Thursday, October 9, 2014

Lost and in Danger in a Rented Kayak: Part 1

Venetian canals may look like something from a fairy tale, but rowing oneself thorough them involves some very real hazards (photo credit: Jen)
I was first struck by the thought that the increasing number of kayaks in the historical center of Venice might be developing into a problem when I was quite literally struck by a kayak while sitting in our small sandolo sanpierota boat, moored alongside a canal near the church of I Frari, waiting to pick up my son from first grade a little more than a week ago.

It was no big deal, really. The kayaker, a man in his 20s, was able to prevent impact with one of his hands and continue a bit unsteadily on his way. But because he ran into me while my boat was stationary on one side of a long straight stretch of a canal that had to be at least 22 feet (about 6 meters) wide, I marveled at how little control he must have had over his vessel. Perhaps the friend he was with knew more, but I, personally, couldn't imagine venturing out with so little skill into the mostly narrow tangle of canals in the center of the city on a weekday when they were likely to be frequented by Venetians with someplace to go or business to do.

I've lived here just short of four years and started to learn how to row in the Venetian style three years ago (almost to the day). But only in the last two months, after countless trips in the boats of other experienced residents, after asking many questions and reading things like the Manuale lagunante (, have I dared voyage through some of the canals of the historical center as the lone driver or rower myself. 

Perhaps I was overly cautious. But you can't live among and know Venetians--for whom the city's canals and their boats are defining features of their lives--and not feel that to bumble clumsily about in these intimate waterways is to make, at the very least, a brutta figura.

In any case, I thought nothing more of this first little incident with a kayak until a second one occurred a few days later. Jen and Sandro and I had just left the water door entrance of the tappezzerista (upholsterer) who'd made a rain cover for our boat (and whom I'd heartily recommend: From a narrow canal we approached at no more than idling speed Rio di San Felice in Cannaregio and Sandro, seated on the prow of our boat, hollered out with a deep hearty gusto belying his six years of age (and whose absence of self-consciousness is beyond me) the traditional ooh-eeeeiii used all over the city as a warning on blind corners (and famously inspirational to Richard Wagner).

In fact, he bellowed this out at least three times, as he loves to do it (and sometimes won't stop until I've asked him to).

There was no response from around the blind corner, so onward we crept--and encountered a pod of six kayakers. I was going so slowly that I had plenty of time to throw our engine into reverse, but I made a gesture toward the lead kayaker as if to ask, "Didn't you hear?" He blinked uncomprehendingly in response.

They straggled along, and then, at a distance of about 20 yards behind them, another pack of five splashed past. So I had a bit of time to idly ponder the possibility that, though these kayakers had generally seemed a little more comfortable in the water than the fellow who'd almost crashed into me a couple days earlier, they seemed not to know even the very first safety precaution of rowing in Venetian canals.

Did they not know, or had they not been told by whomever provided the kayaks, that a warning cry from around one of the many blind corners of the canal system necessitated a warning response? My god, they could have learned this from listening to Act II of Tristan und Isolde!

They may have had nothing to fear from my little boat, but what if the cry had come from a faster-moving water taxi? Or a large lumbering work boat? Or even a gondolier?

The one kayak rental company I'd heard of in Venice makes a point of saying that their customers venture out only in the company of a trained guide. But I was starting to suspect that there must be at least one other new kayak company in town that takes much less care of, and responsibility for, their clienetele.

Two days ago this suspicion was confirmed in a dismaying way. We were on our way once again to Tappezzeria Gaggio and I was waiting to make a left turn off of the busy Rio di San Felice that runs between Fondamenta Nove and the Grand Canal when Sandro remarked that two people in a kayak off to the right side of us were clinging to a work boat (mototopo) beneath the large hole where the engine-cooling water is belched out. The work boat was not running, though, and the kayak was not moving, and I had various water taxis coming toward me and going past me to watch carefully before making my turn so I didn't pay the kayak any mind.

We tied up at the water door of tappezzeria in a little canal and its proprietor stepped into our boat, and a few minutes later the same two-person kayak passed by. I was in the middle of an embarrassed explanation of how I'd managed to let one of the archetti (arched supports) of the cover slip into the water, where it immediately sank to the deep bottom, so, again, I paid the kayak little heed.

But a few minutes later the same two people in their kayak were back, large map unfolded and held out toward us, asking for help.

They had rented the kayak from a brand new kayak rental company in the center of town--"it's only been in business two weeks", said one of the kayakers--and had not the slightest idea of how to get back to where they'd started from.

They'd been trying for quite a while to find their way back, buoyed by their shared belief that they really couldn't possibly be far from their destination. One correct turn, then a second, and they'd arrive back at the rental place. And later, they'd have a distinctly Venetian story to recount to friends about how they'd floundered around lost for god knows how long just a few hundred yards from where they wanted to go.

But when we looked at the map of where they'd set out from we discovered that they were nowhere near where they wanted to go.

The pair had been doing a pretty good job of controlling their anxiety about being lost in a strange city amid an indecipherably complex maze of narrow canals, but this news, understandably enough--well, it kind of freaked them out.

A series of dots on the map decorated some of the canals in the center of the city: starting out from the largest blue dot marking the kayak rental place near the Rialto Bridge, and suggesting various supposedly simple looping (and rather far-ranging routes) that kayakers might take.

Now, if you've ever been to Venice you know how little help maps can be when you're on foot. So imagine how useful they are in a kayak, where there are no directional signs of any sort, no storefronts to use as markers, and just long stretches of what to a newcomer's eyes tend to appear as anonymous brick.

The proprietor of the tappezzeria, a Venetian, told them the simplest route back. It would require them to take the Grand Canal much of the way, from above Ca' D'Oro to just before the Rialto Bridge.

There's a certain type of stupidity--among the worst of all, as it's typically dangerous not only to oneself but to others--that presents itself as courage. But these two kayakers were not stupid. They knew they were in over their heads, or at least up to their chins in some very wavy water, and after their uncomfortable experience on a relatively less-traveled canal like the Rio di San Felice, they really wanted to avoid the traffic of the Grand Canal.

Jen and I looked at the map some more: maybe there was a less harrowing way back along the smaller canals they'd taken to get here. But it was impossible to figure out how to even begin to explain to them the route to take down small canals I hadn't ventured down myself. And that I wasn't even yet ready to try myself.

We had to agree that the Grand Canal was probably the only way: "Take your time, keep to the side."

And so off they went, while the tappezzerista continued to work on the supports for our boat's cover. "Maybe we should have gone with them," Jen said. 

I assume they made it back safely. There were no newspaper headlines the next day screaming out anything to the contrary, as there certainly would have been had they met with catastrophe.

But I can't help thinking that the more kayakers are simply turned loose in the historic center of the city, the more likely such a catastrophe is bound to happen in the future.

Much as certain vested interests like to pretend otherwise, Venice is not Disneyland. They can pack it with cruise ships and tour buses and lancioni, and stuff it to bursting with huge herds of day-tripping tour groups stumping blindly behind jaded guides, but the canals are not calm basins built only for pedal boats, requiring no more knowledge or skill or awareness than is required to pilot one of the swan boats in Boston's Public Gardens or a mini row boat in Villa Borghese's pond.

Even an experienced kayaker is likely to find that the workaday canals of historic Venice, especially on a weekday, bear little resemblance to the streams or seas or lakes he or she may be used to. 

A little more than a year ago a German tourist was killed in a collision between the gondola in which he was riding and a vaporetto near the Rialto Bridge. In the aftermath of the fatal accident new regulations on water traffic in the area were put into place, but I can tell you from first-hand experience in a small boat that the area remains a hazardous bottleneck. And this is for someone who knows very well what to expect there.

Is it really a good idea to allow a kayak rental business to open in the center of town within a stone's throw of the Rialto?

Here is yet another Venetian tourist business that trades on--and promotes--the illusion that every inch of the city is nothing more than a playground, a Magic Kingdom of make believe, where a tourist can pursue his or her every desire without obstacle or restraint. A virtual city, if you will, little more than an elaborate video game, whose residents are hardly more than simulcra providing bits of "local color".

But as the two kayakers we met the other day unfortunately found out, sometimes you believe this kind of sales pitch at your own very real peril.

A follow-up post on this topic can be found here


  1. A very worrying development. Once someone realises there's money to be made who knows how many such companies will spring up. These businesses should be regulated and licensed. The city could make money issuing them!

    1. To be honest, Andrew, I'm inclined to think there should be NO kayak rentals allowed in the center of the city.


      For safety reasons, on the one hand, and on the other because the water was the last place that Venetians and residents had any hope at all of escaping from the tourists. Must every last aspect of Venetian culture be pimped out to tourism?

  2. That's a very fair comment. Keep 'em off the water. As you say it's an accident waiting to happen.

    1. I'm sure people would disagree, Andrew, and if only all boats in the city center were powered by oar kayaks would be a great way for anyone to get around in it... It's not kakyaks, per se, it's everything else!

  3. I totally agree with you that kayakers should not be allowed on the open waterways of Venice for recreation because the canals are a transit system, not a playground. It's akin to putting a bumper car in taxi-saturated NYC streets. Which is why we declined to ride bikes in the heart of Amsterdam - we were there to oogle and sightsee - the locals are there for transportation. Perhaps there could be an out-of-the-way loop for kayakers to follow, not a map of the canals. Until then, it is the kayak rental companies that bear full culpability for creating hazards, not the unsuspecting tourist kayakers.

    1. Yes, Linda, I agree with you and wonder if the kayak rental place that rents to anyone with no guide has really thought about the risks to which it might be exposing unsuspecting customers. One can get so caught up perhaps in the huge upside of kayaks that one forgets about the reality of the context in which they are being used. It's not your average kayaking context...