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Row like mad: Venetian-style gondoliers race in US contest

November 11, 2018
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Michael Angelo Ruffino, of Huntington Beach, Calif., front, prepares to take part in the 2.6-mile tandem race in the U.S. Gondola Nationals, Sunday, Nov. 11, 2018, on the Providence River, in Providence, R.I. About 30 Venetian-style gondoliers from across the nation are competing in the U.S. Gondola Nationals that includes single and tandem races for sprint, distance and slalom courses. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — 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 were held Friday-Sunday on the Providence River and featured a variety of events including solo and tandem races on sprint, distance and slalom courses.

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. 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.

“It’s going great,” Haynes said during a telephone interview as the event was winding down Sunday, though he noted that windy conditions and unseasonably cold temperatures probably kept crowds along the river a little smaller than what organizers had hoped.

“We did have a number of fans and I was pretty thrilled about that,” he added.

There are 100 gondoliers nationwide, at most, Haynes estimates. About 30 were competing in Providence and others were attending for fun.

Not everyone stayed dry during the Venetian style rowing events.

Gusty winds blew Haynes’ brother, Alexander Haynes, a bit off course Saturday, and as he struggled to keep his boat from hitting a wall, he lost his footing and ended up waist deep in the chilly waters. Though a bit damp, he managed to recover and row back.

“You want to leave it all on the water, not in the water,” Alexander Haynes said. “But hey ... this is the first time I have gone into the water during the competition.”

Gondoliers don’t sing during the races, but they did showcase their serenading skills at social events throughout the weekend.

Marcello Haynes, who was last year’s slalom champion, described himself as passionate about gondola history and culture and hoped to inspire others to open similar businesses.

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Associated Press writer Bob Salsberg in Boston contributed to this report.

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