In sleepy Galesville, where nodding at passing boats is the unofficial pastime, one boat wins wide smiles and enthusiastic waves.

It's the Magic Moment, a sleek handmade craft, certainly the only gondola on West River and perhaps the only one in Maryland.

"We don't keep statistics on gondolas," said Norine G. Ripple, a licensing administrator for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, who knows of no other gondolas.

Builder-owner-captain William Lanning "Lanny" Ray III of Deale never has been to Venice, the Italian city renowned for gondolas ferrying tourists through the canals. He isn't even Italian.

But Galesville, he said, has the features he wanted: waterfront restaurants filled with locals and travelers, a pretty shoreline with quiet coves and friendly homeowners who turn on gazebo lights at sunset.

Fingers crossed, he launched his 37-foot gondola June 2 to see if it would float.

Last week, Mr. Ray and his wife, Ruth, began booking passengers. Mrs. Ray is the booking agent. She's not Italian either.

Kenneth Kirkwood of Crownsville surprised his fiancee, Jami LaMotta, with the gondola cruise last week for her birthday, a few days before their wedding last weekend.

"I loved it," Mr. Kirkwood said.

Was it romantic?

"You bet," he said.

That is exactly what Mr. Ray, who spent $17,000 on the project, likes to hear.

"For birthdays, for anniversaries, for people who have everything -- look, after you've been married 25 years, what do you do to celebrate?" Mr. Ray said. "Dinner and a movie and home, and you fall asleep in your recliner? This, it's different. It's something to remember."

Each woman passenger gets a red rose, a gesture that has moved a few women to tears. The gondola has buckets to chill champagne, a silvery vase filled with red silk flowers and shelves for snacks. Patrons must bring their food, or contact one of Galesville's restaurants. If you ask, the Rays will buy the items and tack the cost onto their $40-an-hour fee.

The head-turning vessel is black, its lines accentuated by mahogany trim. Evoking the gondolas of Venice, it has a seven-notch bow blade. But unlike the traditional gondola, it has a cabin for protection from sun and wind and an 18-horsepower diesel engine.

"I had back surgery some 13 years ago and I'm not up to oaring some ton-and-a-half boat around," Mr. Ray said.

Also, Mr. Ray does not serenade his passengers. "You'd rather listen to that diesel run," he said.

A cassette player serves mandolin tunes, with a Patsy Cline cassette in reserve for country music fans.

Mr. Ray got the gondola idea six years ago in Baltimore's Inner Harbor. In the haze of a few drinks, he saw the Little Italy sign and thought a gondola cruise for two would be cozy. Back in Deale and sober, he decided it was silly.

But not so silly that the idea floated away. For two years, he and his wife talked about it.

Mr. Ray, a cabinetmaker by trade and a carpentry supervisor for Montgomery County public schools, was at a loss in designing a gondola. He spent winters in libraries, looking for American gondola-builders -- he found none -- and poring over books about Venice. He sought help from the Italian Embassy, but gondola builders don't part with family secrets.

"And I studied spaghetti jars with gondola pictures on the side," he said.

Finally, four years ago, Mr. Ray discovered the Gondola Society of America, bought its tabletop gondola model and built it.

From that, he drew plans for the real thing.

For two years -- Mother Nature permitting -- work progressed in the Rays' side yard, from framing to plywood to fiberglass.

The couple fielded countless questions about what was under construction, including one inquiry about why they were building a Viking ship. When Mr. Ray said he was building a gondola, some people thought he didn't have both oars in the water.

Mrs. Ray, a secretary for a wall covering company near Upper Marlboro, was chief building aide and interior designer. She chose a plush Burgundy and green interior and the cut-out heart in the back canvas of the cabin, and even crocheted an afghan for snuggling on chilly nights.

The Rays already are planning their own 25th anniversary celebration next year -- a trip to Venice for a spin on the real thing.

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