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Going, going gondola at national regatta in Newport Beach

Michael Angelo Ruffino, left, and Parker Harrison round Harbor Island in a distance tandem race in the U.S. Gondola Nationals on Saturday in Newport Beach.
Michael Angelo Ruffino, left, and Parker Harrison round Harbor Island in a distance tandem race in the U.S. Gondola Nationals on Saturday in Newport Beach.
(Gary Ambrose)

A sailing regatta in Newport Harbor is almost to be expected on any given sunny weekend.

A gondola race only comes along every few years, and Al Macina was there Saturday to seize the rare opportunity and, while he was at it, put his young son in his boat and hand him a paddle.

The U.S. Gondola Nationals, an annual two-day contest, is being held at Bahia Corinthian Yacht Club this year under the direction of Gondola Adventures, Newport Beach’s only gondolier outfitter.

With a light breeze that fluttered the ribbon sashes around their straw hats, resisted their oars and carried their whoops and cheers, more than 30 gondoliers rowed in nine races Saturday, including half-mile sprints, short slalom courses and solo and tandem 2- and 4-mile endurance laps past the tony docks and backyards of Balboa and Harbor islands.

Most entrants wore traditional blue-and-white-striped shirts and white slacks. Some, but not all, wore shoes. Bare feet can feel the water’s rhythm, much like a surfer’s would, they say.

Macina, a San Diego-based prosecutor for the state most days, had a past life as a professional gondolier, a gig he took up while a student at California Western School of Law. Rowing in a gondola is now a hobby — he sees it as an art form.

Competitors lean into their oars at the start of the solo sprint race Saturday on the first day of the U.S. Gondola Nationals, which brought more than 30 competitors to Newport Beach for nine categories of races.
(Gary Ambrose)
A competitor in the U.S. Gondola Nationals wears the traditional gondolier's straw hat and red ribbon with blue-and-white-striped shirt.
A competitor in the U.S. Gondola Nationals wears the traditional gondolier’s straw hat and red ribbon with blue-and-white-striped shirt.
(Gary Ambrose)

Learning to glide in the Venetian boats takes finesse. The open oar post, hewn from walnut root, has to take the long, ridge-backed oar just so or the post could snap.

“When you figure it out, it is a beautiful way to row,” Macina said.

Winning a medal was less important to Macina than teaching his 10-year-old son Dante how to row with him. He bought the boy a blue-and-white-striped shirt so he would be properly attired.

“It’s better than sailing,” Dante said. “I feel it has more pride and work. That makes it honorable.”

The low-slung, canoe-like gondolas evoke Old World charm with the toothed ferros on their pert-tipped bows and the festively dressed gondoliers rowing from atop the stern. Sometimes the operators serenade their passengers and are often witnesses, even accessories, to wedding proposals.

On Saturday they raced for time and glory, blasting past the more commonly seen paddleboarders and electric boats on the placid, sparkling harbor.

Competitors watch the finish of the solo sprint race Saturday in the U.S. Gondola Nationals in Newport Beach.
(Gary Ambrose)
Roselyn Young maneuvers her gondola around a buoy during the solo obstacle event Saturday at the U.S. Gondola Nationals being held this weekend at the Bahia Corinthian Yacht Club in Newport Beach.
(Gary Ambrose)

Gondola Adventures co-owner Greg Mohr helped organize the event and is racing in it too.

The Nationals were last in Newport in 2015. Last year they were in Providence, R.I.

The peppy Mohr, who has owned Gondola Adventures with his wife, Elisa, for 25 years, has figuratively ridden some choppy waters recently as extensive renovations to their longtime home had him searching last year for a new place to dock along the harbor’s limited commercial frontage. They found it after several months at Bayside Village Marina, near the floating Pearson’s Port fish market.

The American gondola industry is small and most gondoliers are friends, making the Nationals less a high-stakes competition and more a convention where there are sandwiches and medals. One year, there was a hyper-competitive rower, but “nobody else liked that,” Mohr said.

“At the end of the day, we’re all gondoliers,” he said. “We’re all [like] members of the same fraternity in different chapters or firefighters in different houses.”

IF YOU GO

What: U.S. Gondola Nationals
When: Day 2 starts at 9:30 a.m. Sunday.
Where: Bahia Corinthian Yacht Club, 1601 Bayside Drive, Newport Beach
Cost: Free to watch

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