Monday, March 19, 2012

Voga alla Veneta: One Oar, One Master

"Feel the boat," my friend and instructor told me in Italian. "Feel the water," he said, flexing his knees, showing me how my legs were supposed to register the slightest movements of the lagoon with all the sensitivity of a snail's eyes taking in the world at the end of their soft slender stalks. "Do you feel it?" he asked.

He was poised at the back of the gondola--in one of the large basins within the Arsenale--I was rowing at the front. A native Venetian, he'd been rowing for 40 years, since the age of 5. He'd won races as an agonista.

I didn't feel a damn thing, to be honest, aside from the strain of maintaining my proper rowing position. I nodded, though, agreeably. I really was learning a huge amount from him but, you know, I didn't expect him to work miracles.

That was back on a very cold morning in December. Everything he told me that day helped me immensely the next times I went out rowing. But it's only been in the last couple of weeks that I've finally felt the boat, felt the water.

It's fantastic.

I've felt it the most since I began learning to row a mascareta by myself with a single oar. A mascareta is generally about from 6 meters long (19.75 feet) and can weigh as little as 120 kg (264 lbs).

A mascareta does not have the banana-curve of a gondola so if you were to row it from a position in the back with one oar in the manner in which we usually think of rowing a boat you'd simply go in a counter-clockwise circle. I know this from experience.

photo credit: Jen
How it's done: a more experienced single oar rower
To make the mascareta go forward in a straight line you essentially have to row in two directions.

But, first, the basics for those who, like me, know little about rowing. I will try not to make major errors.

If you were to hold your hands out before you, parallel to the ground, palms facing downward, you'd be ready to take hold of an oar. In the Venetian style of rowing when you grip the oar in this way the blade of the oar would be horizontal, parallel to the ground (or water).

Your hands and oar are essentially in these positions at the end of a stroke, after you lift the oar out of the water and draw your hands back toward your body (arms straight), pivoting the blade of the oar forward in preparation for the next stroke.

As you prepare to drop the blade of the oar into the water to begin that next stroke you roll both of your wrists back toward your body, turning the blade of the oar into a vertical position, then begin (with your rear foot and leg) the push forward that will shoot the boat forward.

That's something like the usual stroke when, for example, you're rowing with 3 or 5 other rowers, your oars distributed equally on either side of the boat.

But when rowing a mascareta solo with one oar you never actually lift the oar out of the water at all. The oar stays in the water as you return it to its forward position. This isn't entirely unusual, as on a wavy day you may also do this when rowing with others for extra stability. But in that case you'd try to bring the oar forward in the water with as little drag as possible, knifing it cleanly through the water.

photo credit: Jen
The submarine, alas, does not belong to the remiera
But when rowing alone with one oar a little drag on this return stroke is exactly what you need to keep the boat going straight. That is, as you draw your hands back toward your body you actually roll both wrists a little forward to turn the blade of the oar a little forward, to create drag.

Depending on the blade's angle, the greater or lesser amount of drag you create pulls the nose of your boat back more or less strongly in a clockwise direction.

This is something I could feel. When each part of the full stroke is done clumsily--again speaking from personal experience--you don't so much go straight forward as feel yourself and the nose of the boat pivot, first, counter-clockwise, then clockwise. You don't actually move forward at all, really, and each part of the stroke takes great effort, as you try to force the oar through the water first in one direction, then in the other.

But once underway you feel--as I never had before--how the slightest alteration in the angle of your oar, as well as the force you exert on either the backward or forward stroke, affects the course of your boat. You feel how your straight swift forward movement depends just as much upon how you bring the oar forward as how you push it back. I suppose it's a yin-yang kind of thing, meditative in its own way, and the seed of countless other analogies or reflections as well. But I'll leave those to someone else. What you feel, in general, is completely constantly engaged, and how the current beneath you, the waves, the wind, all require you to make countless subtle adjustments on the fly.

As a beginner rowing with others you find it hard enough to get into a regular pattern with your partners of essentially: Reload, Fire; Reload, Fire; Reload, Fire: a coordinated metronymic group effort. Out alone with a single oar you find yourself playing a game of give and take, apprehension and response; called upon to react with great sensitivity to ever-changing conditions, even as you also try to establish some rhythm of your very own. You feel the boat, you feel the water, you feel yourself engaged with the lagoon itself, and infinitely overmatched: like a novice musician struggling to play your very small simple part in a duet with an ancient master who's gigged with legends.


  1. Thanks for that explanation. Now you've taught how to row, can you explain how you steer?

  2. In my very limited experience of steering in a 2-person boat it also seems to involve the principle of drag described above--which I'm sure I've gotten wrong enough above, without daring further elaboration.

  3. I got as far as: "If you were to hold your hands out before you, parallel to the ground, palms facing downward, you'd be ready to take hold of an oar." Then, I was overcome by the need to have a lie down.

    I'll tell you what. You keep practising, and then I'll let you take me for a spin on the lagoon, and also let you show me the inside of your part of the Arsenale. That sounds like such a great idea to me.

    1. Only if you show him yours, Yvonne!

    2. Yvonne often seems to gain access to rarely seen places, so I'd be glad to trade a view of the remiera in the Arsenale for wherever she goes. But I'll need more practice before I can take out any passengers... Though my son did come out for a little spin around the Arsenale basin--a very very slow one, as I was just learning.

  4. What a wonderful explanation of technique. Your instructor sounds wonderful, kind of like a Venetian Yoda.

    1. You're very kind, Susie, I was worried my explanation of technique would put people to sleep, and I'm not sure that it didn't. Whatever his philosophical similarities to Yoda, my instructor was much younger (is Yoda centuries old?) & much more fit & a fireman as well as an agonista (competitive rower)--all of which meant I couldn't escape physical exertion & just hide in the philosophy of it all!