Row Into Romance: Gondola Paradiso brings a uniquely Venetian experience to the canals of Oxnard.

By Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer  |  nshaffer@timespublications.com

Exploring a picturesque maze of canals and bridges via gondola, a charming gondolier in boater hat and striped shirt at the stern, is probably the single most enduring image of Venice — and one of the most romantic visions, period.

Lucky for us, one needn’t book a flight to Italy to take part in this most languid and enjoyable of experiences.

Gondola Paradiso has transported this idyllic bit of Venice
to Oxnard.

A boat ride through the waterways is a lovely and serene way to view the splendors of Seabridge and Coral Island in Channel Islands Harbor, and with someone else doing the rowing, there’s nothing to do but take pleasure in the surroundings and those accompanying you on your journey.

The man behind Gondola Paradiso is owner and operator Mark Schooling, 50, a professional gondolier — yes, there are such things beyond Venice — with nearly 24 years of experience. While he’s yet to row his way through Italy (it’s on his bucket list), Schooling has established himself as a master of the trade here in California.

A native of San Diego, Schooling has been around water all his life. His father would sometimes pack up the family for a sailing trip, and Schooling surfed and played water polo in high school. He didn’t step onto a gondola, however, until after college.

“I got the wrong college degree,” he says with his typically wry sense of humor. He has a bachelor’s degree in fine arts in conceptual art with an emphasis in photography from California State University, Fullerton. “It didn’t translate to work anywhere.”

But like all of us, Schooling still needed to pay the bills — and he had no desire to work in a corporate environment. While taking some classes at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, he saw a posting for gondoliers at the job center.

“You got hired if you finished training,” he explained.

Schooling was off to the docks and has been rowing ever since.

Reading the wind

A career as a gondolier offers many advantages.

“The job is unique,” Schooling explains. “You get paid to exercise. Everyone’s always in a good mood. There’s no paperwork.”

A good gondolier seems to steer the boat effortlessly, but it is actually quite physically demanding — and there’s a steep learn-
ing curve.

Wind pushes against the boat, and changes the current — anticipating how wind affects a gondola is a skill that takes time to learn. It can also be difficult simply to keep the oar in the fórcola, or oarlock. Strength will help a gondolier move the craft where it needs to go when the conditions are challenging, but Schooling notes that “experience trumps strength and power.”

Anyone willing to put in the time has the potential to be a gondolier. The people who tend to excel, however, usually have some sailing experience and enjoy surfing or skateboarding. Comfort on the water, balance and an understanding of wind are helpful.

“Wind is your enemy,” Schooling says. “If you understand
how wind affects the gondola, you’ll be better prepared to handle the craft.”

And the only real way to build the skills a gondolier needs is to row a gondola, as often as possible. California is a surprisingly good place to learn the trade.

Schooling likes to quote a colleague, who has said that “gondolas are the best kept secret, wherever they are.” And in California, there are actually several gondola operators, spread out between San Francisco and San Diego — including a few in Newport Beach, which is famous for its human-made islets that dot the harbor of Balboa Peninsula. Gondola rides are a major tourist attraction there. According to Schooling, Southern California has the most gondolas outside of Venice. And it was his proving ground.

“I was working in Newport Beach for quite a while,”
Schooling recalls.

Eventually, however, he felt the need to branch out on his own.

A chance occurrence brought him to Ventura County.

One day, Schooling had a couple of passengers from Oxnard, who commented on the similarities between Newport Beach’s canals and those near Channel Islands Harbor. Intrigued, Schooling looked up the area on Google Maps, and discovered it was the perfect spot for a gondola outfit. He made the move to Oxnard and opened Gondola Paradiso in 2014.

Art and craft

He leased a gondola while waiting for his first boat, Maria, to be completed. She was custom made for him by students at the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding in Port Hadlock, Washington. In 2019, he acquired a second craft, which has a history as convoluted as the streets of Venice.

In 2011, a group of Los Angeles artists participated in the Venice Biennale, an international art exhibition that has taken place in Venice, Italy, in one form or another since 1895. The project was known as “Venice in Venice,” referencing Venice, California. SoCal artist Billy Al Bengston painted two Venetian-made gondolas — probably older boats that were no longer in operation — that glided down the Grand Canal as floating art pieces. One was done in bold red a la the Ducati brand of motorcycles; another, in bright yellow.

As Schooling explains, gondolas in Venice are strictly governed by rules and tradition. One relates to the color: Most are painted black, with the exception of craft used for weddings and funerals, which are white. Gondolas belonging to racing clubs can be black with accents of the team’s racing colors. Bengston’s vibrantly painted gondolas, however, completely flew in the face of tradition, and were allowed strictly as an art project. Even so, the artist still had to get a “special waiver in Venice” to paint them.

After the 2011 Venice Biennale, the Bengston gondolas were put on display at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and later sold at a 2012 art auction. Schooling says the yellow gondola went to a collector in San Diego, while the red one was purchased by surfwear company Quicksilver. It was originally going to be used to display t-shirts in a shop, but plans changed and the gondola ended up sitting in a warehouse for years. Sunset Gondola in Huntington Beach acquired it after that, and the company eventually sold it to Schooling in 2019.

The boat still sports its atypical red color, and has been appropriately named Rosa.

Oddly enough, fate seems to have steered Rosa — whose pre-2011 origins remain unknown — into the hands of the perfect gondolier.

“I think I lucked out,” Schooling says. “She’s a bit old and worn, but gondolas are custom built for each gondolier. Rosa is pretty darn dialed in to me.”

He claims that if he was custom designing a gondola for himself, it would be a lot like Rosa. And while her red color would never be permitted in her country of origin, here in Oxnard, “the red is unique — it really makes her stand out.”

Portrait of a gondolier

Schooling contends that gondoliers are a breed all their own, although he’s hard pressed to explain what, exactly, makes them different.

“It’s something ephemeral,” he says. “But when you see the gondoliers all together, you can see that they have it. I honestly can’t put my finger on it.”

They do make a point of getting together, when they can. One way is through the U.S. Gondola Nationals regatta, which takes place every other year. It consists of a series of races — sprints and slaloms, solo and team endeavors — that take place over a few days in October or November, after the lucrative tourist season is over.

The first one was in Providence, Rhode Island, in 2012, and takes place in a different location every two years. The most recent was pre-pandemic, in 2019, and was held in Newport Beach. Schooling does race, although he often acts as a timer for the events as well. He will be heading out to Providence this fall for the 2021 regatta, where he’ll have the opportunity to enjoy the camaraderie unique to those who have a passion for this niche boating pursuit.

Regattas challenge these gondoliers to put their physical prowess
and rowing experience to the test. But Schooling has found that there’s more to being a successful gondolier than the physical side. Personality is a huge factor.

“It’s a people thing,” Schooling says. “Gondoliers have to work well with people. We manufacture smiles and happy memories.”

Many clients book Gondola Paradiso for wedding anniversaries, birthdays, graduations and other special occasions.

No matter the occasion, Schooling notes that gondoliers need to be outgoing enough to chat with passengers, but observant enough to recognize when “people don’t want to talk to you . . . sometimes they just want to enjoy the ride . . . You need to give customers the experience they’re looking for.”

The ability to sing is an asset, too. Schooling is quick to emphasize that the image of the singing gondolier is a myth — in Venice, professional singers are usually hired for that service — but “it’s an expectation. It’s easier if you can sing.”

At the moment, singing is on hold due to pandemic restrictions, and Gondola Paradiso cannot currently provide refreshments, cups, wine openers, etc. But passengers are allowed to bring wine or another beverage along with food, as well as the implements to consume them. Gondolas don’t have tables, however, so it’s best to keep the fare simple.

“Where you want to be”

Gondola rides can be exceptionally romantic. Schooling explains that Gondola Paradiso is very popular with couples, and that sunset and evening are some of the best times to go out. He particularly enjoys accommodating customers for marriage proposal rides — something that Seabridge locals appreciate as well.

“People get proposed to, and it’s a nice experience for the people in the boat, and outside of the boat . . . and the gondolier, too. The people who live in the community really like it.”

Boats can accommodate up to six people, however, and plenty enjoy sharing a gondola with family and friends. There are several reasons to do so.

“In a gondola the gondolier will row the boat for you,” Schooling says, “so you get to experience what you’re doing. You’re with people you like. And when people get off the boat, they’re always surprised at how relaxed they are.”

In Schooling’s opinion, the rapid tempo of modern living is not conducive to human health . . . and gondolas, in particular, bring passengers back to a more civilized pace.

“It just helps return your body to where you want to be.”

It’s certainly where Schooling wants to be: He proudly notes that he hasn’t had a “normal” job since 2000. And while it’s true that he has to make himself available from “10:30 in the morning until 10 at night, seven days a week,” he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Work doesn’t pull you down. People are in a good mood, and that rubs off on you as well. That keeps you going.”

Gondola rides start at $125 for two people; each additional person
(up to 6) is $20. Reservations are easy to make online.

Gondola Paradiso is looking for new gondoliers to help with a busy summer and beyond. If interested, email Mark Schooling
at gondolier@gondolaparadiso.com.

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