Friday, 9 June 2017

Venetian rowing and why it's like pushing a fridge

For those of us for whom rowing means heading forwards while going backwards, hanging off our blade handles and - above all - sitting DOWN, Venetian-style rowing is about as different as you can get whilst still being rowing. But for all that, the tiny taste I had of it in a RowVenice lesson was as delicious as a Cornetto (not provided).

There's nothing that quite makes a holiday like being able to row during it and even though my recent trip to Venice was for the purpose of taking part in the Vogalonga (literally, "long row"), I'd done that before so I really needed a different rowing fix and anyway I was dead keen on having a go at the Venetian-style stand up version.

Why do Ventians row standing up?
I'd previously been told that it was because it enabled them to spot and therefore avoid any rocks under the water in the shallow lagoon between the various islands that surround the main part of Venice. And it certainly would let you do that. But, observing water traffic more carefully in the city centre, it's also the only possible option. The canal streets are so narrow that boats with oars sticking out the side simply couldn't get through most of them and certainly couldn't pass other ones, and you really do need a forward view to negotiate the low bridges and constant corners as well as avoiding everyone else.

Compared with Italian road traffic, Venetian boaters all seemed both highly skilled and extremely courteous, from the driver of the ugliest metal bin barge to the junior (more on him later) out doing his race boat training. Canal rage is apparently not a thing.

How to do it (this is where the fridge-pushing comes in)
I'd booked a lesson with which is run by a group of Prosecco-loving women who take tourists for picnics and rowing lessons in their 'batelline coda di gambero' or "little, shrimp-tailed boats' which are a lot more beginner-friendly than gondolas, being more stable and easier to manoeuvre but otherwise much the same thing without the bling.

However, for us river rowers who wouldn't dream of going on the water without a solid rubber bow ball to minimise the effects on the other party of a collision, it was quite a surprise to see a pointed, stainless steel finial sort of thing on the bows instead, but I guess this is OK with the skill levels and etiquette-observance of the Venetians (it was noted that us tourists were not let anywhere near the steering until we were in thoroughly open water).

For someone who introduced herself as speaking terrible English which she claimed she'd learned in Tesco in Chelmsford where her daughter was working while studying, our instructor Anna had some fabulous colloquial phrases. After sorting me about about where to put my feet, where to hold the blade, and which way up it should go, she described the basic action as "pushing the fridge", which was actually pretty helpful as it carried a clear vision of pushing away at chest height and with both hands equally.

Practising pushing the fridge.

Having taken a few strokes while still moored to the bank (No mooring ring? no problem! Just bang a sliver of wood in between the marble flagstones!), we set off. It was ace. But after a few minutes of feeling the Venetian rowing joy, she said, "Come on Helena, now use your legs!" So I did, and my blade immediately popped out of the forcola in a kind of reverse crab action. I forgot to ask what the Italian for that is.

To be fair, we were using the 'professional' forcola (wooden thole pin/rigger thingy) not the 'beginner' one (which was liberally wrapped in parcel tape, much like novice equipment everywhere) that the boat had on it from her previous lesson. Having explained in advance that we had done just a bit of sit down rowing (and punting in Judy's case), she swapped the forcole, a process that involves hammering in little wedges of wood to fix it securely. No 13mm top nuts here.

Note the poiny metal bit on the bow.

Anna also introduced the concept of "spreading Nutella" which is what you do to return your blade to the forcola after it has been tucked back against the side of the boat for planned (to pass by something else very close) or unplanned (rank incompetence) reasons.

Armed with these techniques, we were soon heading out of the small canal where we'd started and towards what Anna somewhat alarmingly described as "the motorway" which was marked by two lines of posts. Motor water taxis, youngsters in the floating equivalents of hot hatches, and 'Signor white van' boats were ploughing up and down without much regard for the concept of 'Keep your distance'. Even on the M25 you don't get wash like that...

However she reassured me that traditional boats had right of way and we managed to cross the 'road' without being mown down.

Now it was time literally to step up from being the provina ("woman near the bow") to the stern position which was up out of the safety of the cockpit and also required steering.

This was where the pointy metal bulb on the bows became relevant as the steersperson is apparently meant to use it as their compass to set a course for a distant landmark. This was not something I particularly got to grips with, largely because I didn't need a small pointy thing to tell me that I was heading in totally the wrong direction.

More practice needed. A lot more.

All I can say is that steering a standup boat is proper difficult. Massive respect to the gondoliers and all those who did it so neatly in the scrum that is parts of the Vogalonga. Basically, you push the handle away from you to take a stroke and then twist the blade forwards so that it runs at an angle through the water on the 'recovery' to steer. Paddling on my own, I was basically backing down after each stroke and then going nowhere.

When someone else joined in as the provina, wild zig-zagging ensued. There was certainly none of the precision steering needed to snatch an ice cream from the unsuspecting hand of a passer by.

But we did get some singing. Fortunately this was not yet another rendition of O sole mio but rather a traditional folk song (I think) that Anna sang to try and get us into the right rhythm. It worked a bit and was certainly a delightful part of the whole experience.

All too soon we had to head back into the canal (with Anna on the stern oar again, obviously, to avoid splatting the boat into the nearest palazzo wall). A final treat was seeing a young lad haring at great speed towards us in what I think was a sandolo. Using two blades, with massive cross over and no buttons, he was clearly incredibly skilled. "How old are you?" Anna called out to him. "16," he shouted before executing a perfect 90-degree turn and charging off down the next canal.

Not just your average J16 out sculling

In summary, if you're a rower and you go to Venice, go Venetian rowing. Its cheaper than a gondola ride of the same duration and you feel like a local instead of tourist.

And afterwards, feel free to have an ice cream.


  1. Hi Helena, great write up, sounds like fun! I shall note the link and aim to have a go at stand up rowing next time I am in Venice.

    1. Thanks Vivien - it's an absolute must!

    2. Brave stuff - a vertical position is the last I can think possible after another 60k thrash at Sulkava. This is definitely for the refined rower, Thanks again!