Mamma mia! Gondolier brings touch of Italy to Gig Harbor

VIDEO: Is Gig Harbor the new Venice?

John Synco believes his gondola touring business is the Northwest's first. Video by Drew Perine and Brynn Grimley.
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John Synco believes his gondola touring business is the Northwest's first. Video by Drew Perine and Brynn Grimley.

A little piece of Italy is staking a claim to Gig Harbor Bay, where Croatian fishing fleets have a storied history.

“Nelly,” an authentic Venetian gondola, made her debut in the Pacific Northwest this month.

The black, 36-foot wooden vessel belongs to John Synco. He launched the boat two weeks ago and has already created a buzz in the maritime city with his rowing and singing.

“It’s this awesome piece of floating art and history,” said Maryanne Philichi, who with her husband, Matt, was among the first people to book a cruise on the gondola.

Gliding on the Gig Harbor waterfront at sunset with an antipasto plate and a bottle of wine conjured memories of their honeymoon in Venice 25 years earlier, Philichi said.

She learned of Synco’s business, Gig Harbor Gondola, through social media.

“I found it hard to believe that our little community was going to be blessed with this lovely gondola,” she said.

Synco, who moors at the Gig Harbor Marina & Boatyard, hopes to secure his place in Gig Harbor’s waterfront community and eventually grow the business to two boats and a small crew to power them. He plans to offer cruises year-round.

He joins a growing community of nonmotorized watercraft users in Gig Harbor — from kayakers and canoeists to stand-up paddleboarders and sailboaters — competing for space with the city’s traditional fishing and yachting interests.

A California transplant who moved to Gig Harbor in May, Synco, 38, learned Venetian-style rowing when a friend suggested he paddle for a gondola business — a popular tourist attraction in some California beach cities.

Synco spent the next 10 years navigating gondolas along the canals of Long Beach, California.

A week spent in Venice with his wife in 2004 solidified his obsession with the art of Venetian rowing. The native gondoliers left an impression with the way they effortlessly navigated the congested, narrow canals of the city in northeast Italy.

“That’s their life on the water. I loved that; that inspired me,” said Synco, who is not Italian.

He returned to Venice a year later to compete in a rowing marathon.

The only problem: Being a full-time gondolier in America didn’t pay the bills.

“It was a great job, but if you think about it long term, it was a dead-end job,” Synco said. “I figured the only way I could keep doing it would be if I ran my own business.”

He drafted a business plan years before the opportunity to start his own operation presented itself.

In 2011, his wife took a nursing job in Snohomish County. The move pushed Synco to act on his dream.

For four years, the couple scouted bodies of water in Western Washington. When they found Gig Harbor and its peaceful, protected downtown bay, they knew they’d found their new home.

The couple and their young daughter moved last spring. By summer, Synco was researching what he needed to do to open his business. That included obtaining a city business license and insurance, double checking Coast Guard requirements and finding a commercially zoned dock to tie up.

“I was planning this like it was the rest of my life,” Synco said. “I wanted to get everything done right. I didn’t want to forget anything. I made a lot of notes, a lot of lists.”

Synco dreamed of buying a used gondola from Venice. With prices ranging from 8,000 to 15,000 Euros (roughly the same amount in American dollars), he knew it would take time.

This summer he started an online fundraising account, selling handmade knit hats and drink holders bearing the Gig Harbor Gondola logo.

Then he got a phone call. A friend offered him the chance to buy Nelly.

Commissioned for a Venetian gondolier in Venice in the 1980s, she was brought to California in 2008. Synco drove to California two weeks ago to bring Nelly to her new home.

He launched the boat Sept. 16 and paddled around the harbor to get a feel for the changing tide and wind. Then he announced on Facebook that Gig Harbor Gondola was open for business. Two days later, he was paddling his first sunset cruise through the harbor.

Now he’s fielding calls at all hours from people wanting to book cruises.

“The response has been so inspiring,” he said. “I hope to be here forever.”

Brynn Grimley: 253-597-8467



Book a cruise

Gig Harbor Gondola offers two cruise options:

The Cruise: An hourlong cruise, $85 for two people.

The Extended Cruise: A 90-minute cruise, $115 for two people.

Each additional person is $20, up to six passengers. Children 5 years old and younger are free.

Cruise price includes a small appetizer plate. Passengers can also bring their own food and beverages.

To book a cruise or learn more visit Gigharborgondola.com.