Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Rowing Home from School

Having passed under the Rialto, Sandro continues his waving campaign; this time toward a crowded water taxi
The tide made it difficult, the taxis made it dangerous.

It all began quite pleasantly the Friday before last, as I set off with a friend from a back canal near San Giacomo dell'Orio in early-spring-like weather to pick up our sons from their preschool near Sant' Alvise. We were in his sanpierota, a traditional wooden boat measuring between 6 and 7 meters (or 19.5 to 23 feet) which can be rigged with one or two sails and was formerly used for fishing both within and outside the lagoon (this information is from the beautifully-produced bilingual Le barche di Venezia/The Boats of Venice, by Riccardo Pergolis & Ugo Pizzarello). Also along, and rowing in the poppa or stern, was a friend of my friend who, in spite of what his Russian first name might suggest, was born and raised in Mestre by Venetian parents. He had a good deal of rowing experience and this would prove to be important in a short time.

We entered the Grand Canal near the Scalzi Bridge, a short distance from the train station. There was plenty of boat traffic but the canal was wide and it all passed smoothly enough as to be of no special concern, much less alarm. I was rowing in the prua, at the front of the boat: my job was mostly to keep a good steady rowing pace. The steering is done by the rower in back.

Soon after we turned off the Grand Canal, just before the Casinò di Venezia (or Palazzo Vendramin Calergi, where Wagner died), things became a bit more dramatic.

I'd encountered the tidal currents of the lagoon before on my own. One afternoon after rowing Venetian-style by myself with one oar in the open lagoon I'd made the mistake of thinking that the tiniest bit of play in my forcola (oarlock) that had just developed would have no effect on my ability to pass through the arched doorway of the old Arsenale wall leading to my remiera, or rowing club. The club was just inside the archway and it made no sense to stop and hammer down the pennulle (small wood wedges) that kept the forcola locked in place when I'd be removing both forcola and pennulle in less than 200 yards. After all, I was moving fine with the tiny bit of play as it was.

But the tide was going out at that time, rushing out from the Arsenale through the archway in fierce muscular currents, and I spent five minutes rowing in place upon the threshold, straining and struggling stubbornly to achieve merely stasis--not an inch of progress--until I finally gave up, retreated, hammered in the forcola, and only then entered (and not without effort).

So maybe I shouldn't have been surprised by the force of the incoming tide in that canal on that recent Friday, but I was, as this canal was nowhere near the North Lagoon and I expected distance to dissipate the force I'd encountered in the narrow threshold between the enclosed Arsenale and the open lagoon. It didn't.

It wouldn't have been such a problem if we could have both rowed, but the side canal we were now in, lined by moored boats on either bank, wouldn't accommodate the prua oar sticking out to the left and the poppa oar extended to the right. It was entirely up to the rower in the stern, and the other two of us could only help by serving as bumpers, reaching out to divert collisions when the going got especially narrow and the current especially vehement.  

A sanpierota under sail from the website of Matteo Tamassia:
It didn't help, either, that we were in a sanpierota, whose "shape is better adapted to the open sea," according to Pergolis and Pizzarella, and "whose weight make it unsuitable for rowing with one oar." Which is exactly what our friend in the poppa was finally inspired to point out to us as he struggled with the current, along with the fact that the long mast and rolled sails stretching diagonally across the length of the boat made it imbalanced to row with one oar. (When we arrived at the school we would adjust the placement of the mast, but there'd be nothing we could do about how the boat was built.)

I also wonder now if we weren't feeling the effects of the changing underwaterscape of Venice's lagoon that Caroline Fletcher and Jane Da Mosto write so well about in their slim, succinct and remarkably informative book The Science of Saving Venice. The formerly marshy shallow state of the lagoon--still evident in the North Lagoon with its mudflats, winding streams and dense water grasses--has been lost in the central lagoon, which has become ever deeper (largely as a side-effect of the deep water shipping channels) and scoured clean of those natural elements "that dampen down the effect of waves and currents, [leaving] the tides and surges [to] have a more direct on water levels in the city." 

In any case, we did finally arrive at the boys' school, right on time, and they were as thrilled as we'd hoped. It was not the first time we'd gone home in this boat, but it was the first time we would do so powered by oars rather than a 9.9 hp outboard engine. My friend and I had been planning on rowing them home from school for months, but the recent theft of his motor from his boat where he moored it a short distance from Campo San Barnaba had made oars a necessity rather than a choice.

Now, however, with hardly any effort at all we rushed down the long canals of Cannaregio as quickly as we would have done with a motor. The boys were so enthusiastic and buoyant that it was easy to imagine those were the qualities sweeping our boat forward, but of course we were now the beneficiaries of the same strong current that had plagued us on our way to the school.

I can never enter the Grand Canal in a small open boat, either under the power of a motor or of oars, without feeling, well, in the famous words of the farewell address of one of America's most famous old baseball players, that "I'm the luckiest man on the face of this earth".

A feeling that wasn't entirely dissipated by the traffic jam we encountered as we approached the Rialto Bridge.

After the collision of a vaporetto and gondola last August that killed a German law professor who'd been riding in the gondola with his family, new rules were implemented on the Grand Canal intended to lessen such dangerous traffic patterns around the Rialto. The brunt of the new restrictions fell upon the drivers of mototopi, those large work boats that carry necessary supplies to shops, food stores, and hotels. These new restrictions, according to the owner of a trasporti (shipping) company with a number of boats--and the grandfather of one of Sandro's closest friends--make the already hard early-to-rise life of a mototopo driver even harder. And based upon our experience around the Rialto the Friday before last at between 3:30 and 4 pm, the traffic in the area still seems quite hazardous.

There were at least a good half-dozen gondolas jostling around the Rialto, there were the large Alilaguna shuttles that run back and forth to the airport, there were vaporetti, of course, but worst of all, I think, were the water taxis, often stuffed with a dozen camera-wielding tourists overflowing from beneath either end of the boats' passenger cabins and traveling in flotillas of three, four, or even five. You see, water taxi rides have now become a standard attraction on the mass tourist itinerary: so a group of 50 visitors off a bus tour, for example, will be divvied up, as per a pre-arranged contract between tour company and taxi stand, into 4 taxis and be sent on their way en masse--just as you see a large tour group packed into a little armada of gondolas (as detailed in Davis's and Marvin's fine book Venice: The Tourist Maze).

Row boats have the right of way in Venice's waters, but the better part of wisdom sometimes rests in giving up that right. We were in no hurry to get where we were going: we stopped and floated and made small adjustments as needed to avoid the various boats, most of which were attentive and careful, respectful. But there were always the taxis, quite prone to weasel into any openings that had previously been agreed upon by other boats, as certain rude folks on the floating vaporetto stops will slip through a space that others may have left open to accommodate a stroller or an infirm senior citizen. (Though sometimes it's the senior citizens themselves who shove their way through.) 

Of course our two sons, seated on the fore-deck of the boat, weren't really aware of any of this. All the wave action and rocking seemed to make Sandro's friend, who'd only just turned four, sleepy, and he stretched out on his back in the sunlight. While the thrill of the voyage made Sandro more outgoing than usual and he was busy waving to everyone in sight. Far from being a problem for him, the traffic jam around the Rialto simply increased the density of his targets: Ciao, polizia! Motoscafiste (Water taxi drivers)! Operai (laborers)! Turisti!

"I made a million new friends today!" he exclaimed to me afterwards. 

For the rest of us, the three adults, it was an educational experience.

I think both my friend and I liked to vaguely imagine that it might be possible to row to do all kinds of practical everyday errands. For there's a certain organic farm--part of what in the US is called a CSA, or a community supported agriculture project--that rows its produce into Venice in sandolos. There's a wonderful short video of them doing so here: But the Friday before last I think we learned the obvious truth that a sanpierota has little in common with a small sandolo.

We learned, too, and quite dramatically, about the intensity of the incoming tide through the canals. We learned quite intimately about the volume of Grand Canal traffic that persists in spite of the new rules governing boats implemented in November. And we learned, finally, what we probably should have known already: that a rowing trip down the Grand Canal is only really pleasant if done in the evening, on a holiday, or during the weekend. 


  1. I had to go back and read this again, to fully appreciate the sense of tension expressed in your words. You must have been so relieved to deliver the precious cargo safely at home!

    I've watched the tide rushing out in the small canal near the apartment I'm in; it moves a fair clip!


    1. I had no doubt we'd get home, Yvonne, but it wasn't the leisurely outing we'd imagined. The lagoon is full of surprises, even in the middle of town!

  2. And all those in your last shot of the boat look so tranquil! You are right that they were unaware of the dramatic experiences of the adults. Great read--thanks. Makes me miss Venice (we're not coming there this year, nor next!).