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Craig Manley is out to do something that he was told he couldn't do: build a gondola by himself.
Craig Manley is out to do something that he was told he couldn't do: build a gondola by himself. (Kent Harris / S&S)
Craig Manley is out to do something that he was told he couldn't do: build a gondola by himself.
Craig Manley is out to do something that he was told he couldn't do: build a gondola by himself. (Kent Harris / S&S)
Craig Manley, a professor for the University of Maryland at Aviano Air Base, hopes to have his creation in the canals of Venice in about two years.
Craig Manley, a professor for the University of Maryland at Aviano Air Base, hopes to have his creation in the canals of Venice in about two years. (Kent Harris / S&S)

AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy — Craig Manley obviously likes challenges. Told by an American friend in Venice that he could never manage to build one of the city’s famous watercraft by himself, the University of Maryland professor is doing just that at the Aviano Air Base’s woodcrafts skills shop.

“I said, ‘Watch me. I can do it,’” he recalls telling his friend.

That’s the quick background story on the gondola that’s slowly taking shape on base, miles away from anywhere where it could be used.

Manley, who has been building furniture for years, admits that he’s had some doubts about finishing the craft.

“There’s been a few times when I thought about dropping the whole project,” he said. “Especially when Paolo died.”

Paolo Poles, an Italian who managed the base’s wood skills shop, collapsed and died of an apparent heart attack Oct. 1 while helping Manley on the gondola. Manley found it difficult to resume his work.

“I didn’t come back for months,” Manley said. “It was a very hard thing to do.”

He could use those same words to describe his entire project. He’s been going at it for a bit more than a year now. And, while the frame clearly resembles a gondola, Manley estimates he won’t have it ready for its maiden voyage for another two years or so.

“I’ve done a lot of work in the last month or so, so I’m happy,” he said.

He doesn’t plan to trade his job teaching writing courses at the base for a gondolier’s outfit anytime soon. Those who ferry passengers around Venice are in a notoriously protective union. No foreigners (or women) allowed.

“If they were to see me rowing people around [for money], I wouldn’t last very long,” Manley said.

That’s not part of the plan anyway. He and longtime girlfriend Toni Sepeda — also a University of Maryland professor on base — own a home in Venice.

Once the gondola is completed, they’ll use it to navigate around the city — if they can get the sometimes tricky parking situation resolved. Gondolas require lots of docking space.

“We’ve got a couple of years to work that out,’ he said.

Fellow woodworkers on base give him credit — for his ambition if nothing else.

“This is really an elaborate project for a wood hobby shop,” said Jeff Green, who works in the shop.

Manley says he’s gotten quite a few comments from those passing by. “Is that a canoe?” was one question.

Another realized what it was, but thought it looked too big. Nope. Standard size. About 35 feet long and 4 feet at its widest. Those specifications come from a book, “La Gondola,” that Manley is using as a guide. He bought the book and some blueprints from a shop in Venice.

Manley has spent much money on the materials for the craft. He bought parts of a tree from a supplier in Treviso and has spent about $1,500 so far on materials. Much of it will be oak, but the craft likely will have seven other varieties of wood before it’s completed.

Manley said the hardest aspects have been all the odd angles that he’s had to work with. None of the 33 wooden ribs that form the skeleton are exactly the same as the others. Those that form the perch where the gondolier sits are a bit thicker to support the extra weight.

Manley is in a boat club in Venice, but he says he’s never piloted a gondola. Not that he’s very concerned about that.

“I say if I can build a gondola, I can probably row one,” he said with a smile.

And how about the seaworthiness of the craft?

“I don’t have any doubt it’ll float,” Manley said. “Maybe it’s going to always want to lean to the right or something, but it’ll float.”

He says he’s learned a lot about the process just by doing it. But he doesn’t have any plans to become a professional boat builder.

“The second one will go a lot smoother,” he said with a straight face.

Then he smiled: “I’m joking.”

Migrated
Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for almost 38 years.
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