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Venice - Voga alla Veneta

Nan McElroy (venexiananan)

One spectacular mid-October afternoon on my first trip to Venice in 1995, I, like millions of travelers before me, paused atop the Accademia Bridge to enjoy the view. I became mesmerized by a lone woman rowing toward me up the Grand Canal, in what I now recognize as a mascareta. She was standing, facing forward, arms crossed, pushing the water competently and rhythmically with two long oars, one in each hand. I was entranced by her motion and persistent advance up the Canal, and as she disappeared sliding beneath my feet, I took an unconscious vow: someday, somehow, I would try this myself.

Mascareta on a canal in Venice

Mascareta on a canal

Eleven years later and nine months after I first got my hands on a remo, I finally enrolled in the Società Remiere Canneregio and began taking lessons in the Voga alla Veneta, the traditional Venetian rowing technique. (This, after a brief run-in with a renegade pseudo-instructor last August: what an absurd, pathetic experience. It was a very short lesson that ended with me ordering him to return immediately to the cantiere: I'm sure it will come as no surprise to anyone that it's neither customary or necessary to stand behind you while teaching you how to row. Che schifo, how disgusting. Please Lord, spare us from gli omini piccoli, the small men, of this world.)

Voga, voga cocola
Za che ti xe in gringola ...
Canta e dopo basime,
che i to' basi me fa tanto ben ...
- traditional Venetian folk song -

It hasn't been easy finding the time for the lessons, but I'm determined, that is, obsessed. I don't know how long it will be before I can be in a boat alone, and I don't know if I'll ever be able capable of rowing with two oars, but I've made a start and I must say, it's as grand as I thought it would be.

The lessons are offered by one of the many società, or boat clubs, that have sprung up in the recent years throughout the lagoon, and are usually based out of one of several local cantiere (boatyards). Settemari, Bucintoro, Serenissima, Querini, Tre Archi, and more, are subsidized by the Comune to help preserve and maintain Venetian boating traditions, now that their purpose is sport and recreation as opposed to a means of transport. Each club has its own unique logo and identifying colors, and may offer instruction, organize social events, and sponsor regate all during the year throughout the lagoon, for all types of boats, ages, and levels of expertise.

Cantiere Querini, boat club, in Venice

Cantiere Querini, boat club

The largest of these regattas is the Vogalonga, whose 32nd annual edition was held on the 4th of June, 2006. There were over five thousand participants and 1500 boats from Venice, throughout Italy and far beyond. The event begins and ends with a cannon shot, with a course commencing in the San Marco bacino, heading out past the island of Sant Erasmo, around Burano, back past Murano, re-entering Venice at the Cannaregio Canal, and finishing at the end of the Grand Canal. Supporters search out every form of canal access, and line the fondaments, shouting congratulations to the finishers, no matter where they come from, what they're rowing, whether they know them or not: o, vecio, bravo! The Grand Canal is closed to motor traffic until mid-afternoon, a spectacular, all-too-rare occurrence that makes everyone nostalgic for the good old days senza moto ondoso (without motor traffic), at least for an hour or two.

Watching the Vogalonga, boat regatta in Venice

Watching the Vogalonga, boat regatta

REGATTA: regata in Italian. Origin early 17th century Venetian dialect; literally a fight or contest.

Let Sleeping Boats Lie

The Cannaregio cantiere, or boatyard, is near the Sant Alvise vaporetto stop in northern Cannaregio, and the nearest to where I live. It's relatively new, and a grand place: spotless, well-organized, filled top-to-bottom and stem to stern with the long, flat Venetian oar-powered boats:

Gondola in Venice

  • the hardy, flat sandolo with its pointy, decorated nose, one of the most common boats in the lagoon
  • the mascareta, a smaller, lighter, shallower and more-agile but less-stable version of the sandolo
  • thepupparìn, with a platformed stern that serves as a perch for the rower, like that of the gondola
  • the caorlina, a majestic, rotund regatta boat rowed by team of six
  • a variety gondole delle regate, finished in varnished wood or painted in spectacular colors as opposed to the traditional black
  • the disdotona, named for the eighteen rowers that power it
  • the gondolin di regata, a delicate, more refined version of the most famous of Venetian row boats

These craft are all either owned privately, or by the various società that are based in this particular cantiere.

Ready, Set, Voga!

Once you arrive for your lesson, getting your chosen boat off its rack and into the water is measured and efficient process: first, grab one of the large, rolling carts (one size fits all) and place it along side your craft where it's suspended in its rack. The man-on-duty will arrive with a highly-portable electronic forklift, maneuvering it to remove and lower the boat onto the cart. Your instructor will help you choose an oar of the appropriate weight and length, and show you how to correctly set the forcole, or oar rest, in the rails. Roll the boat out of the cantiere and position it at the edge of the dock underneath a crane-like contraption dangling two sturdy, nylon straps, aiming the prow through the front loop. Grab the back strap and loop it around the rear end, and the same man-on-duty will punch the appropriate buttons to hoist the boat off its cart, rotate it into position, and lower it into the water. If you're not in the boat yet, you can climb down the ladder and embark before you or someone else maneuvers it out of the loops and se ne va, you're on your way.

Sandra's my instructor; a Venetian who's been rowing ever since she was a kid. In fact, the oar she uses at the poppa (the stern), is the one her Dad gave her; he used it as a gondolier. She's a great instructor, thank heaven, and seems to understand how important it is for your body to incorporate the critical elements of rowing first: the position of your feet in relation to the forcola (the oar rest, or fulcrum, that provides the leverage as you push); the importance of accompanying the oar with your body, generating power more efficiently and relieving the stress on your arms; lowering your body into the boat and not andare in forcola when there are waves or wind that make you lose your balance. Spingi colla gamba dietro, non guardare il remo, accompagna il corpo davanti, appoggiati sulla gamba, gira i polsi, e vai. Push with your back leg, don't watch the oar, move you body forward, balance yourself on your front leg, rotate your wrists, and go. And when the waves arrive from the myriad of motor-craft that traverse the channel in front of the cantiere, well beyond the speed limit unless there happens to be a vigile boat in sight, just bend your legs and put the remo in acqua, oar in the water, to stabilize both you and the boat.

My fascination with rowing itself is what impedes my progress, as I'm continually drawn to the motion of the oar paddle as it ploughs through the lagoon water like spatula folding cake batter; this is not advised if you're the one di poppa and are in charge of navigation, continually having to compensate for wind direction as well as lagoon movement, always more powerful at low tide and when the moon is waxing full. (You think those lagoon waters are still? Look again. They're tidal, and that means always moving either in or out. If you're the one rowing the boat, you certainly become a believer as to how the field of gravity of a distant celestial body can directly effect how much harder it is to row against the waxing-moon tide. Eighth-grade physics will come in very handy here.)

The tide, of course, does not diminish as the lagoon waters circulate within the labyrinth of canals and rii that traverse the city, or, on occasion, when it overwhelms them during acqua alta. I observe gondoliers in an entirely different way (noooo, that is not what I meant), having an even greater appreciation of their skills now that I know what it takes to keep a boat on track after un premo: the single-oar push that propels it the craft both forward and to the left. It's followed by the stalir, a corrective maneuver that's a bit like rowing in reverse, and either steers the boat to the right or keeps it in line, depending on the force used, all the while compensating for the tide motion, wind, waves, and whatever other factors there may be. All that done with a single oar, on a bizarrely-shaped boat that after training in a sandolo, seems gigantesca.

In fact, there are a litany of other remo-e-forcola techniques that propel these boats across the broad lagoon, slide them over the shallowest of waters, and thread them among the narrowest canals, all of which canottieri who have more experience that I seem to execute senza sforza, effortlessly. I did manage to stalir (sta-eer is the Venetian pronunciation, since "L"s are rarely, if ever, sounded in the Venetian dialect) my sandolo clockwise in a tight circle between two flexible poles the other day, narrowly avoiding smacking the lower one as I attempted compensate for the motion of some lagoon waters that seemed in a pretty big hurry to get back out to sea. Che soddisfazione, I thought as I slide by. I may not be navigating the rii of San Polo tomorrow, but might get the hang of this eventually.

Carved boat in Venice

It won't be long before the heat will be insufferable beyond mid-morning, making it impossible to paddle about the lagoon in a flat boat without being steamed like a lobster in a pot. It will have to be early-early, before the workday starts, or perhaps late evenings could be an option. And who knows, someday, if I continue to make progress, it might even be me you watch sliding under your feet as you look down from the Accademia bridge. I'll keep you posted (no pun intended). In the meantime, check the resources for more information, intanto practicing your Italian.

If you're staying in Venice for more than a few days (two weeks, for example) and want to give the voga a try, head for the remiere nearest you. There'll be a minimum fee to join the boat club, which will vary, and probably require more than one lesson to get the hang of it; any Italian you have will certainly help - not to mention Venetian dialect!


Slow Travel Photos: 36 photos by Nan McElroy to illustrate this article


www.vogaveneta.it: Voga Veneta

www.forcole.com: Forcole

www.venetia.it/boats/: Venetia

www.vogaveneta.com: VogaVeneta

www.settemari.com: Boat club

www.canottieriquerini.it: Boat club

Nan McElroy lives in Venice and is the author of Italy: Instructions for Use: the practical, pocket guide which launched the Instructions for Use Travel Series (now including France: Instructions for Use, and Greece in the works). http://europeinstructions.com. Read more on her Living Venice Blog.

© Nan McElroy, 2006

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