I try not to be too talkative.
With a group, however, they sometimes want to hear about everything.
If your group is not from the area, they are more likely to be intrigued by the various sites worth seeing.

Of course there's always the flip side of that...
Know when to shut up
Sometimes that group of people on your boat is more interested in talking amongst themselves.
Reading your passengers is always important.
Also, no matter what kind of people you have aboard, be prepared for rude interruptions.  No matter how much they may love you, you're not family,
and to some you are just the "hired help".

Talk to the animals
In most waterways there are at least a few interesting creatures to observe or interact with.
In different locations I've seen passengers feed ducks, fish, and even seals. 
Wild birds are popularly observed, and I often have at least one laminated bird chart in my bag just in case someone on board wants to know more than I can provide.
There are differing opinions on the feeding of ducks in the wild, but I can tell you that with the right, healthy food, a duck feeding experience can be a great thing for both passengers and ducks.

Expect a picnic
Often times when I do family cruises, they bring snacks for the kids. 
There have also been those times when they brought a full-on feast.
If you can provide that extra table space, some extra napkins, or other serviceware in anticipation of their setup, it shows that you are on top of things.
It may also manifest in both a better tip and some snacks during your cruise.
Any gondolier who's had folks picnicking on their boat knows that it may also mean a little extra cleanup.
A few minutes before we return to dock, I like to ask passengers if they have all their belongings together (this says in a subtle way, that maybe they could clean up their own mess).  Also mentioning that you'd love to stay out longer with them, but you've got another cruise right after theirs, signals to your passengers that you might not have time to clean up a whole lot of garbage.
In the end, though, it is the gondolier's job to do such things.
Swallow your pride and grab a trash bag - you've got a great job.

Separate and romanticate
ok, yeah, I just made that word up, but it made for a better title than
"Divide and conquer" which was my first choice.
The idea here is to try and get the kids away from the parents, or at least move them towards the front of the boat - this way the parents can at least try and steal a kiss as you pass under a bridge.
They didn't come expecting a completely romantic cruise, but you know their friends will ask them "was it romantic?", and if they enjoyed their tiny sample of the romantic side, who knows...they might come back (without the kids).

Play pirate
This one is way above and beyond what we usually do, but Matt, my manager out in Lake Las Vegas has done it a few times and it was a hit with the kids.
He got advanced notice that a family was cruising with him, and that they had young boys who loved anything to do with pirates.
Matt stopped by a party supply store that week and picked up plastic swords, hats, and of course, eye-patches.
When the family showed up, "Pirate Matt" was waiting on the dock.
The kids loved it, the parents loved that the kids loved it, Matt's passengers appreciated that extra touch, which didn't really cost much.
Funny thing though, I think Matt had as much fun as the kids did on that cruise.

As you stand on the dock, after your third romantic couple cruise,
and you watch a noisy, animated family trudge down the ramp
with backpacks and bags of food - relax.

Smile and take on that "ready for anything" attitude,
because a family cruise can be a fun departure from the norm.

Do a good job, and you'll get a good tip.
Do a great job, and they'll come back again and ask for you by name.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Tourist Perspective

After the remarkable experience of watching the Regata Storica (an event that most non-Venetians never see), from what is arguably the best seat in the house (on a gondola with friends who are gondoliers), Andrew McHardy decided to take in what could be described as the polar opposite - he visited a vortex of tourist activity:       the "Bridge of Sighs".
Sure, the Rialto is probably the most photographed bridge in Venezia, but the one that has all the legend-lore, the one that all the couples want to kiss under, is that odd enclosed bridge that's a floor or two above the main level.
The romantic belief is that if a couple kisses under this bridge, while the sun is setting, and the church bells are ringing...their love will last forever.
This idea was significantly propagated with the movie "A Little Romance",
with Diane Lane back in 1979.
Since then everyone in the english-speaking world has wanted to enjoy the same experience, and gondoliers who row that route, have, of course enjoyed fulfilling the demand.
So after all the excitement of the regata had passed, our intrepid Kiwi friend
(yes, the guy's from New Zealand) stepped behind the Ducale Palace to see what all the fuss was about.
Here he is in position, and ready for the thrill.
Now if we could just get Diane Lane in that seat next to him.

Afterwards, Andrew captured this little snippet of video
with the Bridge of Sighs in the background.

Of course there's more than one bridge over that canal, and if you're in the right place, you can snap a nice shot with several of them spanning over the water, with gondolas gliding beneath.

So that's what the tourists all line up for.
It's nice, really. I can see why a trip down this particular waterway has become so darn popular.
I can also see why so many gondoliers aspire to row there.

Thanks to Mr. McHardy for making us all a bit jealous.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Nereo Shoots it Best

The more I see of his photography, the more I realize just how good Nereo Zane is with a camera.
This year's collection of photos from Regata Storica are remarkable.
He really captures the beauty, the drama, and the action.
Go to "Regata Storica 2013"

Also worthy of note this year:
Luisella Schiavon and Giorga Ragazzi became "Regine del Remo"
(Queens of the Oar) for winning their event five times in a row.
For those who weren't aware - that's a very big deal.
They are officially on my "people I'd like to meet" list.

Monday, September 2, 2013


photos by Andrew McHardy

They've been at it for over a thousand years,
and yesterday they did it again - they held a regata.
A boat race, if you need a better description.
Get two guys operating anything alongside each other
(a car, a boat, a bicycle, a donkey)
and eventually they're gonna race.

But this was the race.
The race of the year, the one for all the marbles.
This was the Regata Storica.

The festivities begin each year with a parade.
There are all sorts of things to see on the water.
The parade re-enacts a procession given in 1489
as Venezia welcomed Queen Catherine of Cyprus.

Club boats, private boats, and pretty much anything that floats
and can be rowed shows up to grace the waters of the Grand Canal.

This year, as usual, the crowd was big.
They came to watch the parade, they came to enjoy the festive atmosphere,
but mostly...they came to watch the races.

This was a departure from the somber feeling that's been prevalent recently,
and understandably so.

As you may have heard, a terrible tragedy occurred recently where
a father was killed in an accident while trying to protect his family. 
A vaporetto had backed into the gondola they were riding in and a father
gave all to save his children.

This is a story that I've been following since it took place,
but I have not felt qualified to weigh in on the who, how, or why.

I believe Erla Zwingle has articulated it better than I ever could.
See these two posts:
"Nothing Romantic About Dying in Venice"
"Latest on the Gondola Disaster"

Regata Storica is a noisy affair.
A crowd this size can get loud, and when the racers pass by,
that noise really adds to the excitement. 
But this year something different happened:


They were silent in honor of the man who gave all,
in honor of those who loved and lost him. 

And since that awful event, gondoliers in Venice have marked the ferro blades on their boats with a black band.  Even the racing boats carried such a marking.
Some who were there for the Regata Storica this year described the moment of silence as overwhelming, surreal, and all were taken by the sheer solidarity of the gesture.

Nereo Zane pointed out to me that the guy in front on the white
gondolino is Maurizio "Sustin" Rossi, the son of Bepi Suste.

The races were all exciting, but they always seem to save the best for last.
The ultimate rowing race in Venice is the two-man gondolino event.
These guys are the best of the best; they train all year for this competition.
Rivalries can get heated.
Sometimes it's a long collumn of gondolini, and you wonder if the guys in the leading boat can hold that lead, but this year there were some true neck-and-neck moments.

Andrew McHardy was there.
He was in the spot that everyone who wants to watch the race,
wishes they could be in.  In his words:

I was sitting on a gondola at San Beneto for the race with some gondoliers. It was superb! The boats were ripping by right next to us. Fantastico!!

The gondolino is not just a stripped down gondola, she is a high speed balance-beam on the water.  It only looks easy to row because the guys who race them make it look easy.

I discovered this good video clip which looks to have come from the famous remer Paolo Brandolisio:

No, they don't move as fast as Ferraris, but if you know - that moving this fast over the water is a big deal. 
Competing in this place,
     on this day,
          on one of these boats,
              is the biggest deal in all of voga-alla-Veneta.

Everyone rowing, even the guys at the back of the pack,
row their hearts out in a race like this.

This year there were two teams who were both absolutely determined to be the first over the line.

It was close.

Very close.

Andrew was there as they went by, ferro-to-ferro.
He said the margin between the first and second place boats...
was 20 centimeters.

Understand that rowing these boats at this level of competition isn't just a simple matter of brute strength.
It's a balancing act - make a wrong move and you'll end up in the water.
Heck, row wrong and you can break an oar. 
Again, you're in the water, but this time holding part of an oar.
What these guys do requires many disciplines.
They are all worthy of recognition, and yet, there can only be one winning boat.
This year, as it was last year, the winning team were the Vignottos - cousins from the island of Sant'Erasmo.

My thanks go out to Andrew McHardy and Paolo Brandolisio.
My congrats go to the Vignotto cugini, and all who earned a place in the race.

Maybe next year I'll be lucky enough to be sitting in a boat as they race by.
I hope so.