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Victory for Long Beach Boatmen : U.S. Gondoliers Surprise Venetians

Times Staff Writer

When Mike O’Toole and David Black of Long Beach decided to compete in a prestigious gondola race in Venice, Italy, their chances of winning seemed about as remote as a flounder beating Flipper in a 50-yard dash.

O’Toole and Black, who operate a gondola excursion business, thought their six-man boat would be doing well by not finishing last among the nearly 1,000 gondolas in the 20-mile race.

But to the surprise of the Americans--and a lot of prideful Italians on hand for the recent event--the team from Long Beach finished first in its class and 25th overall.

‘So Much Adrenaline Going’

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“It was great,” said Jack Ging, 25, one of the Long Beach team members. “We had so much adrenaline going; it probably pushed us half way through the race.”

O’Toole and Black heard about the event, called the Vogalonga, or “Long Row,” while traveling in Italy last year to do research for their 4-year-old company, Gondola Getaway. The firm offers gondola excursions through the canals of Naples Island adjacent to the Long Beach Marina.

While visiting a Venetian boat yard, some gondoliers encouraged the Americans, both 25, to come back for the annual spring race, one of two Venice gondola competitions held each year. According to the Venetians, no American team had competed in the race.

Practiced in Marina

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For months before the Vogalonga, the American team practiced around the Long Beach Marina, rowing up to 10 miles in a 32-foot gondola they usually use for large group excursions. To test their endurance, they had the craft towed out to Santa Catalina Island and then rowed the 26 miles back to the mainland.

The team is made up of the boat company owners, Ging and three other oarsmen, Chris Hendrickson, 25; Larry Kunz, 20, and Jamie Coulter, 21.

With the aid of O’Toole’s father, who works for a shipping firm, the Americans obtained the services of Guido Magrini, an Italian who served as liaison and sometime coach for the group. In addition, Magrini got Giuseppe (Bepi) Fongher, a legend in Venetian gondola circles, to help coach the Americans.

When the Long Beach group reached Italy six days before the race, they found their hours of training mostly had been in vain.

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Problem With Gondola

The gondola they were to use was a decidedly different craft than their boat back in Long Beach--two feet narrower, several hundred pounds lighter and far less stable.

“After our first day rowing, all the Italians thought we were nuts,” Black recalled. “Guido was shaking his head, wondering why these Americans had come all the way over. Personally, I was real frustrated. I was the one responsible for steering, and I kept turning us in circles and running into things.”

Black and the other Americans, however, kept at it, practicing for several days and making some adjustments to their gondola, a 32-foot-long, 5-foot-wide boat known as a Coarlina.

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“People would kind of giggle when we said we were going to race one of their boats,” O’Toole said. “It was almost like all of them were waiting for us to go out so they could laugh.”

Steadily Moved Up

No one was laughing, however, during the race. As Black and O’Toole describe it, the Americans started about a third of the way back in the pack and steadily moved up. The mass of gondolas, which vary from one-man boats to 70-foot-long craft powered by 18 men, start in front of San Marcos Square, then storm across the waters off Venice, circling several islands before finishing in the Grand Canal.

“We were just worried we’d be playing bumper boats out there,” O’Toole said.

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In fact, while turning around the first island, the Americans nearly ran two Venetian crews ashore.

“They were just screaming at us,” Black said. “I think it only made us row faster so we could get away from them.”

The Americans slowly passed boats until, entering the Grand Canal, they had the lead in their class. Rowing down the canal, the natives greeted the Americans with cheers and hoots.

“When we came through with the American flag flying,” Black said, “there were so many people screaming for us I got all choked up.”

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Accommodations Covered

For the victory and for being the team to travel the farthest to the event, the race organizers paid for the group’s accommodations for three days.

Their most prized award, however, came when Fongher gave each of the Americans one of the medals he won during his years of competition--equivalent, according to Ging, to “Kareem Abdul-Jabbar giving someone one of his NBA championship rings.”

And what’s next?

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“We’ll be back,” O’Toole said. “We have to defend our title.”

In fact, Black said, there is talk among some Long Beach residents of chartering a plane to Italy to watch the Americans defend their victory next year.

“It would be like Naples, Long Beach, goes to Venice, Italy,” he said.


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