The first boat to appear at the Dogana on the Grand Canal after the 30 km Vogalonga rally round the lagoon and canals of Venice was a coxed eight. It was another 40 minutes before the arrival of the first of the traditional Venetian boats, the ones everyone really wants to see.
All the boats finished further up, beyond the Rialto, and they then paraded down to the official pontoon at the Dogana, which is at the entrance to the Canal.
There they received their awards for participating in the lagoon marathon, which is open to any boat as long as it can be rowed or paddled. It took place on the Sunday before the Transadriatica.
A big international occasion has now evolved from what began in 1974 as a local event for Venetian rowers protesting against the damage motor boats and their wash were causing to the city. Since those days there has been a great revival of interest in Venice in traditional rowing craft, stimulating the creation of many clubs and training programmes.
The Vogalonga itself, which is non-competitive, has changed its character over the years. Indeed, we heard that there was some resentment among local rowers at the way it has evolved, with boats appearing from all over the world, many of them starkly different from the traditional craft of the lagoon. There were reportedly 1,700 boats with 7,000 rowers this year.
There were dragon boats, rowing eights, fours, pairs and single skiffs and a variety of kayaks, including an exceptionally long one with four paddlers which was one of the first back, and a number of inflatable kayaks that were hauled out by their owners and packed into bags.
A great display of assorted craft passed by before we saw the first of the traditional Venetian boats with their forward-facing rowers, working gondolier-style.
Competition skiffs and kayaks can be seen anywhere in the world, but Venetian craft in their many forms are unique. The gondola is the most famous but there is a variety of other types, of which the sandolo is the commonest.
Some of the eights and other fast boats were from Venice, but many others were from elsewhere, including Britain, and the sheer number made it hard to keep track of all the national flags as they passed by.
You can certainly see the advantage of facing ahead in the crowded waterways of Venice. While eights and most fours have coxes who look forward to steer, the uncoxed pairs and single skiffs must find it hard to avoid collisions at the speed they go.
It was great to be back as crew in the Transadriatica this year, after two years suspension because of Covid.
The race is actually a double one, just under 60 miles out from Venice to Novigrad in Croatia, and back again after a day’s relaxation in the delightful little seaside resort – how can you beat that for a civilised way to compete?
Novigrad is in Istria, close to some excellent vineyards producing wine from the Malvasia grape. There is a strong Italian influence on the food and the architecture, reflected in the town’s other name of Cittanova. That goes back to the days before the peninsula of Istria was taken from Italy and handed to Yugoslavia after the second world war.
The Transadriatica is organised by Diporto Velico Veneziano, a local club with its own marina near the south-east tip of the island, not far from the Giardini, which is one of the venues for the Venice Biennale. The clubhouse is tucked away immediately behind the football stadium.
We were competing in Martin’s 26 foot sloop Spiuma, which is more than 50 years old but has been thoroughly refitted and includes a lagoon-friendly electric motor with a range of about 20 miles. That means power has to be used sparingly in the open sea, but one great advantage is that it motors in civilised near silence, compared with the intrusive noise a diesel engine or an outboard makes in a small yacht.
After a reception and race briefing, we were waved off from the club to the starting line by our spouses, Chris and Monica. The start was at 8.40 pm, just outside the northern entrance to the lagoon.
We had a comfortable breeze for several hours as we sailed, much of the time on a close reach, 33 miles up the Italian coast towards a buoy called Mambo 2, which is the single turning mark in the race.
The good winds did not last even as far as Mambo 2, and not long after we had turned south-east for Novigrad they began to die away to the gentlest of zephyrs, sometimes not enough to fill the light-wind gennaker.
It was one of those days when you see long alternating streaks of wind ripples and calm on the water. The best tactic is to sail slowly across the calm streak and then turn down the line of the wind ripples to stay within them as long as possible.
Like a number of other boats we eventually decided to retire in the near calm conditions, in our case only 8 miles short of Novigrad, when it became clear that we had no hope of finding a breeze or getting to the finishing line at the harbour entrance by the cut-off time of 15.00 on the Friday. There was a forecast of 20 knot winds for early afternoon, but they arrived much too late to help us, hours later than predicted. Martin was pleased that the 8 miles consumed only 40% of the energy stored in the battery pack
After entry formalities at the port office, we took Spiuma to the marina for the night, which was essential for recharging the batteries. There we went to a reception organised by one of the big prosecco brands, which sponsored the race.
Despite being among the retirees, Martin was presented, to loud cheers and clapping from club members, with the award for the smallest boat to arrive. The prize was a giant bottle of one of the good local red wines.
Martin and I slept aboard, but my son Will, the third crew member, stayed with his Italian family – Faye, daughter Indigo and other grandfather Cino. By great good fortune they had been planning a holiday break in the town, which has long been a favourite of Cino’s. They chose an excellent restaurant for the evening, which turned out to be run by a woman who could still speak the old Venetian Istrian dialect of the area, which she had learnt from her mother.
Ahead of another evening start on the Saturday, the day was spent relaxing, a good part of it swimming and paddling, with lunch at a shore-side restaurant under pine trees. Faye, Indigo and Cino waved from the pierhead as we jostled for a good position on the starting line at 8.30pm in a light north-northeasterly breeze.
The race back had its near-calm periods, but overall there was more wind than on the outward leg. The north-northeasterly began to veer as we approached Mambo 2, so from a close reach we went into a beam and eventually a broad reach, and could fly the gennaker. Even better, the wind went on veering as we rounded the buoy.
That allowed us to turn down the coast towards Venice without gybing, which is always a bit of a performance with a large cruising chute or gennaker.
We did eventually have to gybe. On Spiuma that means letting go a sheet so the gennaker can fly out like a giant flag ahead of the boat. It can then be manoeuvred round in front of the forestay using the other sheet, and pulled in on the other side. The helm adjusts course to make the wind help the manoeuvre.
The breeze persisted for a few miles along the coast, then began to die away, so we were soon down to less than 2 knots and beginning to wonder whether we would have to retire again. We were saved by the sea breeze we could see developing inshore.
About 10 miles from Venice we doused the gennaker and headed much closer in to the beach under genoa and main. We were soon galloping along close-hauled at 5 knots or more as the sea breeze strengthened. We passed the committee boat at the finishing line at 14.10, with 50 minutes to spare. Then we motor-sailed up the entrance channel and into the lagoon before putting away the sails a few hundred metres from Martin’s club.
We will know how we did when the handicap results are published. But it was a splendid weekend, ashore and afloat – and there’s nothing quite like arriving back at the Serenissima under sail.
One of the best sails I’ve had in the Mediterranean or Adriatic: nice breeze that kept the boat flat out much of the way, apart from a couple of hours after the start of the return leg. Only once or twice were we hard pressed, and what’s more the wind magically veered and backed almost on demand, just as we needed it, especially near the course turning point in the Gulf of Trieste. Even as the wind dropped approaching Venice, it was enough to keep us moving at 5 knots.
Here’s the certificate for third in class in the 2018 Transadriatica race – the second time in the race for me – from Venice to Novigrad and back, overnight each way in Martin Walker’s Spiuma. The certificate was presented to Martin recently, though the race was the weekend at the end of May and beginning of June.
After last year’s exploration of the Venice lagoon (see this post), we learnt recently about pilotage inside Venice’s own canal system, with a tour in a private motor boat. With care, you could do the same in a visiting yacht’s tender.
A new set of municipal rules took effect on 1 April, though apparently some of its key provisions, such as limits on the speed of water taxis, were dropped after protests from their vociferous spokesmen.
The beauty of Venice is so great that even the high-season overcrowding is still bearable. Now we’ve found a way of seeing the city in spring, summer and autumn without feeling oppressed by the sheer numbers around us. A week afloat on a barge is is the answer, because you see Venice in the context of its whole lagoon, and can slip easily away from the crowds.
Arriving, for example, at the island of Torcello in the evening, after the day-trip boats have left, is a blissfully peaceful experience. We found a mooring up a tree-lined creek on the far side of the island from the excursion landing stage, right behind the basilica. It was just an hour and a half slow cruising from Venice. In the city itself, we spent two nights in the peaceful surroundings of a yacht club marina at St Elena, in easy reach of the sights but away from the crowds.
We had hardly started on the Venetian lagoon when we came across this site-specific installation by Gavin Turk, the much-praised Young British Artist (now of course no longer so young). Here is some of the publicity material we found flying about in the wind from the Biennale*.Continue reading “Venice Biennale – all at sea”
A year ago we went round London by barge, and next week we’ll go round Venice, with the same seven-strong crew. We will start from a barge base at Chioggia, and plan to visit Venice itself and several other islands, including Torcello, and maybe up the River Brenta towards Padua or the Sile towards Treviso. Not sure whether the mobile internet reception is good enough to allow a daily blog, but we’ll load a picture log during the week.
On an Ionian holiday a few years ago, I walked straight off a modern cruising yacht into an argument about an ancient voyage that has been unresolved for well over 2,000 years. We had moored at Vathi, the main town on Ithaca, where in a first floor room down a side street I came across an exhibition of photographs of Homeric sites on the island. There I fell into conversation with a white-haired, distinguished looking man who described himself as director of the archaeological excavations on Ithaca.
Naturally, we got onto the Odysseus connection, for the exhibition was designed to connect present day sites on the island with the wanderings of Homer’s hero. I had just read in Rod Heikell’s Ionian pilot book that the island of Levkas, a few miles to the north, had been put forward by some as the true Ithaca. What did the director think of that?
It was as if I had insulted his family, his religion and his country all at once. He exploded.