Voga, voga, cocola…


Voga, voga cocola Za che ti xe in gringolà¦

Canta e dopo basime, che_i toà basi me fa tanto ben¦ Canta e dopo basime, che_i toà basi me fa tanto ben


One spectacular mid-October afternoon on my first trip to Venice in 1995, I, like millions of travelers before me, paused atop the Accademia Bridge to enjoy the view. I became mesmerized by a lone woman rowing toward me up the Grand Canal, in what I now recognize as a mascareta. She was standing, facing forward, arms crossed pushing the water competently and rhythmically with two long oars, one in each fist (alla Valesana). I was entranced by her motion and persistent advance up the Canal, and as she disappeared sliding beneath my feet, I took an unconscious vow: someday, somehow, I would try this myself.

Eleven years later and nine months after I first got my hands on a remo, I finally enrolled in the Società Remiera Canneregio and began taking lessons in the Voga alla Veneta, the traditional Venetian rowing technique. (This, after a brief run-in with a renegade pseudo-instructor last August: what an absurd, pathetic experience. It was a very short lesson that ended with me ordering him to return immediately to the cantiere: I’m sure it will come as no surprise to anyone that it’s neither customary or necessary for anyone to stand behind you while teaching you how to row. Che schifo, how disgusting. Please Lord, spare us from gli omini piccoli, the small men of this world.)

It hasn’t been easy finding the time for the lessons, but I’m determined…that is, obsessed. I don’t know how long it will be before I can be in a boat alone, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able capable of rowing with two oars, but I’ve made a start…and I must say, it’s as grand as I thought it would be.


querini The lessons are offered by one of the many società , or boat clubs, that have sprung up in the recent years throughout the lagoon, and are usually based out of one of several local cantiere (boatyards). Settemari, Bucintoro, Serenissima, Querini, Tre Archi, and more — are subsidized by the Comune to help preserve and maintain the serenissima Venetian boating traditions, now that their purpose is sport and recreation as opposed to a means of transport. Each club has its own unique logo and identifying colors, and may offer instruction, organize social events, and sponsor regate all during the year throughout the lagoon, for all types of boats, ages, and levels of expertise.

Img 0799 The largest and most social of these regattas is the Vogalonga, whose 32nd annual edition was held on the 4th of June, 2006. There were over five thousand participants and 1500 boats from Venice, throughout Italy and far beyond. The event begins and ends with a cannon shot, with a course commencing in the San Marco bacino, heading out past the island of Sant Erasmo, around Burano, back past Murano, re-entering Venice at the Cannaregio Canal, and finishing at the end of Canal Grande. Supporters search out every form of canal access, and line the fondamente, shouting congratulations to the finishers, no matter where they come from, what they’re rowing, whether they know them or not: o, vecio, bravo! The Grand Canal is closed to motor traffic until mid-afternoon, a spectacular, all-too-rare occurrence that makes everyone nostalgic for the good old days senza moto ondoso (without wave motion).

REGATTA: regata in Italian. Origin early 17th century Venetian dialect; literally a fight or contest.


Let Sleeping Boats Lie.


cantiere The San Giobbo cantiere, or boatyard, is not far from the vaporetto stop in northern Cannaregio, and the nearest to where I live. It’s relatively new, and a grand place: spotless, well-organized, filled top-to-bottom and stem to stern with the long, flat Venetian oar-powered boats: the hardy, flat sandolo with its pointy, decorated nose, and the equivalent of a famiily sedan; the mascareta, a smaller, lighter, faster and more-agile but less-stable version of the sandolo; gemelli the pupparìn, with a platformed stern like that of the gondola that serves as a perch for the rower; the caorlina, rowed by team of six, a majestic, rotund craft that once transported everything from produce to pesce from the outlying islands to the central markets; a variety gondole delle regate, finished in varnished wood or painted in spectacular colors as opposed to the traditional black; the disdotona, named for the eighteen rowers that power it; the gondolìn di regata, a delicate, more refined version of the most famous of Venetian row boats that almost impossible to maintain your balance. These craft are all either owned privately, or by the various società that are based in this and other cantiere.


Ready, Set…Voga.

Img 0186 Img 0181 Img 0285

Once you arrive for your lesson, getting your chosen boat off its rack and into the water is measured and efficient process: First, grab one of the boat-sized rolling carts (one size fits all) and place it at the ready near your craft where it’s suspended in its rack. The man-on-duty will arrive with a highly-portable hydrolic forklift, maneuvering it to remove and lower the boat onto the cart. Your instructor will help you choose an oar of the appropriate weight and length, and show you how to correctly set the forcole, or oar rest, in the rails. Roll the boat out of the cantiere and position it at the edge of the dock underneath a gru from which are dangling two sturdy, nylon canvas straps, aiming the prow through the front loop and looping the back strap around the rear end. The same man-on-duty will punch the appropriate buttons to hoist the boat off its cart, rotate it into position, and lower it into the water. If you’re not in the boat yet, you can climb down the ladder and embark before you or someone else maneuvers it out of the loops, and se ne va, you’re on your way.

pupparin Sandra’s my instructor; a Venetian who’s been rowing ever since she was a kid. In fact, the oar she uses at the poppa (the stern), is the one her Dad gave her; he used it as a gondolier. She’s a great instructor, thank heaven, and strives to communicate how important it is for your body to first understand the critical elements of rowing: the position of your feet in relation to the forcola (the oar rest, or fulcrum, that provides the leverage as you push); the importance of accompanying the oar with your body, generating power more efficiently and relieving the stress on your arms; lowering your body into the boat and not andare in forcola when there are waves or wind that threaten your balance. Spingi colla gamba dietro, non guardare il remo, accompagna il corpo davanti, appoggiati sulla gamba, gira i polsi, e vai. Push with your back leg, don’t watch the oar, move you body forward, balance yourself on your front leg, rotate your wrists, and go. And if the waves from the myriad of motor-craft that traverse the channel in front of the cantiere — well beyond the speed limit unless there happens to be a vigile boat in sight — become too agitated, just bend your legs and place your the remo in acqua, oar in the water: it’s like a third leg that helps stabilize both you and the boat.

trebarcheThe fascination with rowing itself is what impedes my progress, as I’m continually drawn to the motion of the oar  as it plows through the lagoon water like spatchula folding cake batter; this is not advised if you’re the helmsman di poppa in charge of navigation, continually having to compensate for wind direction and lagoon movement, always more powerful at low tide and when the moon is waxing full. (You think those lagoon waters are still? Look again. They’re tidal, and that means always moving either in…or out. If you’re the one rowing the boat, you’ll soon understand how the field of gravity of a distant celestial body can have a distinct on the difficult of row against the waning tide. Eighth-grade physics will come in very handy here, by the way.)

laguna The tide, of course, does not diminish as the lagoon waters circulate through the labyrinth of canals and rii that traverse the city — or, on occasion, when it overwhelms them during acqua alta. I see gondoliers in an entirely different way, and have an even greater appreciation of their skills now that I know what it takes to keep a boat on track premando: the single-oar push that propels it the craft both forward…and to the left (although the gondolo’s shape keeps it under more control). The stalir, a corrective, j-stroke maneuver, steers the boat back to the right to keep it in line, depending on the force used, still compensating for the tide motion, wind, waves, and whatever other factors there may be. All that done with a single oar, on a bizarrely-shaped boat that after training in a sandolo, seems gigantesca.

Img 0578 In fact, there are a litany of other remoeforcola techniques that propel these boats across the broad lagoon, slide them over shallow waters, and thread them among the narrowest canals, all of which vogatori who have more experience that I seem to execute senza sforza — effortlessly. I did manage to stalir (sta-eer is the Venetian pronounciation, since in the Venetian dialect Ls are pretty much ignored) my sandolo clockwise between two paletti the other day, narrowly avoiding smacking the lower one as I tried to compensate for the motion of lagoon waters that seemed in a pretty big hurry to get back out to sea. Che soddisfazione, I thought as I slid by. I may not be navigating the rii of San Polo tomorrow, but might get the hang of this eventually.

It won’t be long before the heat will be insufferable beyond mid-morning, making it impossible to paddle about the lagoon in a flat boat without being steamed like a lobster in a pot. It will have to be pre-workday early, or late evening if they remain clam. And who knows: if I continue to make progress, it might even be me you watch sliding under your feet as you look down from the Accademia bridge.

I’ll keep you posted (no pun intended). In the meantime, check these links for more info, intanto practicing your Italian:

VogaVeneta; http://www.vogaveneta.it/

Forcole: http://www.forcole.com/eng-home.htm

Venetia; http://www.venetia.it/boats/

VogaVeneta; http://www.vogaveneta.com/

2 thoughts on “Voga, voga, cocola…

  1. Julia Anton

    Greetings, Nan,

    I am trying to learn how one finds a Voga alla Veneta instructor while in Venice. Can you help?

    Perhaps I am too late with this inquiry, as I will have only two days next week of leisure time in Venice. Would rowing lessons be a one-day affair, or a continuous effort over time? How far in advance must they be booked? Can you provide contact information for making the booking? I am sorry to hit you with so many questions, but I’m unable to answer these questions with basic internet research.

    If you can help me, I will appreciate it very much! Thank you! 🙂


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