In normal years, Joseph Gibbons and Steve Bruno would get to work this weekend, meticulously preparing two 36-foot wooden gondolas, the Maria and the Firenze, for the water. They would check for rot, repaint the bottoms, polish the brass.
But not anymore. After 17 years of plying the waters along the Esplanade, the Charles River gondoliers are hanging up their 14-foot oars.
Gibbons, founder of Gondola di Venezia, said he and Bruno are trying to sell the business, including the two Venetian gondolas, and don’t plan to resume offering weekend trips on the Charles from May to October.
They’re hoping to find a buyer who will keep the boats in Boston, but have also heard from buyers interested in moving the gondolas out of state. There are about 30 Venice-built gondolas in the US, including the two in Boston, according to the Gondola Society of America.
It’s time, Gibbons said, for the two 57-year-olds to focus on their families and their day jobs.
“We’re both tired, we both have other responsibilities, we’re near retirement,” said Gibbons, an electrician. “I don’t have the energy to keep going. It’s not so much the rowing of the gondolas. That’s the fun part. It takes a lot of work setting it up and breaking it down.”
Gibbons, a frequent visitor to Venice, and his wife Camille developed a friendship with a man in the Italian city who was working to help preserve its gondola industry. They became fascinated with the mystique and history surrounding the majestic boats and eventually launched the Boston gondola business in 2001 — a way to share their passion with others. The two boats are named after their mothers: the Maria, the more ornate of the two, was a $75,000 purchase, while the Firenze cost $40,000.
Bruno, a longtime buddy, was one of their first gondoliers and later became a business partner.
They are not sure if they’ll recoup their original investment. But that was never really the goal.
For his part, Gibbons gets misty eyed when he looks back at the important times he shared with strangers: the countless wedding proposals, the intimate moments. “We’ve seen some beautiful things,” Gibbons said. “I could write a book about it.”
Gibbons, Bruno, and friends who helped out offered trips of roughly one hour in length and rarely strayed far from the Esplanade. Gibbons initially learned to row a gondola in Venice, and trained his venture’s other gondoliers. Private two-person tours ranged from about $120 to $230, with the higher-end package including live music, roses, and a framed photograph.
“It was an awesome thing to have in the park,” said Angelo Tilas, the recently retired supervisor of events at the Esplanade with the state Department of Conservation & Recreation. “It added to the atmosphere.”
Tilas said he has fond memories of a trip he took with his wife. The accordion player on the boat took a long break in the big lagoon, and they basked in the sounds of a Bruce Springsteen concert, floating over from Fenway Park. Tilas said he used to recommend the boat ride as an inexpensive form of marriage therapy.
“It was kind of a hidden secret,” Tilas said. “But if it doesn’t come back, it’s going to be missed.”