TOM #4

  In 1271 when Marco Polo left Venice at the start of his journey to the land of the  Kublai Khan, there was another Marco that traveled with the expedition



Sailing off into the sunset on a yacht is undeniably a romantic notion until one experiences it.  Squinting into the blinding reflection of the setting sun on the sea or straight at the dazzling ball of fire on a cloudless afternoon is decidedly uncomfortable.  Sunglasses help, sort of, but your burning nose and chapped lips need more than Sun block SPF50 to neutralise the glare off the water.  A cloth covering your face is a hot solution and like sunglasses helps, sort of.  Now add a lumpy sea and a cold wind and all romance is tossed into the briny ocean around you.  Sounds dreadful, doesn’t it!


                This is me struggling with the elements, while shipmate Peter looks on sympathetically 

Ah, but then we are not talking about a sailing yacht when the word romantic creeps into the conversation, are we?  Luxurious cruise liners have hi-jacked that word long ago. 

Over the New Year, Allison and I spent a total of ten days on our friends Pat and Barbara’s yacht sailing the 800 nautical miles down the South African east coast from Durban to Cape Town and I experienced the sun dropping into the ocean ahead of me as I did my stint at the wheel.  Never once did I wish that I was on a cruise liner, but spent many hours thinking of the mariners of old that plied these waters without sunglasses and sun tan lotion and realised how extremely well equipped we were on Pat’s boat.  The ability to ‘see’ the ships around us and know their names, size, weight, cargo, direction and speed with our onboard chart plotter, plus the capability of down-loading a long range wind and weather forecast on a laptop was mind blowing.  My estimation of the old salts that sailed the seven seas for hundreds of years with only their experience and a large serving of good luck, was hoisted quite a few pegs after our trip.

The other Marco [TOM] travels long journeys by sea and experiences many eventful situations. 

Let us now look at some interesting water craft that sail on rivers and canals.

‘The Other Marco’ story starts in Venice around 1270, but I have not mentioned gondolas as readers will think of today’s graceful, dare I say, banana shaped Venetian tourist boat we know so well which were definitely not around then.

          Years after visiting Venice and seeing these exotic craft, I saw a photo of one in a travel brochure, taken directly from the front and I wondered how the camera could have twisted the hull so completely out of shape. I was somewhat upset that a glossy advertisement could get it totally wrong, only to be upset again when I found out I was wrong, not to have been observant enough to notice that the gondolas I had seen were not symmetrical at all.  Gondolas are warped, the centre line being slewed to the right and for a very good reason.

          The gondolier stands at the back on the left hand side and paddles with a single oar on the right.  Perhaps I should say he rests the remo [oar] on the forcola [an extremely convoluted and complex piece of wood jutting out from the right side of the gondola] and sculls [rowing by weaving the paddle in small sweeping movements].  To compensate for the gondolier’s off centred weight, the hull is more rounded and longer on the left side by 24cm [10 inches].  Gondolas before the 19th century did not enjoy this asymmetrical [twisted] innovation.


The word gondola was known in the 11th century, but whatever it was referring to, it definitely was not even remotely similar to the gondolas tied up at St Marks square today.  In the 13th century, gondolas were propelled by 12 rowers and later elaborate cabins appeared decorated with ostentatious ornamental scrolls and designs.  Currently, gondolas have been simplified to include a few velvet cushions and the hulls are painted in the Henry Ford maxim; ‘You can have any colour as long as it is black!’  Black gondolas were of course around long before Mr Ford, which leaves us to assume that using pitch to waterproof the hulls over hundreds of years, established a tradition that is entrenched today in spite of modern sealing paints that come in a rainbow of colours.  I would be horrified if Venice suddenly sprouted an armada of pink and purple polka dotted, stars and striped, gold and silver, red, green, yellow and blue graffiti covered gondolas!  Of course, there are some kinky boot beasts out there that would love it!


Having looked at the skewed shape of the gondola, it is interesting to note that in China [where the Polo expedition ended] other skewed water craft existed.

Unlike the gondola where the entire hull is curved to one side, these strange river boats had either the flat square stern skewed or the bow was twisted so that the one side was a meter [3 foot] higher than the other.  I found this intriguing information in a book I have, entitled:  ‘Setting Sails – A tribute to the Chinese Junk’ by Derek Maitland and Nik Wheeler.

I do not entirely understand the reason for this misshapen boat but it apparently performs better over rough rapids.  Not sure why.  If anyone can shed a bit of light on this crooked innovation, share it with me and with whoever else would like to join in. 


In the book: The Other Marco, TOM sees teams of horses pulling the huge junks upstream on the Yellow River, but often teams of men [and I am sure women also] were used for this arduous task.  Two smaller craft were always in attendance, one to ferry the trackers [the word used for the human pullers] back and forth from bank to bank as needed, and past joining rivers or impassable obstacles, and the other which hung further back down-stream, as a lifeboat in case of mishaps.  Whenever I read how harsh life was back then, I keep thinking they were tougher than we are today!  Anyone disagree?


Monsters 4 Monsters Corner.

As #4 is an even numbered page of ‘The Other Marco’ blog, it is Monster time again.

Aydan, my grandson, requested a honey badger with a mechanical skeleton mounted by a boney scull.  For this monster’s title, I decided to spoonerize the words Honey Badger which should have sounded like Bunny Hadger, except that Boney is not expressed as Bunny.  Some words cannot be spoonerized, so this Monster is a Boney Hadger.M4M03rough

Also decided to show the frame work sketch of the Boney Hadger.



There you have it again, Monsters and all – ENJOY!


Please feel free to comment.        Post #5 is on the way.