‘Viva La Vogalonga! Viva Venezia! VIVA SAN MARCO!’
With the above proclamation and a shot from a cannon the 41st Vogalonga, a huge paddling regatta, got underway. Fettuccini’s stirring aria, La Forcola boomed from the speakers and the colourful, hand-powered flotilla pulled away from of the east end of Venice’s Grand Canal opposite Piazza San Marco and set off alongside the classic Venetian vista.
Not that it was any kind of race, you understand – and it was pure coincidence we happened to be at the start on time. You took as long as you chose over the 30-odd kilometres up to Burano and back via Murano to re-enter Venice from the other end of the Grand Canal. There was no starting line or prizes for first place or wackiest outfit.
I flew in the night before and on the day Steve and I lowered our boats off his mate’s canal-side apartment balcony and set off to join the melee. Soon I realised I was in Italy not in a BCU training video: the official bibs were optional (included in the €20 entry fee along with a t-shirt, poster and certificate) and so were pfds. After all, who’s ever seen a rower or a gondolier in a pfd?
Around us was every type of paddle or oar boat under the sun, from 20-oar-power dragon boats paddling to a drum beat like in Ben Hur, four-up forward standing ‘frontelli‘ rowing skiffs, right down to inflatable SUP boards you could carry under your arm. Kayaks were probably the most numerous craft as this is one day you can cruise down the Grand Canal without getting terrorised by the vaporetti water taxis and their wake.
Out past San Elena point we dragged our left blades and pivoted north. The snow-clad Dolomites appeared on the horizon (left) which also sent in a light breeze giving us something to lean against. IKs and packboats of all shapes and sizes bobbed around me: Gumos, Kleppers and their klönes, Grabners, Feathercraft and Sevies. Passing islands or tidal mud flats became uninhibited pee stops as people joined in the paddle-powered cavalcade.
Turning round at Burano, the cooling effect of the breeze dropped off and the 5km open water haul to Murano was hot work. Three hours in and you could see all around the pace was flagging, not least when some tidal eddy made the last stretch into Murano a bit of an effort. It was here that Venice’s precious medieval glass industry flourished; I’ve come across Venetian glass beads in places as remote as Tichit in Mauritania.
Just two Sorbettos – only €15 – then we rocked up at the other end of the Grand Canal where a huge bottleneck of paddle boats had built up at the entrance. It turned out the narrow Ponte dei Tre Archi was the cause – it could only take one rowed boat at a time and with some 2000 boats to filter, the police were trying to keep some order. Dodging low flying oars and prodding prows, it was all a good-natured bundle back into the canal where things quickly eased up for the home run back to San Marco, passing the Grand’s iconic palazzos, well-wishers cheering from the ponti and the acclaimed waterside vistas of La Serenissima.
Within hours the vaporetti taxiboats had reclaimed the Canal from which it’s said kayaks and the like are excluded except to quickly nip across. But I see now that you can still have a great time paddling around Venice and the lagoon as long as you keep off the main canal and ferry channels, and out of the congested gondola tourist circuit between Ponte Rialto and the Bridge of Sighs. That still leaves plenty of quiet back canals to explore as well as the sheltered lagoon and its countless islands. Bring your packboat to the 42nd Vogalonga. If like me you’ve never been before, it’s a great way to tick off Venice.