Monday, October 20, 2014

Lost & in Danger in a Rented Kayak: Part 2

I snapped this photo of the above work boat after it had rounded a corner not 25 meters from the new kayak rental business as evidence that any kayak renter should immediately be prepared to encounter some very real and very large hazards
The big headline on local papers two days ago was that the family of the German tourist killed in a collision near the Rialto Bridge between the gondola in which he rode and a vaporetto has filed a suit asking for 6 million euro in damages.

A headline in yesterday's paper noted that another vaporetto had collided with a moored gondola near the Rialto Bridge. No one, fortunately, was injured.

And one month ago there were headlines about yet another incident between a gondola and vaporetto almost directly beneath the Rialto Bridge, in which a gondolier's oar became stuck in the rudder of a vaporetto.

In other words, it would be impossible to imagine that Venetian authorities have been able to forget about either the the fatal accident of just over one year ago or overlook the fact that the dangerous bottlenecks of traffic around the Rialto have in no way been resolved. Yet not only has no new approach to water traffic been implemented but, as I posted 10 days ago (, a new kayak rental business has been allowed to open just a short distance from that dangerous area.

Still troubled by my meeting with those two very lost and frightened kayakers that I wrote about in my prior post, I decided last week to seek out the new kayak rental business they'd gotten their boat from, to see for myself if it really was renting kayaks in the center of the city to all-comers, regardless of inexperience and with no guidance.

I knew the business's rough location from the map its two overwhelmed customers had shown me, and when I arrived in the vicinity I asked a gondolier whose route ran through that area for help. I found it in a courtyard a short distance from the Coin department store, but tucked away from the area's main thoroughfares. The business occupied a dark low-ceilinged warren of ground floor magazzini (or storage rooms) in an otherwise residential building. The kayaks were arrayed on various racks a short distance from the magazzini's water door. One of the storage rooms with decent light coming in from its windows served as an office, and a friendly man greeted me there from behind the table where he sat.

I asked him in English, "What are the qualifications I need in order to rent a kayak here?"

"Qualifications?" he asked pleasantly.

"I mean, do I have to know how to use a kayak a little bit?" I said. "I've never used one. I know nothing about them. Can I still rent a kayak and take it around the city?"

Absolutely, he assured me, my ignorance and inexperience was no problem. "We show you how to get started, how to use it," he said.

"Do you provide a guide?" I asked. "Do you go out with a new kayaker?"
No, he said, they'd show me how to use the kayak, then I'd be on my own. They would give me a detailed water-proof map of the canals. Though he suggested, rather uncertainly (as if he'd never been asked the question before), that perhaps it would be possible to hire one of the staff to go along with me as guide if I wanted.

I looked at the stacks of glossy flyers and pamphlets (in Italian and English) laid out neatly on the table before me. Then, from another stack, I picked up a multi-page text-heavy legal-looking document: the insurance waiver all renters are required to sign. I started to put this into my bag along with the other promotional materials, but the man behind the desk kindly told me that that was for customers who were renting a boat. The first few pages I'd flipped through were all in Italian. Perhaps the last pages were in English, or they kept an English translation behind the desk. I don't know. I returned the document to its stack.

Taped to the surface of the desk were 10 rules for renters, each one a sentence in English (with a smaller Italian translation beneath it) stating things such as: "Cross the Grand Canal when it is clear and do not stop in the middle", and advising that kayakers make a noise before rounding blind turns.

"You just opened?" I asked him.

"Yes. We've been here two weeks," he told me.

I thought of telling him about his two scared helpless customers I'd met a short time before that I'd written about in a blog post. But what good would that do? My own opinion might be that it's a bad idea to send kayakers of whatever skill level (or absence of skill) into the canals in the center of the city, but I suspected his would be that he was offering visitors a once-in-a-lifetime experience of ancient waterways in environmentally-friendly boats. 

I'd counter that that might indeed be a beautiful thing to do, if it weren't for all the large motorized boats everywhere. A historic center in which all boats were powered only by oar would be a marvelous sight, as well as the best possible thing for the well-being of the old canals and buildings. But until that time comes, I find the thought of increasing numbers of potentially rather clueless kayakers amid all the motor-driven chaos to be worrisome.

On my way home on a vaporetto I noticed ads for the kayak rental place amid the other advertising placards above its passenger windows.

Then, looking over the business's pamphlet and flyers, I noticed that each features the same two images of kayakers paddling happily in the Grand Canal. There is not a vaporetto, water taxi, nor even a gondola in sight.

Upon closer inspection of each image's background it's obvious that both were taken on the same holiday, when the Grand Canal was closed to everything but rowed boats: There are crowds lining the canal's edge, and rowing clubs in their distinctive colors rowing, for example, a six-person caorlina.

Another image (only on the pamphlet), shows a woman paddling in flat glassy water right past the Doge's Palace, the ancient twin columns of the molo, and the campanile of San Marco. I imagine this photo was taken on the same holiday as the others, for typically that same area is quite wavy with the wakes from all the passing water traffic. The number 1 and 2 vaporetti lines, in fact, run right about where she is pictured.

In other words, the company's advertising gives no hint of the actual conditions a renter is going to encounter in the Grand Canal. Judging from the images on the pamphlet and brochure, water conditions in the actual city of Venice are exactly like those in the replica "Grand Canal" of the Las Vegas hotel The Venetian--which is, of course, nothing but a very large swimming pool.

And why should any particular skill or knowledge be required to row a kayak in a large swimming pool? Especially when the kayaks, the pamphlet assures us, are completely equipped "for your safety": being, as they are, "stable and easy to handle" and fitted with "a third seat for a child." 

Indeed, an image in the pamphlet shows what appears to be, at most, a ten-year-old boy alone in his own small kayak in a Venetian canal near his parents in a two-person kayak.

Reading over last week's Corriere del Veneto's news story on the German family's suit for nearly 6 million euros in damages in the wrongful death of their father aboard a gondola near the Rialto, I was reminded that among the five drivers of various boats implicated in the accident the lone gondolier was not, as one might expect, the gondolier who piloted the gondola containing the family. That gondolier, according to the wife of the deceased, was not at fault.

Rather it was another gondolier, entering the Grand Canal abruptly from a small side canal, who is charged with instigating what the Corriere called a "domino effect" of reactions among various vaporetti operators and a water taxi driver that resulted in the fatal collision (

In other words, what one does on the waters of Venice--as on a road--can have very real consequences for others as well as oneself. And if a gondolier, who knows at the very least how to handle his boat and knows the canals, can set off a fatal chain of events, what might a kayaker who knows neither of the above set into motion? 

Perhaps the owners of the kayak rental place near the Rialto have a firm belief in what's popularly called "Beginner's Luck." But that's no reason that the rest of us, nor their renters, should be forced to depend on it.


  1. The authorities must get involved with this company. It can't be right that they continue in this way.

  2. I don't know that they will, Andrew, and given that the young guy I spoke really didn't appear to have any malevolent aim, I don't want to suggest he (or they) be put out of business. And yet something about all this does seem misbegotten to me, in spite of how idyllic the notion of kayaking in Venice may be.

    Of course to swashbuckling entrepreneurial free-marketeers (at least this is how they like to think of themselves) my concerns are the worst kind of interfering nonsense leading to more burdensome regulation!

  3. Picture taken this summer:!1RRowx2kcwBnVrPxnXsnYqoEYuZGYi2rGBwF6jCB

    1. Interesting picture, though those kayaks are definitely not from the new kayak rental place that rents to anyone, regardless of ability and with little or no training, as it just opened. I suspect the people in the pic are either experienced enough to be in their own kayaks or are with a guide. In either case, I think they'd have a much better sense of what they're in for on the Grand Canal than a beginner who can rent a kayak from the new rental place.

  4. Thank you for the interesting articles in your blog. I live in Finland and used to do sea kayaking when living in Helsinki. The basic kayaking course consisted of 12 hours of training over a number of days! It's not possible to learn how to control a kayak just by listening to brief instructions. Trying it for the first time in the Grand Canal of all places would seem quite scary to me.

    1. Thank you very much for your reply, Ritva: the information you provide is extremely interesting and that 12 hours of training makes the complete absence of it here at the new kayak rental business even more worrisome! But I'm happy to find out more about what is specifically considered appropriate levels of training in other places.