Kate Farrelly tries her hand at the ancient — and deceptively tricky — art of Venetian rowing.
We are going around in circles. Big ones, yes, but circles all the same. The dead on the nearby isle of San Michele, the cemetery island where many Venetians are buried, are no doubt giggling in their graves. You tourists, they would chortle. You’ve got no chance of mastering the ancient art of Venetian rowing in one afternoon.
Give up, go home! They may well be right. But it doesn’t stop us from having a crack at it. We have watched the gondoliers. We have ridden in their vessels, parting with wads of cash in the process. We have heard sticky tales of those who have tried to master the art of stand-up rowing and been found wanting .Now we want a piece of the action.
A local Venetian rowing instructor, Jane Caporal, surprises us first with her Aussie accent, then with her story about how she came to be here. Originally from Perth, she came to Venice on maternity leave while her husband completed a thesis. Twenty-two years later they are still here and with their two sons, aged 22 and 10, call Venice home.
Realising she couldn’t pursue normal sports in this water-logged city, Caporal decided to tackle stand up rowing, a discipline that, as I will explain, differs from that of operating a gondola. She became the first registered female rowing instructor in Venice and is the only operator teaching tourists how to row. Outside work she has her sights set on becoming a campionessa, which is a champion stand-up rower, enabling her to enter the professional racing circuit.
Caporal has won enough flags to nearly topple the Murano glass vase in which she stores them. Her talent has also earned her and fellow club rowers grudging respect from the gondoliers. "Years ago, when the club rowers took to the canals instead of the lagoon, the gondoliers would shout at us to get out of their way," she says. "The canals were theirs and they had to work. The rowers were told to go out on the lagoon. Now there is a lot more respect, we have a common enemy – fighting the motor traffic." Our lesson begins at the marina in the Sacca della Misericordia, Cannaregio, a ferry-ride north from St Mark’s. We are to learn in Caporal’s rare batela a coa de gambero, a prawn-tailed wooden boat modelled on a now-obsolete style of Venetian cargo boat and built for Caporal by a specialist boat maker in Burano.
Caporal takes us through the basics of stand-up rowing. With two rowers on board, one stands on the stern deck and is responsible for steering, the second stands inside the boat and acts as the engine.
With Caporal steering, I take up the "engine" position while the rest of the family, my husband Phil and two boys aged five and six, relax on the bench seating. The trick is to rest the long oar in the forcola — an oarlock carved from cherry or walnut wood with an open cradle — and use it to guide your stroke through the water. Right foot behind left, I push the oar out from my chest and pull it back in towards my stomach. In this fashion we make our way up a quiet canal towards the lagoon, pulling the oar in when passing other boats.
Motor traffic must giveaway to rowboats in the inner canals so we are able to avoid sudden braking for oncoming traffic. It’s an incredibly peaceful journey past residential buildings decked out with flower boxes, past churches with highly decorative facades and under bridges forcing Caporal to duck.
The quiet is addictive so it’s a little jarring to find ourselves out in the busy lagoon, where my husband takes the oar to help power us more quickly across the traffic lanes plied by the assortment of vaporetti (waterbuses), cruise ships and cargo boats.
In the quieter lagoon waters it’s time for the boys to have a turn.
Though keen, their diminutive stature makes it difficult for them to manoeuvre the long oar and they are just as happy to return to tying Caporal’s ropes into a mass of knots.
Phil now takes position at the stern and attempts to steer the boat.
And it is at this point that we find ourselves going around in large, languid circles.
The oar motion required through the water, again aided by a for cola, is not unlike a figure eight but clearly difficult to master. As we fail to move forward, Caporal resumes steering and her finesse makes it easy to see why she is No. 1 in the women’s valesana (a cross stroke using two oars) and a competitive threat to the pupparino contingent (who race solo with one oar).
Caporal is part of a movement to promote stand-up rowing as a national and international sport and is also keen to preserve rowing and boating traditions by increasing the number ofVenetian rowers.
"Venetian rowing used to be away of life but in the 1930s everything became motorised," she says.
"Rowing clubs sprang up in the 1970s and now there is an association of Venetian rowers outside Italy. I love my work, I love rowing. I love sharing it and the waters of Venice with people." And we loved trying our hand at a pursuit so intrinsically Venetian. To the residents of San Michel, and those who were giggling at us from their graves, I have only this to say: better to be going around in circles in beautiful Venice than not to be going anywhere at all.
Flight Centre has fares to Venice from $1986. 133 133, flightcentre.com.au.
The writer booked accommodation for her and her family through veniceapartment.com, a rental agency based in Venice. Aweekin Apartment San Stin in San Polo cost $2127.
Row Venice provides two-hour lessons starting from about $103 a couple with family rates on request (expect to pay about $130 for a family). rowvenice.com.