We arrived at the public dock of Channel Islands Harbor Marina in Oxnard, California, and I stepped aboard my personal yacht. It was mine for about ninety minutes – a flat-bottomed, black Venetian rowing boat look-alike, complete with gondolier who wore a traditional blue-striped shirt. Shortly, a bottle of locally produced Ventura red wine appeared, and a box of pizza from Fresco II on the wharf. Lunch while on a row around the canal to tour the rich abodes, and possibly famous ones of the area.
My gondolier was Mark Schooling, owner of Gondola Paradiso, and nearly a twenty-year veteran of the trade. He pushed away from the dock and commenced the rhythmic shuttle motion with his single oar. There is more to this than meets the eye. A gondola is built with one side slightly longer than the other to offset one-sided rowing. Turning into a wind required getting up enough speed to complete the turn and allow for the natural set downwind.
The gondolier, Mark, stood in the rear, or stern, of the boat and used the single oar on the right side. He never changed to the left side. A common joke in the trade is about having to tailor clothing for an overdeveloped right side. At the prow was a metal ornamentation to offset the weight at the stern of our gondolier. Make a mistake with the boat and this metal prow will puncture most fiberglass hulls around the marina.
Banter with my gondolier uncovered how one gets into the trade. Mark started out in Balboa, a waterway of Newport Harbor, California. He was a college student, looking for work on a job board; young and strong. This is a fee-and-tips business where only the strong survive, literally. After several weeks of just rowing around the harbor to practice in a borrowed boat, a candidate must demonstrate the strength and ability to conduct hours-long tours for tourists before allowed a hire for fare. Many prospective gondoliers fail for lack of stamina or drudgery of the qualification process. When adjudged qualified, the newly minted gondolier begins a trade going back to 17th century Venice. Even today in Venice, a person must pass an apprenticeship with comprehensive practical exam.
Our gondola, Teresa, was custom built in the USA in the 1980s before being acquired and reconditioned by our gondolier. Construction of a new and larger boat is underway in Seattle at a boatbuilding school. The new boat will seat six people and is 30 feet in length. It is a Batela, a coa de gambaro, one of only a handful not built in Venice, that will enter service this August.
Once well into my wine, I pounded out oar cadence like a Roman galley drummer in Ben-Hur. Changing the tempo from battle speed to attack speed, and announcing this to Mark, the friendly banter ceased but the boat speed never changed. Clearly, I was not Quintus Arrius, the Roman fleet admiral, and in command of the boat.
In spite of my attempts to redirect the planned voyage, our gondolier gave a pleasant rendition of several songs and sung in key. Although the songs were not barcaroles, written based on rhythmic stokes of the oar, this was California and contemporary music probably worked best. He said there are songs people request that are standards, and he has seen more than one marriage proposal while singing. Being the nugator that I am, I had to ask if he ever witnessed a refusal and he said no, it is usually obvious ahead of time.
Ninety minutes in the boat with a bottle of good wine was enough for anyone’s bladder, and so the adventure ended right on time at the originating dock. We then strolled the beach at our hotel, Mandalay Bay Beach Resort, and watched people fly fighting-kites at the nearby park. This hotel included breakfast with a custom omelette chef on duty, and affordable California surf cuisine. I enjoyed the Coastal Grill there and its serving of local craft beers.
One of the evenings dining out was at Heritage Square, where a collection of Victorian homes makes for a pleasant shopping walk. Superior dining at La Dolce Vita is white table cloth service, affordable, and excellent. Featured are Ventura area wines that complement menu items. They also do cooking classes for children.
Keeping busy on this trip was easy, with whale watching cruises and island nature tours by Island Packers from the harbor and paddleboard lessons inside the marina at Channel Islands Kayak Center. The kayak business is owned and operated by famous surfer Mike Lamm (three-time US National Surfing Champion). Get a “cave map” from the Kayak Center and take your kayak to the islands aboard an Island Packers boat, an unparalleled adventure vacation activity.
This was a pleasant place, easy to walk about, with a maritime museum display of original scrimshaw by mariners from the 1800s. Outside dining and beers on the marina wharf make a few hours here enjoyable.
The less adventurous, or those tired from adventuring, may find me at the Mandalay Bay pool with a tropical drink in hand, or on the sand touching the Pacific ocean.