Gondolier Tim Reinard won first place in the sprint competition of last year's inaugural U.S. Gondola Nationals in Rhode Island, but this year he opted not to defend his title.
"I could always be No. 1, the first ever U.S. champion," he said with a chuckle.
Reinard, owner of Sunset Gondola in Huntington Beach, switched from being a competitor to being the organizer of this year's event, in Huntington Harbour.
About 30 people from across the nation — including 11 men from Providence, R.I. — congregated at Seabridge Park in Huntington Beach on Saturday to compete against one another in a series of sprint and distance racing in 37-foot vessels.
Providence resident William Oberg, 25, said he took time off from his cruise ship job to fly to California and compete after missing last year's event.
"It's a nice blend of competition and camaraderie as well," he said. "It's nice being around so many people that do the same thing. It's really cool to be a part of that."
"It takes a good two months for somebody to really get what they want [the gondola] to do and don't want it to do," said Greg Mohr, owner of Gondola Adventures in Newport Beach. "Rowing Venetian-style is a very unique skill.
"The gondolier pushes then drags [the oar]. There's no rudder or keel. The more they push, they go to the left. The more they drag, they go to the right. Drag too much and you'll stop. It's a very interesting discipline."
The competitors had five gondolas at their disposal Saturday afternoon, one from Mohr's company and four from Reinard's, including his rare red gondola named Rossa.
The gondoliers rowed up a canal toward a bridge on Edinger Avenue and back down toward the marina. Rossa was used solely for this part of the competition because of its lightweight construction, Mohr said.
The distance portion of the competition, which involved all the gondolas except the red one, was a lap around Trinidad Island, which took about 30 minutes to complete.
Since only five gondolas were available, there was a lot of downtime between sessions. Most of the competitors sat on a grassy patch near the marina, talking about gondoliering and the party the night before.
Steve Elkins and Mike Bronstein, who row for Mohr at Gondola Adventures, walked around the park and cheered on the gondolier if they happened to see one passing by in the marina.
Elkins, 34, of Los Angeles, and Bronstein, 24, of Costa Mesa, both became involved in gondolas in a unique way. A former girlfriend of Elkins' said it would be funny if he became a gondolier. He did just that and has been one for the past 13 years.
Bronstein was looking for a job and was told by a friend about an opening at Gondola Adventures. He jumped at it immediately.
"I told him I would do anything at this point," Bronstein said. "I wasn't in good shape and I wasn't very ambitious, so it took me a while to get through the training, but I stuck it out and three years later I'm still rowing."
At the end of the day, Matt Erickson from The Gondola Co. in Coronado became the new sprint race champion.
Reinard said the gondola nationals are more about bonding with fellow gondoliers and having fun.
"It's pure sportsmanship," he said. "To me, there's a difference between a sports fan and a fanatic. A fan would argue if they were out and push it too far, but a sportsman says, 'Yeah, I'm out. Fair enough.'"