Row like mad: Venetian-style gondoliers race in U.S. contest
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Most of the time, gondoliers row slowly and sing softly. It’s all very peaceful.
But for one weekend, they row like mad, scream at each other (sometimes in Italian), and it’s complete chaos.
That’s how Greg Mohr describes the U.S. Gondola Nationals, a convention for the small community of U.S. gondoliers. The nationals conclude Sunday in Providence with gondola races and an awards presentation.
Mohr, a gondolier from Newport Beach, California, traveled to Rhode Island to compete. Known as “Gondola Greg,” Mohr often yells “forte,” or “strong” in Italian, when racing, and “alla morte” when he wants to row to the death at the finish.
“I love nationals and it is because you get to be among a whole bunch of people who are just as weird as you are,” said Mohr, who also operates gondolas in Irving, Texas.
Matthew “Marcello” Haynes, owner of La Gondola Providence, held the first U.S. Gondola Nationals in Providence in 2012. Mohr, who is also president of the Gondola Society of America, said that was the first organized gondola race in the United States, to his knowledge.
A gondolier who attended was inspired to hold the convention the following year in Huntington Beach, California, and it turned into an annual gathering. Along with Providence and Huntington Beach, gondoliers have gathered in Newport Beach and Stillwater, Minnesota.
There are 100 gondoliers nationwide, at most, Haynes estimates. Mohr agreed, since there are usually 30 to 35 gondola companies in business and most are a one-man operation.
About 30 gondoliers are competing in Providence and others are attending for fun. The competition includes single and tandem races for sprint, distance and slalom courses in the Providence River.
There’s also a four-man distance race and a special event called a sandolo, which uses a different style of Venetian boat that’s rowed by one person using two oars.
Gondoliers don’t sing during the races but they do showcase their serenading skills at social events throughout the weekend.
Haynes, who was last year’s slalom champion, aims to promote the Venetian style of rowing and inspire others to open gondola businesses.
“We love showing Providence off,” he said, “but we’re also passionate about gondola history and culture.”
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