Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Surprise Boys

Preparing for the U.S. Gondola Nationals, I spent a lot of time thinking about
how gondoliers from each location would do - which events they would enter, where they were most likely to shine.

I figured that certain gondoliers who regularly row tandem would have a better chance of doing well in the two oar events.

When I heard that some guys from the Gondola Company of Newport were entering, I was looking forward to seeing them and curious to find out how well they'd do in the single oar events.  The Gondola Company of Newport is right across the water from my docks, and our boats pass each other on a daily basis.  They are a great bunch of guys, but there are no boats in their fleet that can be rowed with two oars.  I never expected them to enter any tandem events.

I was wrong. 

A week before the U.S. Gondola Nationals, two of these guys went to Sunset Gondola and spent some time learning the art of tandem rowing on one of the gondolas there.  

I've seen 30-year-old Michael Angelo Ruffino (yes, that's his real name - he's lucky like that), and 24-year-old Parker Harrison on the water in Newport for several years.  With passegers on our respective boats, it's always been a brief exchange of pleasantries. 

On the morning of qualifiers, we rode over to the sprint venue together,
in boats that were right next to each other, and as the day went on,
I got to see them row in both single and double sprint events.
Parker powering through to the finish line in the solo distance event.

Mike in the lead during a sprint qualifying heat.

I figured they'd do well in the single oar capacity, but they surprised a lot of us when they pushed off the shore with two oars.

Their qualifying run was strong and many of us stood up and took notice.
Remarks from guys who'd rowed the Vogalonga in Venice included positive statements like "look at the stance on that guy in the front",
and "wow, these guys are fast".

 A fast tandem run.

Returning and receiving compliments from other rowers.

The next day I shared the water with them once again, but this time there were no passengers, and our boats were moving a lot faster. 

At 56 and 48 respectively, John and I were the oldest team in the tandem division. Keeping up with the younger guys in the race would take all that we had.

Mike and Parker ran into some trouble with their boat early and I told my forward rower, John that "it just became a two boat race". I did not expect them to be able to catch up.

We set our sights on the two guys from Providence in the third boat,
and tried to keep up with them.
Leaving the younger guys from Newport behind, we focused on drafting Providence with hopes to pass when the opportunity came (it never did).

Four hundred yards later the "surprise boys" had caught up with us and made it to the second turn right on our tail.
What followed was an epic battle of experience and technique against the raw power and tireless energy of these two young men.

rowing as hard as two old guys could, we worked vigorously to maintain our lead in a fight for position.
To say that Mike and Parker gave us a run for our money would be an understatement.
In the end John and I managed to beat them to the finish line, but we came away with a healthy respect for these two guys who nobody expected much from in the tandem category.

Next year I'm sure they'll be even more formidable.
I look forward to seeing them on the water again here in Newport...and some day on the race course once again as well.

My compliments also go out to gondolier Ricardo of Sunset Gondola for training these two guys - who ended up surprising many of us, especially a couple of old guys who'd been rowing for a long time.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Snapper

On Friday afternoon at the U.S. Gondola Nationals, while all the gondoliers were taking turns rowing their qualifying runs, people gradually stopped focusing their full attention on every second of every heat.
Sure, it was fascinating at first, but after a while folks began thinking about other things.
At around 5:30, Eric Bender - the guy known as "Enrico" of The Gondola Company in Coronado, California made his way out on one of the gondolas. 
Two gondolas heading out for the sprinting area.

Enrico took his position with the other guy in his heat, the whistle blew,
and they gripped their oars, pushing as hard as they could to force their
boats down the course as fast as possible.
It mattered quite a lot to them, but few people were watching...until we all heard a loud "crack" coming from the direction of his gondola.

About five strokes into it, Enrico had snapped the oar in two.

Every head turned, and we all watched as the gondolier reacted to this unexpected event.
His reflexes were excellent; Enrico managed to stay on his feet as he was heaved forward onto the uneven footing ahead of where he'd been standing just a second ago.

The crowd reacted with surprise and concern.
We were all relieved and impressed that he was still standing.
Immediately someone rowed out with another oar for the guy with strong arms and fast reflexes.

He may have been shaken from the experience, but if so, we couldn't tell.
He probably rowed a little more carefully after that.
I KNOW he took a good long look at the fresh oar that was given to him after that.
Even so, Enrico managed to qualify with his run and came ashore with one good oar, and one broken oar.

On that day, on that shore, with two broken pieces of an oar.
Enrico became known as:
the "Oar Snapper".

Great nicknames are given.
Truly great ones are earned.

We all got together and posed with him.
It was a great memory for everyone.

 Everyone doing their very best "This is Sparta!" face
while posing with the "Oar Snapper".

And what do you do with an oar that's broken in half?
Well, if you're a bunch of crazy gondoliers - you create a photo
of a gondolier with the oar magically going through his midsection.
(Thanks to Steve Elkins for modeling and pretending to endure great pain)

Throughout the weekend he became known by the name.
His power stroke (or "premi") is an explosive one - just the kind of movement that can break an oar.
Not surprisingly, the "Oar Snapper" went on to win or place well in every event he rowed in.

 Receiving yet another medal.
Some have tried to modify the name,
but as the guy who gave him that name,

I'm not willing to change it, because after all...

It was my oar that he snapped.

The "Oar Snapper", may his name be known
from Huntington Harbour to the Grand Canal.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Just the Photo - Golden Ending

photo by S.E. Atkins 

At the end of two days of great rowing and fierce competition,
a bunch of guys in striped shirts and their friends climbed into
the very boats they'd been competing in. 
They cruised off into the sunset, rowing easy,
gliding towards the Huntington Harbour Yacht Club under a golden sky.

Article in the Daily Pilot

Here's a great write-up that came out today in the Daily Pilot:
"Gondoliers emphasize fun"

Monday, October 28, 2013

Marathon Man

This day had been in his cross-hairs for months.
More than most competitors, he came with ambition,
but not to just do his best.

He came to win.

He had a plan, had good reasons for winning, and was driven to do so.
I've been fortunate enough to row with him for many years.
I know him well.

Like just about all gondoliers, Stefano is one of the most interesting people out there.  He's skilled in many disciplines and very physically fit.
Having watched him on the water, I knew he had a good chance of winning.

The race: the solo distance event - arguably the most difficult rowing competition in the 2013 U.S. Gondola Nationals. 

Rowing as a team takes timing and cooperation,
but you've got someone to help you share the work,
and with two or more on a boat, the burden of keeping the boat on course is shared as well.

Row the race alone, and it's all you.

The wind blows, you correct.
The boat spins, you stop it.
Oh, and then there's the mile and a half of water you've got to push the boat through.

You've got to do it faster than anyone else,
with all the other guys either trying to keep you behind them or trying
to get in front of you.

Mastery of every discipline of Venetian rowing is required to compete here.
It's no surprise that an authority on the subject once identified single-oared regattas as "the university of Venetian rowing".

The minute Stefano learned of this race, he set his sights on winning it.

We have our dreams, our plans, we come up with ways we think we can get them accomplished, but things don't always go according to plan.
Work got in the way of things, and with a wife and kids to provide for,
Stefano knew he had to think of his family first.
More work meant better security, but it also meant less time to train.
When he got the chance to perform in an opera, he had to take the role.

Weeks went by with no real training time.
All he could do was take the occasional paying cruise to get some rowing time in.  His last cruise had been more than a month and a half ago.

When I talked to him the night before the qualifiers,
Stefano told me he'd gotten zero training time.
My heart sunk. 
I knew how much this meant to him.
I also understood how frustrating it would be for him if he didn't row as well as he knew he could.

photo by S.E. Atkins

On Friday afternoon he stepped onto a gondola and rowed a nightmare of a sprint - ending up winded, in the weeds, and finishing far behind the other rower in his heat; it was completely demoralizing.
His next run wasn't much better.
The gondolier went home that night and told his wife that he would not be winning the race on Saturday.

Stefano woke up the next morning at a ridiculously early run six miles as a pace runner for an L.A. Roadrunners training event for the L.A. Marathon. 
It was a commitment he had to fulfill, and it was all the way over in Venice Beach, California. 

He then changed into his stripes and headed for Huntington Harbour.
Arriving late, Stefano missed the opening ceremonies but was there and ready when the time came to row his heat.  Rowing the boat known as "Fabio" (one of the fleet at Sunset Gondola), he and three other gondoliers headed out to the wide and windy main channel to prepare for the start of the race.

When the time came, Stefano rowed as fast as he could to establish a good position.  A strong crosswind made things more difficult as he and the other rowers had to keep from getting blown into the yachts that were docked along the shore.
By the first turn, he was ahead and he executed a clever technique to take the left turn as swiftly as possible.  Keeping a strong and consistent pace,
Stefano powered down the channel between Trinidad and Humboldt islands.
He didn't look back, just kept his focus on a solid pace and an inside line.
Another left turn, and he was in the narrower channel behind Trinidad Island.
Behind him, Stefano could hear the water pushed from the bow of a boat approaching - more than ever, he knew he had to row hard. 
About two-thirds of the way through the race, fatigue was setting in - he was feeling it more and more.  Passing under the bridge he was reminded of the wisdom he'd learned from a cycling coach:
"When you're really feeling it, when you just want to quit the race,
remember that everyone else in the race is feeling it too,
so hang on and press on"
The gondolier kept rowing, all the way around the last turn and into the straightaway towards the finish line.  Looking back he realized that he had been hearing the sound of water off the bow of a boat...but that the boat was not another gondola, it was a chase boat.  The other rowers in the race weren't even in view.

He knew he'd won this heat but turned once again to finish it out as fast as he could, knowing that a rower in another heat might beat his time.
His strong finish was witnessed by many on the shore.
As he beached his boat at Sea Bridge Park, his wife Janette met him with the hero's welcome that everyone dreams of.

photo by Steve Elkins

Nobody rowed faster that day.
I'm told that no one even came close.
After the second heat, he pulled me aside and asked me to receive his medal for him...because he had an opera to perform in L.A. and wouldn't be able to stay for the ceremony.

It was a perfect day for this husband and father of two little girls.
His goal accomplished, despite the challenges in achieving it.
That night I felt awkward standing up to receive a medal for such a performance, but was honored to do so.

The next morning several of us were hosted by the owner of Gondola Getaway for a breakfast cruise, and Stefano received his 1st place medal in the presence of many great gondoliers who provided the level of applause that was fitting for such an accomplishment.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Arrival

Two thousand, five hundred, seventy-five miles, that's the distance
between Providence, Rhode Island and Huntington Beach, California.

For our metric friends, that's 4,145 kilometers.

East Coast, West Coast.

From New England to Surf City, there are plenty of differences,
but there's one thing they have in common: gondolas.

Nine gondoliers traveled 2,575 miles from their operation in Providence
to compete in the U.S. Gondola Nationals.

They brought their stripes, their smiles,
and they definitely brought their "A game".

Arriving at the office of Sunset Gondola, I met a couple guys from Providence. One of them had just gotten finished surfing with gondolier Ricardo
They were nice guys, but I knew there were more of them. 
It wasn't until I was standing on the shore near the starting line for the qualifiers, that I witnessed the true "Providence arrival". 
The gondola came into view, and all I saw was a boat full of stripes and crisp hats.  A lot of us had been waiting to see this group, to meet the people who had put on the first national competition just last year.
More than anyone else in the country, these guys knew how to row a race.
We were sure that if they came this far, they came ready.
They stepped ashore.
Each one standing tall, and walking with confidence.
I'd been looking forward to meeting these guys for quite some time.
When they arrived, I found myself not looking forward to competing with them.
Just as you might expect, in short order they mixed with the rest of the people on shore - everybody wearing stripes, and many with hats.
           Then finally, I had a face-to-face encounter with...
                                                                                their leader.
At first I wasn't quite sure what to think.
but getting to know him, I realized that he was a lot like me.
Yep, just as strange.

And soon after that we were fast friends.
We all wear stripes.
we all love to row.

We all sing for our suppers,
        make our living on the water,
                and count our tips at the end of the night.

And really, I think we would all do it for free if it wasn't a paying gig.

Not long after, the Providence guys were out on the water,
rowing against gondoliers from Boston, Minnesota,
and several operations in California...and giving them some stiff competition.

Bravo PVD!
Thanks for traveling so far.
You've got family in California now.

Saturday, October 26, 2013


It was a long weekend with lots of rowing.
Like all the other gondoliers, Ricardo had come into it with hopes - hopes for victory, hopes for good boat and oar situations,
but mostly - hopes that he could bring the best possible performance.
He wanted to give it his all, blow out those arms, empty that gas tank.
It was the last race he'd row - for the day, the competition, the year.
This was it...and he brought it.

In his heat, he came in well ahead of the others.
Nobody was gaining on him, but still he poured it on,
all the way to the finish line.
It was about securing a good race time, sure,
but it was also about bringing his very best.
Every muscle, every tendon, every part of his body was tense as he powered through to the end.

And then,
He was finished.
Finished with the race, and completely spent.
There was no more gas in the tank.
Face flushed. Shirt soaked. Hair dripping with sweat.
He'd given it his all and he knew he'd done well.

A few more strokes and his boat was headed for shore.

When there was no more rowing to be done,
when the race was over,
after every cell of his body had been continually screaming "GO!!!",

He stopped,
            and just


It was a perfect moment.
Beautiful, painful, serenity.
And while it only lasted for a few seconds,
I will always remember him this way.

In a way it was one of the most religious experiences I've had.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Qualifying Day

All I can say is wow.
Today I met some of the best gondoliers in the country.
At the US Gondola Nationals we had rowers from eight different companies.
Everyone brought their "A game", and we had some really great qualifying rounds.
There were plenty of surprises, including two broken oars and some rowers who showed up more than anyone thought possible.
There was singing, there was great food, the only thing that didn't happen was spontaneous baptism - although as I write this someone may be swimming back to a dock.
Over 600 photos were shot on my camera alone.
Yes, you will see many of them, but for now I must sleep, so here are a few for now.
Big races tomorrow.

A mixed group from various places, all happy and cruising to the racing spot.
Providence makes a memorable entrance.
Two boats about to shove off for their racing heat.
Very exciting racing action.
Two gondolas from two harbors.
Minnesota should be proud.
Having fun between heats.

Two more lining up for a heat.
These guys really brought it.
Tandem runs went well past dark.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

License to Dream

Almost everything is in place now.
The boats at Sunset Gondola are ready and waiting in their slips.
Gondoliers from eight different operations are ready and eager to compete.
There's a gondola hooked up to my truck, parked in front of my house,
once I get some coffee into me, I'll tow her to Huntington Harbour and add her to the fleet for the 2013 U.S. Gondola Nationals.

John Kerschbaum and I were talking the other day about how we thought we would do in some of the rowing events, and I told him that we were like lottery ticket holders: we could win, lose, who knows what will happen.  I once heard someone say that buying a lottery ticket was buying a "license to dream".

Qualiying rounds begin at 2pm.
Until the oars hit the water, there's no telling what the outcome might be.
There are at least thirty different rowers dreaming thirty different versions of how things will turn out at the award ceremony.

Win or lose, I can't wait to see how it all unfolds.
Really, I'm just thankful to be able to take part.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

"This Is How We Do It"

I shot this from the second floor of the Balboa Bay Club early this evening.
Rowing up front - Simon Atkins, at the back - John Kerschbaum,
sharing some technique tips for tandem rowing with Steve Elkins
(who we see perched like "the thinker" on the seat).

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Annual Minnesota Visitor Arrives Early

Each year around Valentine's Day my friend John Kerschbaum
comes out from Minnesota to row cruises with me in Newport. 
It's always great to have his help, and each time I see John,
I'm in the crazy gauntlet of preparing for the busiest week of the year.

This time, however, John came out for a different purpose and we aren't scurrying around to prepare for "V-Day".
This time we are busying ourselves with preparing for the U.S. Gondola Nationals.

We don't really care about winning - sure it would be great - but really we're just looking forward to the excitement and camaraderie. All the same, we're old guys now and we don't want to get beaten too badly by some kids who are are young enough to be our offspring.

Speaking of which, we spent some time on the water today with one of my gondoliers - Simon, who got some good pointers from John about rowing in tandem.

John shares some rowing wisdom with one of the local whipper-snappers.
So in a few days we'll get together with a whole bunch of other guys in striped shirts, guys who actually understand the weird job we do...because they do it too.
From Boston to California, Minnesota to Rhode Island,
Nobody identifies with a gondolier like another gondolier.

Monday, October 21, 2013

It's Better Later

My sunset cruise tonight began with a passenger letting me know exactly when the sun was going to set, with a look that said "we wanna be there to see it".

I assured him that we'd be leaving the dock shortly, but I also told him that the real beauty comes after the sun drops below the horizon.

As expected, the sunset was nice, but the colors afterwards were simply remarkable. The above photo that I snapped with my phone doesn't even come close to doing it justice.