Monday, October 17, 2011

Rowing in the Venetian Style

 The calm before the struggle: the caorlina of my first rowing experience
photo credit: Nicola Capuzzo

Yesterday morning I made my second try at rowing Venetian style, standing up, facing forward, with an oar that's longer than the average New York City studio apartment is wide.

After the first attempt, made one week before yesterday, I was convinced I would have made a terrible galley slave. It's not a position one associates with a lot of job-training, but rowing in time with others is much harder than it looks in those old Hollywood biblical epics.

The first challenge a novice faces is getting the hang of the particular wrist movement needed to position the oar correctly: that is, horizontal to (and out of) the water as you move it into the forward position, then vertical to (and in) the water as you push into the stroke.

Well, actually, let me back up. The first challenge a novice faces is stepping into--and staying inside--the boat. The first boat I went out in was a caorlina (a rather large and heavy boat with places for six rowers, as used in the regatta storica) and I was told to step only on the thin ribs that spanned its bottom, not on the broad inviting and much more stable open spaces between the ribs. I didn't ask why, I was too busy trying not to fall out. But it's a comfort to the novice to see that even expert rowers move quite gingerly aboard the boats. In fact, even the two cats belonging to the remiera, or rowing club, moved very carefully around the neighboring boat they were exploring.

In any case, once you're in the boat, and have properly positioned your very own forcola (or carved oarlock) in its designated opening in the side of the boat by hammering little wedges of wood around it, you must concern yourself with that wrist rolling I mentioned. Just before pushing forward with the roughly 12-foot-long oar into each stroke you must roll both wrists back as you would roll just your right wrist if you were riding a motorcycle and wanted to increase its speed. You must also dip the oar into the water. The latter action is of course obvious. But that doesn't mean it's easy. Especially when the lagoon is wavy in the wake of one infernal vaporetto after another and the surface of the water, or the boat's position on it, is no longer where it's supposed to be.

The Remiera Francescana is located near the Celestia vaporetto stop within the Arsenale, and after a bit of warming up in one of that massive old structure's placid basins, we headed out into the lagoon in the direction of Murano. I recalled noticing on my way to the remiera what a beautiful early morning it was, with the Dolomiti clear and brilliant beyond the western edge of the lagoon, but once I was in the boat I might as well have been rowing inside a small dark barn. My eyes were fixed on the end of my oar, to be certain it was how and where it was supposed to be at every moment. In fact I was supposed to be watching my friend just ahead of me, at the front of the boat, and rowing in time with her. Almost impossible, no matter how I tried to utilize peripheral vision. I considered it a great triumph to be rowing at all.

Something like a pupparino
I had the distinct suspicion by the time we reached Murano that I had contributed very little in the way of actually propelling us toward that destination, but that didn't stop me from feeling a certain pride when we tied up the craft beneath curious tourists' eyes and popped into a cafe for a quick espresso. Once on land no one can tell what a drag you may have been in the water, and my co-rowers were much too encouraging and polite to mention it.

Yesterday, however, I was much better. And the conditions were much worse. Initially, my improvement seemed to make up for the high winds and rough water, but as I tired Nature (as it or she always will) got the upper hand.

Yesterday I went out with just three others--two experienced rowers and one novice like myself--in a pupparino. "Pupparino!" my fellow (but more knowledgeable) novice rather anxiously exclaimed when our instructor told us what boat we'd be on. A pupparino, I learned, is a smaller, lighter, shallow-hulled boat, in which the possibility of capsizing seems to come into play much more than it does in a caorlina. Imagine a dry leaf tossed upon a rough-running river and that was a little like our pupparino yesterday. 

Rowing into a strong head-wind, on a lagoon just barely lacking whitecaps, we got nowhere near Murano yesterday. But the issues with hand and oar position that obsessed me my first time out vanished--to be replaced by others involving leg position. Yet it was, nevertheless, infinitely easier. I was at the very front of the boat and was able to get into what seemed to be a regular rhythm. And when I switched positions with the woman behind, I was even able to follow her movements rather than being obsessed with the end of my oar.

And there, all around us, was the Venetian lagoon! There, beside us, was the cemetery island! And then, thankfully, there, right there, at last, after our strenuous jaunt, a venerable archway of the once mighty Arsenale welcoming us back! Which, I must admit--the water all wild with wind and waves and the wake of a water taxi--we actually crashed into just a bit before passing safely inside.

But neither boat nor arch were damaged, everyone remained standing and dry, and it was probably the first assault upon those old walls in many years. Sore as my muscles are today, I can't wait to get out on the water for a third time. After two outings as a guest, I've decided to sign up as a member of the remiera and, amazingly enough, I think they'll actually let me.


  1. Good for you, getting stuck into this strange form of rowing! I was chuckling and smiling (in sympathy) with your telling of the difficulties of co-ordinating so darn many things at one time, including breathing! "They" make it look so darned easy, eh? Did you get blisters from gripping that long oar?

    By the time November comes, you'll be a pro.

  2. I did not get blisters but only, I think, because I wasn't doing it well enough. It seems to be the good rowers--like a friend who is a top-flight agonista or competitive rower & has been doing it since the age of 5--who get blisters. At this point, blisters are only something I can aspire to!