A successful gondolier wears many hats. And not all of them are straw.
A gondolier — someone who rows a gondola — is expected to be a tour guide, a boat captain, a sommelier, a waiter, an entertainer and sometimes even a marriage counselor for those who step aboard the romantic watercraft.
Though gondoliers are often regarded for their singing as they row guests on the light, flat-bottomed boats around harbors and through canals in their traditional white or black pants and striped shirts, people may forget that they are also athletes, said Greg Mohr, president of Newport Beach-based Gondola Adventures Inc. and the Gondola Society of America.
On Saturday and Sunday, more than 50 gondoliers representing 20 gondola operations across the United States will compete at Newport Harbor in the fourth annual U.S. Gondola Nationals. The event has been held twice in Providence, R.I., and once in Huntington Beach. A different gondola company hosts the races each year, and this time it's Mohr's turn.
"We love to row and it's something unique to what we do, but we don't really see much of an opportunity to compete with one another," said Mohr, a Costa Mesa resident. "That's what makes events like this weekend's so meaningful."
The gondoliers will compete in seven races, including one-, two- and four-rower distance races and one- and two-rower sprints. They also will have a two-rower distance race in a slender boat called a pupparin and a one-rower race on a sandolo, a flat-bottomed Venetian row boat.
For the first time, the event will include a youth race for 12-year-old boys who were trained at Sunset Gondola in Huntington Beach, Mohr said.
"We're in the business of creating an experience," he said. "One of the neat things about this event is we get to create it for ourselves for a change."
Mohr said he fell in love with gondolas more than 20 years ago while he was chartering yachts and other vessels through his company in Newport Beach. In 1993, a man offered to take Mohr and his then-girlfriend, Elisa, on the water in a gondola so they could see what the hype was about.
"It occurred to me that I had been meaning to propose to her. I had this ring, so I told the man about it. He told me that they always say yes on a gondola," Mohr said. "I asked, she said yes and we just fell in love with it."
It is unclear when the gondola was created in Venice, Italy. But by the 1600s, experts say, thousands of gondoliers were transporting and serenading people across the waterways of the city.
By the late 1700s, gondolas were present in New York. Eventually, they were transporting people along the 16 miles of canals in Venice Beach.
Now, more than 30 companies offer gondola rides throughout the United States, with 10 operating in Southern California from Ventura to San Diego, Mohr said.
When the gondoliers ready themselves for the races this weekend, they will be contributing to a long tradition that has managed to stay afloat in modern times.
"What we do is a highly traditional craft," Mohr said. "It's been done in that exact way for [hundreds] of years."
If You Go
What: Fourth annual U.S. Gondola Nationals
When: Saturday and Sunday, beginning at 9 a.m.