A good gear shop can be like a temple for adventure seekers. There are unmistakable signs of the wild on the weather-worn buildings that compel passers-by to stop. Goat’s Beard Mountain Supplies in Mazama, Washington is one of those temples on the edge of the Methow Valley and the North Cascades.
The town of Gig Harbor, Washington is a living postcard. Framed by an imposing Mount Rainier and Cascade mountains to the east, and a wild Olympic Peninsula and mountain range to the west, this small Puget Sound community is home to sailors, conservationists, and anglers. It’s also home to the Gig Harbor Gondola, the only operating Venetian gondola service in the Pacific Northwest.
Gondolier and owner John “Cinque” Synco grew up in the warm waters of southern California. After graduating from college, he pursued a career in journalism.
”I wanted to travel the world and write stories. Then I was shoved in the newsroom. They needed news writers. I tried it out and stuck with it. But I couldn't get the idea of a gondola out of my head.”
John’s journey to Gig Harbor began in 2002 when a friend called with a job. He had just returned from a three-month adventure around the country in a long-haul truck, a trip that allowed him to reconnect with his Dad.
“An old buddy of mine called me up. He had gotten this job in Long Beach and he said “hey, do you want to learn how to row a gondola?” I said yeah. Sounds great. I’ve had a love for being on the water for a long time and I wanted to learn a new vessel. I ended up falling in love with it.”
The history of gondolas in America slowed down in the early nineteen hundreds, until John’s new employer, Gondola Getaway, put an electric motor on a dory, called it a gondola, and began carrying passengers. According to John, Gondola Getaway is credited as being the first modern gondola service in America.
In 2011 the Synco family moved to Washington. The transition offered John an opportunity to plan and pursue his long-time dream of owning his own gondola service. Years before moving to Washington, a few close friends ventured off on their own and began a new gondola service. John had an opportunity to step onboard, but the timing wasn’t right. But the idea of starting his own gondola company stuck with him.
“My two friends started a company called Sunset Gondola. During the planning stages, they asked if I wanted to join them. I was in college at the time on a totally different path. But I stored the idea away. I thought it would be awesome to own my own Venetian rowboat one day. But, I was focused on school.”
“I ended up graduating college in 2010. In 2011 we moved to Washington. My wife was a nurse and we moved for her job. I went from the beginnings of a journalism career to being a stay-at-home-dad with our three month old. I had a lot of time to think about what I wanted to do. Do I want to get back into the news business, or am I ever going to get this gondola thing out of my head?”
While living in Edmonds, Washington, the Syncos began exploring Washington on the weekends, from Bellingham in the north to Long Beach on the southern coast. With every outing, John researched waterways and canals, looking for the perfect spot to launch a gondola business. He spotted Gig Harbor on Google Maps and planned the family’s next trip.
“We were driving into downtown and we could see the harbor and the water. I said, “This is it. Let's move here.” I remember sitting in town, looking at the water, watching the tides, watching boat traffic. I thought….ok I need to look into the history. I needed enough to talk about with guests. I found so much history and I’m still learning.”
“We kept coming back. We came when it was raining and when it was windy. Always watching to see what it would be like to row here. Sure enough, the Harbor seemed like it was protected from Puget Sound. I thought this might be it.”
The final piece fell into place in 2015 when friends from Sunset Gondola, the opportunity that John passed on years earlier, asked if he wanted to buy one of their Venetian boats. The gondola called Nelly, named for the previous gondolier’s mother, traveled from California to Puget Sound. Gig Harbor Gondola was born.
To say a real Venetian gondola is a conversation started is an understatement. In John’s case, it was a career starter.
”I remember the first night we launched Nelly. There was a guy from the Gig Harbor Boat Shop at the boat launch. I remember him being so stoked when he saw it.”
“When I felt like I was ready for business, I jumped on a local Facebook group. I said something like “New business. Gondola rides in the Harbor. We’re now open.” That one post generated so much activity and it got me through the next three months. All of the sudden I was on the cover of the Tacoma News Tribune and a bunch of other outlets. Things slowly and steadily grew every year. Then Covid-19 hit.”
Rowing a gondola in Gig Harbor comes with some of the best built-in marketing a business owner can find. At 36 feet long, Nelly is a head turner and stands out among sailboats and yachts.
Shortly after the business launched, if John didn’t have any tours booked, he would row past the popular waterfront Tide’s Tavern. Simply passing by the tavern would often fill up empty slots. John credits the Gig Harbor community and city government with open-armed support.
“People started calling and I would pick them up from restaurants or from their private docks. The community was so rad. They talked about it and would share with other people.”
“I contacted the city before we moved to Gig Harbor to see if a gondola service was even possible. I remember getting a message from them that was so supportive. They were totally on board. They offered the use of public docks to help me get started until I found my own dock.”
Tours with Gig Harbor Gondola come at either one hour or 90 minutes. Guests have the option to bring their own food and drinks while they’re ferried around the Harbor listening to the town’s history and stories about the luxury homes that line the shores. John will even sing Italian songs while you and up to six guests enjoy Mt. Rainier and curious harbor seals.
If you’re not interested in a full meal, a meat and cheese appetizer box made just for you by the Harbor General Store can be included in your trip.
Shortly before Covid-19 forced Washington businesses to temporarily close, John bought Tommaso Sebastiano, a second gondola, and partnered with fellow SoCal gondolier, Greg Garite. Until March 2020, growth was steady and Synco needed a partner to keep up with enthusiastic passengers.
“It was really stressful to go from every year being busier than the previous year, and on track to do it again, to nothing at all. Not even phone calls. My business phone was collecting dust. Mainly I was worried because my partner had just joined me last June. I was worried about him.”
In June 2020, Washington began a phased approach towards resuming business operations, which allowed Gig Harbor Gondola to get back out on the water while practicing social distancing.
Any new business comes with challenges and uncertainty, but there have been unmistakable signs along the way for the Synco family. The first dock that Nelly occupied was a double slip, meaning that there was room for two boats. The second slot remained empty for a short time.
When a neighbor finally arrived, the boat that came with them was named Cinque. Cinque is John’s gondolier name. A sign if there ever was one.
The year 2020 will be remembered for Covid-19, and for a bright and massive spotlight on racial injustice. These are heavy and complex topics that are changing lives. John “Cinque” Synco and Gig Harbor Gondola offer a much needed relief from the challenging world you might see through news and social media.
John and Greg are more than gondoliers; they’re keepers of Gig Harbor history and community ambassadors for anyone lucky enough to experience this small corner of Puget Sound.
Exploring western Washington should include a stop in the picturesque town of Gig Harbor. Eat lunch at the Harbor General Store. Then take a ride with Gig Harbor Gondola and soak in a sunset and a truly unique Pacific Northwest experience.
And don’t let the wet and cold Washington winters stop you from making a reservation. The gondola rides year-round. John’s record for his coldest trip is 28 degrees. If you can handle it, John can too.
“I fell in love with Venice, with the people, and with the boats. To me, the gondola is a celebration of the old days in Venice, when everyone was rowing boats before the motors came.”
Before your tour is over, ask John to tell you his story about the message in a bottle. If the gondola tour just isn’t enough to make the rest of the world melt away for a few moments, that story will do the trick.
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