Saturday, June 20, 2015

5 x 5 = 25 Part Five

In this final installment of "5 x 5 = 25", celebrating 2,500 posts
on the Gondola Blog, here are some more observations I've formulated over the years.
I'd be curious to hear any thoughts and opinions out there - based on the items I've touched on in this and previous posts in this series.
You can comment here or e-mail me at

Alright, so here we go:

There are some really cool boats out there...
that aren't gondolas
People who aren't in the gondola business, or haven't spent an extended amount of time there, assume that the only boats there are gondolas.
Some of them also know about the vaporetti (Venice's "busses on the water").

This is sad, because there are so many other fantastic vessels afloat in the canals and lagoon surrounding Venezia.

Boats designed for passenger, cargo, hunting, and recreation all can be found if you look, but most of those craft these days are rowed by enthusiastic rowing clubs and private owners.  I've seen students from the Naval Academy out training.  Even the long boats (the ones I like to call the "big desonas") once served to handle fishing nets, I've been told.

To really appreciate the variety of vessels, go to the Regata Storica.  You'll see young men on pupparini, women competing on mascaretas, six-man crews plowing by on caorlinas. 
Then there's the Formula One of them all:
the gondolino rowed by two men - a high speed balancing act.

A few "shrimp-tailed" batelas can be seen.
In the passenger field, it's not just gondolas either.
There's a fantastic passenger variation of the sandolo.
The smallest of the rowing field is the s'ciopon - rowed by one man, with crossed oars, and originally equipped with a big duck hunting gun mounted to the deck!  I haven't seen any deck-mounted duck guns yet.

Just when you think you've seen them all,
A huge red barge with big eyes painted on the bow comes thundering towards you with 18 members of the club from Brenta rowing it like it's no big deal.
To maintain a gondola,
one must become a jack-of-all-trades
Most boat owners know fiberglass and something about the engine or sails that make their boats move.

Well, actually, let's be honest here:

Most boat owners don't really even know those things.
They know where to take their boat if something isn't working right.

We even have on-the-water support companies,
serving in a "roadside assistance" capacity.

Times have certainly changed.
In the early days of the automobile, you didn't just have to know how to drive it, you had to know how to maintain it, and fix it!

Now, with Triple-A, a lot of people don't even bother carrying jumper cables.
They just call someone and wait for roadside assistance. 
"Change a tire? HA! Not in these clothes!"

In-harbor boating, and boating on lakes and rivers have reached a similar point.
In fairness, there are folks out there who do know how to keep their wood boats in shape, but most of them aren't made of eight different types of wood, or serviced in similar fashion to the way boats were a century ago.

Enter the gondola: a boat trapped in time.
Not much has changed about her since Domenico Tramontin gave her that purpose-driven asymmetry in the mid 19th century.

Unless you live in Venice, you can't just take your gondola to the local boat repair guy and say "fix it."
He will look at it and either say "what the heck's going on there with all that stuff between the seams?", or worse, he'll say "no problem. I got this."
And when you return he will have done something totally wrong or different.

If you own a Venice-built gondola, and you're not close enough to row or trailer it to the Veneto, then you've got to know how to take care of her.

Not only is she a boat trapped in time, but she's also painted black.
Why does that matter?
For starters, black shows nearly all dirt, marks, and imperfections.
And if your white boat isn't perfectly shiny, few will notice.
Let the shine fall off a gondola and you've got a floating chalkboard!
And then there's all that energy from the sun.
You've got a boat made of eight different types of wood,
absorbing as much of the sun's energy as that black paint facilitates,
and each type of wood expands and contracts to differing levels.
Oars and forcole have their own unique needs as well.

Beyond wood, there's upholstery, brass, stainless steel, and/or aluminum.
You really must be a jack-of-all-trades to keep her in show condition.

Nearly all that I've learned in the field of gondola maintenance was gifted to me by others in the business.  For this I am truly thankful.
I try to return the favor and pass it on whenever I can.

There is a lot to be learned
in balancing a broomstick
If you've ever taken a broomstick or other object of the same shape,
and balanced it on your hand vertically,
then you understand a thing or two about timing.

We used to do this all the time as kids.
We'd see who could do it the longest.
Or grab two of them and include a race from one point to another.

The basic principle is to keep the broomstick perfectly vertical,
making small movements to keep it straight.
If it starts to fall to the left, you move your hand to the left.
You get the idea.

If you're good at it, your adjustment moves are small,
because you make them as soon as the stick tries to fall.
If you're not very good at it, it takes you a moment to see the movement
and figure out how to compensate for it.

Less is more.
Make the right small move early...
or you'll be making a bigger, more desperate move later.

The same can be said for rowing against the wind.
Keep your head in the game, watch for those movements,
and adjust your rowing accordingly.
A small adjustment made early eliminates the need to make a huge one just five seconds later.

Do it well and it won't even look like work.
Do it poorly, and you'll look like you need to find another job!

With a lot of things in life - timing is everything.
It matters with the way you talk to your passengers,
how you navigate on the road,
Even how you crack a joke.

Balance a broomstick,
think about how timing makes a difference.
Then go at a strong headwind with precision,
and make it look easy.

Think like a chess player
For starters, I must admit that I'm not very good at playing actual chess.
It's not so much an intelligence thing as it is an attention thing.
Just ask my mother - I've never been good at sitting still.
I've gotta get up and do things.
Perhaps this is why I like gondoliering so much.

But standing on the back of that 36' boat, and navigating through
canals with wind, current, and other boats going to and fro,
I've learned to think a few moves ahead.

Additionally, driving around with a gondola on trailer behind me,
I've found myself thinking through every turn and intersection,
miles before I get to them.
It's really given me a new level of respect for truck drivers.

Whether driving with a trailer on the road, or rowing a long boat with a
single oar through canals, you can't just take things as they come.
You've got to think several moves ahead.
You've got to think like a chess player.

Boats are not "things"
Yes, they are inanimate objects that are produced by people,
but they are so much more - especially wooden boats.

An old schooner captain once told me:
"a boat is the closest thing to a living breathing thing that man can build"

Another good comparison has been made that owning a boat
is like owning a horse.
This is true on many fronts:
First of all the boat may not always go where you want her to.

Second, how the last guy took care of the boat will affect how she behaves
and what sort of care she requires.
The same is true of a boat that you own, and then sell to someone else.

Third, of course is that "care". 
I've been told that you can buy a horse for relatively little money,
but it's the care and feeding that can run you into the red.

Similarly, I like to say that "boat" is not a word;
it's an acronym that stands for:

Bottom line, it's not ownership, it's stewardship.

A boat, like a horse, is worthy of great care,
and if you treat her well, she will return the favor.

Thanks for reading the Gondola Blog, my friends.

In writing this series of posts, I've come across a few subjects that,
after some work, became big enough to be singular posts.
A few were set aside to become future posts.
I began with the concern that I might not be able to come up with twenty-five subjects to include, but after some brainstorming, I had more than that.

One other topic to touch on, is that while I really love the boats, the rowing of the boats, the caring of the boats, and the talking about the boats,

I also love the people involved with them.
Gondola people are the best!

1 comment:

LaGondolaProv said...

Dear GG,

Great to read these thoughts, but the one on which I will specifically comment is the one about thinking like a chess player. It is something that comes up with pretty much every rookie that I train, and did so again yesterday evening with our newest GIT (Gondolier(a)-In-Training). Thankfully, she plays chess, and completely understood the analogy, but I am a firm believer in the chess-player mindset on the gondola, particularly in the (relatively) narrow lanes of our Riverwalk in Providence.

I have maintained for years that the reason why I get into fewer scrapes than the guys who have been rowing for just a season or two is twofold: first, it's all about form for me, and trusting that my body, moved in the proper way, will get the boat out of trouble when needed, but second, the better thing to do is simply not to get into trouble in the first place, and that comes from being proactive on the water, rather than reactive. A gondolier's ascension from "decent" to "experienced", at least to me, comes at the point where he can be more of the former than the latter when rowing, even if my Venetian gondolier friend thinks that I might be the most boring rower he's ever met...I took it as a compliment, particularly after he told me I was good enough to row in Venice :)

Grazie e ciao,