Pilotage in the Venice lagoon

A Vaporetto at speed

Quite by accident while wandering around Venice with friends who live there, we crossed paths with a neighbour of theirs, who turned out to be one of only two women drivers of vaporetti on the lagoon.

When told we were on a hire boat she pretended to collapse in hysterical laughter, and then recounted tales of rescues from the mud and near collisions with vaporetti, and demanded to know how people without official licences could be let loose on the lagoon. (No licences were required by our hire company). So we were determined to show we could do it.

If there’s one tip we learnt about the Venice lagoon, it is to be ready to ignore the international collision regulations and just keep out of the way of commercial craft, even if they are small and don’t have right of way. Don’t demand your rights when you are crossing tracks with a vaporetto.

This means looking and thinking a long way ahead. It also suggests that it would not be sensible for complete novices to take charge of a barge there. There are some quite fine judgements to be made about whether to take action or not when passing or crossing other traffic.

There is also a good rule of pilotage for strangers: stay in the marked channels, because there is little water everywhere else.

These three marks are special to the lagoon:

  • A briccola is a tripod made from tree trunks that marks the edges of the channels. They are numbered, and where there is only one row, the number is on the side you should be.
    Channel markers in the lagoon
    Channel markers in the lagoon. From Locaboat’s lagoon map (€10).
  • Dama: a mark with an extra timber sticking up above the others, showing intersections. The higher timber has red and green marks for port and starboard, often with both colours but on different sides, because they serve two channels at the junction.
  • A meda is one of a further set of single posts which, like the briccola and the dama, are numbered on the side you should take.

If in a main channel there will be briccole either side, just like road markers, and you keep to the right in the normal way. Other channels are marked by single lines of briccole, so keep to the side with the numbers. If the numbered side is to starboard, we were advised to stay about 5 metres away from the nearest briccola. If to port, stay 15 metres away, to give room for other craft to pass on the port side. We were told not to stray further because these channels are often narrow and ill defined.

Junctions look simple on paper but can be confusing at a distance, when they may appear like a forest of marks, especially at the Venice equivalent of a cross roads. It becomes clear once you get close to a dama and can identify the port and starboard markings and the channel names, but there are still possibilities for confusion: eg a crossroads at the northern tip of S. Erasmo, where it would be all too easy to take an accidental trip across the shallows. Whenever we were uncertain, we slowed to a crawl until we had positive identifications of the marks.

The tidal ranges in Venice go to just over 1 metre, so are nothing compared with the UK. But because there is such a vast area of water to come and go through narrow channels, the currents are significant, and can be very strong at and near the three entrances to the lagoon from the Adriatic, comparable with places in the Thames Estuary.

Our boat could not quite manage 5 knots over the ground in still water, measured by the GPS on my phone (there was no log) and so would have had a hard time beating the spring tides at the entrances. We were not allowed out to sea. A friend who has explored the lagoon in a deep draft yacht reports that a dragging anchor could be a problem inside the lagoon, because of soft mud.

While we were there it was near springs, but the daytime range was only about 0.3 m against around 0.8 metres at night – a very useful asymmetry if you were to get stuck on the mud at the first high tide during the day, because there would be a higher one in the evening. Tide tables came with the boat, but we used the excellent iPhone app Tides Planner.

Our barge hire company, Locaboat, advised that if we grounded it was important not to try to back off with the engine because of the configuration of the bottom of its barges, which risked damage to the prop. You either wait for the tide or try to turn the boat round, though the 15 metre barge would probably have needed more than its bow thruster to do that.

The barge’s draft is 0.85 metres. There is an anchor and electric windlass but no depth sounder: perhaps they think it would encourage customers to experiment with unmarked channels.

Locaboat provides a very clear printed plan of the lagoon showing the channels and their markers, and the staff briefing on Venice pilotage and where to moor was good and clear.

Finally, be ready to meet large commercial shipping at the Malamocco (central) entrance to the lagoon and in the channel leading from there to Marghera, and also cruise ships and mega-yachts the size of small cruise ships coming in and out via the Lido entrance and up and down the channel between Giudecca and Venice.

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