On the Job: The Gondolier
Proposals, staying in character, and third-wheel behavior, Sean Jamieson balances it all at Coronado's The Gondola Company
Photo by Robert Benson
“Nobody says no on a boat.” At least, that’s been Sean Jamieson’s experience in observing only successful marriage proposals for 20 years as a gondolier.
The owner of The Gondola Company estimates over 1,000 yeses (about one per week) since he first docked his fleet off the Silver Strand in 1999. Summers aside, the week of Valentine’s Day is the busiest time of the year. With the right weather, you’ll see his gondoliers completing 50-minute meanders through the Coronado Cays canals from 8 a.m. to midnight.
“Will you marry me” messages in bottles, a scuba diver delivering a ring, a proposal with a Push Pop, Jamieson—or, to be accurate, his alter ego “Saverio”—has been a third wheel to it all.
As soon as the stripes go on, he says, the stage names come out. “When I take people out, I never tell them I’m Sean.” To further authenticate the experience, each boat plays Italian music and, occasionally, gondoliers like Jamieson bellow songs themselves for tips—“The singing gondolier is more of a Hollywood thing, but it falls in the expectations of some people.”
Another misconception? Gondoliers don’t use a pole. They row with an oar. “That’s the most common, for sure. Because of the way the oar works, the blade stays in the water. It looks like a pole because you never see the blade come out and splash like, say, a rowboat.”
Jamieson imported all 12 of his vessels directly from Venice, which means when something’s broke “you can’t go to Walmart” to pick up a part or fix it. “There’s some communication with people in Venice, language barriers, all that stuff. One boat is always out of the water getting painted, sanded, or updated.”
Those grittier parts of the business fall on him as the owner and most experienced—he’s visited Venice multiple times and rowed for 11 years in Long Beach and Long Island prior to opening his own business here. A usual day involves maintenance on dry-docked boats in his Chula Vista workshop, then administrative tasks once he gets to his Coronado headquarters—things like bookkeeping, filling orders on wine and cheese, and managing his 12 employees, who’ve ranged in backgrounds from a high school senior to a moonlighting lawyer.
He looks for a few specifics in new hires. First is fitness. “Your arms and back can push on the oar forever, but what gets tired is your legs, with the constant balance and adjustments.” A sharp mind helps, too. “The person who wants to be a gondolier is pretty eccentric. And it lends itself to a person who has a higher IQ than most,” he says, noting that wit helps with picking up on customers’ nonverbal cues. “I don’t need a stand-up comedian. You’re a third wheel; just be a people person.”
Most important, though, a gondolier should be able to appreciate the ride. “I started the business because I love the boats and the rowing. It’s therapeutic. Through these canals, you might as well be 5,000 miles from home.”