Monday, June 10, 2019

The 2019 Regata di Sant'Erasmo - "If You Ain't Rubbin', You Ain't Racin'"

During my recent visit to La Serenissima, I was lucky enough to catch a regata from a friend's chase boat.  

The races took place along the shores of the island of Sant'Erasmo - not so much a farming island - really more of a farming community shaped like an island.  
If you buy fruits or vegetables in Venice, 
there's a good chance they were grown on Sant'Erasmo.

I enjoyed watching the start of the first race (guys under the age of 18), but I was there to watch the women's race, and to cheer for some of my friends from Row Venice.

My daughter and I motored over there with Elena Almansi.  
Elena and some friends had visited our Newport Beach location last year. 
We rowed together, shared some tacos, and talked about racing.

It was the 26th of May, 2019.
The sun had been shining intermittently throughout the day, but as the afternoon crept in, so did the clouds - giving the lagoon a serenity that only enhanced everyone's focus on the races at hand.

I've seen countless Regata Storicas, and I witnessed the Regata di Burano a few years ago, but this one seemed different.

After arriving, some of us stepped aboard another speed boat that would be following the action.

I'd watched Elena as we made our way to the island.
She was psyched up.  

She was stretching and preparing herself.

I could see in her eyes that she was readying her mind and body for this contest.  
You get into a zone before a race, and she and her fellow competitors were definitely in it.

Elena climbed aboard her violet-colored mascareta, 
joined her rowing partner Romina Catanzaro, and they prepared their boat.
Elena hammers in a wedge to secure her forcola, 
while Romina has a conversation with people on the chasee boat.

Soon after, they began warmup sprint-start exercises along with all the other tandem teams.

As we waited for the young guys to start their race, 
mascarete of all colors zoomed by our boat - each pair working to get in sync and settle into that perfect rhythm, with hopes that they'd be able to get ahead of all the other boats and lead the pack to a first-place finish.

 Elisa and Elena Costantini, still in their Vogaepara jackets - 
representing the island community of Burano.

 Magda Tagliapietra and Sofia D'Aloja revving up their maroon mascareta.

 Elena and Romina getting fired up.

Romina Ardit and Anna Mao rowed a red boat in this race.

The young guys scampered off in a flurry of energy and splashing remi,
and the mood changed.  
 Nine pupparini take off fast.

Next, it was time for the women to line up for the start - their start.

Understand that all of these women know each other.
They race against each other regularly, and in fact many of them work together at Row Venice.  I was told that of the nine boats in this contest, seven of them were being rowed by women who were somehow connected with Row Venice.  I see that as a huge credit to the operation and Jane Caporal who started it so many years ago.

Numbers had been drawn to determine where everyone would be positioned in the lineup.  They moved their boats into place, and the rower at the back of each boat held her remo with one hand, and a ball on a rope with the other.
All those ropes were attached to a taut line.
Eighteen women were fired up and ready to go, ready to unleash every ounce of energy they had into a 5.6 kilometer race that was just seconds away.

There was a quiet, but not a calm.

And at the crack of a starter's pistol, they were off,
blasting their boats forward as fast as humanly possible.

The captain of our little boat throttled up and we followed the action.
There are a few basic principles about this kind of boat racing.
With so many boats in a race, it's advantageous to try to get ahead of everyone, and stay ahead.
You need to blaze your own trail, and while you can't take advantage of any drafting opportunities, you also run very little risk of getting entangled with other boats.
It's also difficult for another boat to pass you since you have oars sticking out of both sides of your boat.

Get ahead and stay ahead.

But of course, everyone else is doing their damnedest to follow that strategy as well.  So the first part of the race involves a sort of spastic approach to a group sprint.  The course is designed such that everyone has a good stretch of water to try to sort out who will fall where in the peloton of boats before turns and buoy-turns need to be dealt with.

For a while there, it looked like this would be like so many other regate:
a few racers trying to alert judges of perceived violations, but very few, if any, actual violations taking place.

And then it all got very interesting.

In certain parts of our North American continent, we are crazy about this thing called NASCAR.  It's fast, noisy, brash, and sometimes impolite.
While Formula One racers stick to a genteel discipline of not making contact with other cars, NASCAR seems to have a very different regard for "contact."
I once heard a guy say in an interview:
"If you ain't rubbin', you ain't racin'."

When things got interesting there in Sant'Erasmo, they got "NASCAR interesting."
Six minutes into the race we saw a pretzel-stick-jam-up that involved five boats. It was a domino effect that started when the orange boat tried to move in front of the pink boat, but apparently expected the pink boat to just "hit the brakes" and get out of their way.
When the pink boat didn't yield and instead held their line (which was the right thing to do), "BOOM!" it sent the orange boat into a third boat and things just went to heck from there.

When it finally came to a halt, all that pent-up energy was used to get untangled.  Each racer was doing her best to get her boat free and try to salvage something from a bad situation. 

Remember "Get ahead and stay ahead"?
The rowers in the green boat had managed to do so.

They were lucky enough to avoid the mess entirely.  

Elena and Elisa Costantini  have been rowing together for a while now, and they clocked a second place finish in last year's Regata Storica.
They pressed ahead, taking what was a very small lead and turning it into a large advantage.

One boat captain told me that she'd gone years without having any boat-to-boat contact in a race, but that day she was crashed into at least five times. 
I've watched the Regata Storica for twenty years now, 
and have been fortunate enough to see other contests as well.
Sometimes oars get entangled, 
but boats don't crash into each other very often.
This was just an unusual day.

To understand just how it ended up happening, you need to consider that in a two-oared boat, both rowers need to keep rowing in order for the boat to continue traveling ahead in a straight line.
If one of those rowers suddenly loses her ability to keep rowing, the boat will turn quickly.
As the tandem teams fought for position in this regata, there were times when boats got too close to each other to allow both rowers to continue rowing, and the results...well, they were inevitable.

And with nine boats in a Venetian regata, all it takes in a fast-moving pack of boats is one team which doesn't have complete control at every turn...and you've got contact.
Racers worry about this with religious fervor.
Watch a regata and you'll see them - raising a hand to alert the judges whenever they see something they don't like.

Sure, it's a bit like a basketball player trying to draw a foul, but it's also done to try to prevent the kinds of problems that occurred that day off Sant'Erasmo.

Irresponsible or malicious boat handling can lead to disqualification.
The orange boat did get immediately disqualified and in the opinions of many of the racers, another one or two probably should have been pulled right away.

Usually, if there is a jam-up in a race, afterwards it all sorts out and everyone just rows their race.
Usually.  But not that day.
Another entanglement took place after the first buoy-turn.
The blue and yellow boats, trailing the white one, were getting closer and closer to each other.

It's unclear why the two boats ended up so close, but eventually the forward rower of the yellow boat, could no longer row with the blue boat being so close.
Inevitably the two boats connected and all the boats behind them rushed past while they worked to separate and continue forward.

Almost immediately after passing the blue/yellow crash,
the violet and pink boats had a similar get-together.
As all this was happening, the rowers of the red boat had been shrewdly watching and waiting things out.
They managed to work their way past the blue/yellow and the violet/pink complications.

The team of Ardit and Mao make their move.

The women in the red boat were Romina Ardit and Anna Mao:
two of the most accomplished rowers in voga-alla-Veneta today.

Like most regate, when this one started, they were expected to win.
With the big jam-up at the beginning, the red boat was at the very back; however, as events unfolded, Anna and Romina systematically worked their way toward the front.

Later in the race the blue boat veered outside the official buoys, and they were disqualified. There is some question as to whether that had to do with earlier boat collisions rather than veering off course.

At the halfway point in the race, when the leading group had sorted themselves out, it was:
     Green boat - Elena and Elisa Costantini

     Maroon boat - Magda Tagliapietra and Sofia D'Aloja
     White boat - Francesca Costantini and Rossana Nardo
     ...with Mao and Ardit coming in fast in the red boat.

They worked their way around the women in the white boat,
rowing hard to capture that postion, and then even harder to keep it.
A few minutes later the bow of the red mascareta was trailing the stern of the maroon boat.

I have no doubt that, for Mao and Ardit, it was all a matter of getting to the front in time to finish first, but for each boat they tried to chase down, it was a much more personal challenge.
It took them quite a while to pass the maroon boat, and even longer to get ahead of them, as the girls in maroon sashes flanked and gave chase for a good distance.

The women in the red boat worked their way further forward, moving closer to that elusive green boat.

They passed the area of the finish line, with one more buoy turn ahead before turning back for the last run to the line.  This arrangement gives spectators at the finish line a preview of the order the boats are in towards the end of the race.  It also lets the racers know that they're close to the end of the race.
People cheered, officials speculated as to how it would finally shake out, and the racers gave their best efforts to finish with all they had.

But while the women in the red boat managed to go from last place to second place, they never got within striking distance of the green boat.

The Costantini team crossed the line first, having rowed a superb race. 
They managed to avoid the first entanglement, got ahead, stayed ahead, built on their lead, and out-rowed all challengers for the rest of the regata.

 Crossing the line first feels great.

 Raising the remi to salute the judges and the crowd.

Red and maroon crossed the line one after the other, earning the white and green bandieri respectively.

The women in the white boat finished fourth, claiming the blue flag.

There's an old idiom: "It's all over but the shouting."
I looked it up and it appears to mean something different from what all my friends and I thought it meant.  Regardless of that, the phrase seems to fit the end of that race in Sant'Erasmo. 

It's all about energy.
You pull the trigger of a shotgun, and it sets off a series of events which leads to a lot of energy going down the barrel of the gun.  If that barrel gets blocked, well, that energy is gonna have to go somewhere.
When the race was over, there were a lot of competitors who, due to the various unexpected stoppages, still had a lot of energy that needed to be expelled.

Add to that the frustrations of everyone except for the women on the green boat, and the result was fairly noisy.  At the end of any sporting event there are plenty of opinions on how it should or shouldn't have been executed, adjudicated, fill-in-the-blank, fill-in-the-blank, fill-in-the-blank.

 A stacked shot with three rowers on three boats all discussing 
the execution, the outcome, and especially the crashes.

One crash resulted in visible damage to the "archetto" - that arching piece that allows the forward rower to place a knee against it if the boat tips.
Rossana Nardo was probably lucky she didn't get injured.

Once the energy had been expelled and everyone had shared their strong opinions with each other (all at the same time), it was time to eat, drink, and have fun together on the Island of Sant'Erasmo.

I enjoyed meeting some of the competitors for the first time, having watched them compete for years in the Regata Storica.

Elena had told me earlier that we'd be enjoying "low-quality beers" that night.
And while she wasn't wrong, she should be thankful to have not experienced the truly low-quality ones we've got back in the States.

Feasting in Sant'Erasmo.

My daughter had handmade gnocchi in a bolognese sauce.
I feasted on various tiny, locally-caught shrimp-like creatures 
(while the local mosquitoes feasted on me).

For many of us, we grow up in one place.
We call that place "home."
As we travel we have opportunities to visit and experience other people's homes.  We are only able to get a taste of what they live on and take a few breaths of the air they breathe.
We don't get to truly understand what it's like to call that place home.
But it is an undeniable blessing to be able to take that taste and breathe that air.
My experience on and around Sant'Erasmo was fantastic, and I give my heartfelt thanks to Elena Almansi, her friends, and the Row Venice staff for allowing me a glimpse into the amazing things they get to do all the time.

My congratulations go out to the top finishers of this race.
It was a remarkable contest on the water - one that I was lucky to witness first-hand.


A special thanks to Elena Almansi for her assistance in gathering the various details and descriptions for this story.

I'm not sure how long the video will be available, 
but as of this writing, there is a full view of the race available at

Thursday, May 23, 2019

AMSTERDAM - by Gondola and by Bike

some photos by Tirza Mol

“No, here comes another one,” Tirza announced.

I worked fast, turning the gondola quickly to avoid the large tour boat that was emerging from under the bridge.
It was the third time this had happened in the last few minutes.

Technically this wasn’t my first time in Amsterdam, but it was the first time I’d left the structured chaos of the city’s airport.
Each time I’d touched down in the hub airport in the Netherlands, 
I looked out a window, knowing there was a gondola out there, 
but also knowing I had limited time to make it to my connecting flight.
In my opinion, you can’t really say that you’ve been to a place if you never left the airport.

When my wife started planning a cruise that would depart from Amsterdam, I was determined to make it to the famous canals there, meet Tirza, and see her beautiful gondola.
I contacted Tirza and told her of our trip.  
Fortunately she was going to be in town.

In the weeks leading up to our visit, I watched the weather with increasing concern, as rain and winds were showing up regularly there.
As our plane landed I was happy to see sunny skies.
The winds were still a question mark, but I held out hope that whatever the conditions, I’d be able to handle them.
My family had a series of things to see, with windmills, chocolates, and cheese on their list.
They dropped me off near my meeting point with Tirza about an hour before our scheduled meeting time of 10am.
I hadn’t slept much at all in the last few days, and only managed a few hours on the flight over, but the anticipaton of finally being in Amsterdam, combined with the sights and sounds that greeted me on a crisp, clear morning had me wide awake.  The ancient city was alive and buzzing on a Saturday morning, as vendors off all types set up to sell their wares at a farmer’s market-like street fair that was getting underway.  In a short time I found the gondola.  She was beautiful: black and shiny, and so easy to spot, side-tied to a live-aboard barge in the Dutch waterway.

Tirza Mol decided to build a gondola as a graduation project for her boat-building study at the Amsterdam Wood and Furniture College.  She did an internship in Venice, spending four months at the famous Squero Tramontin.

Returning to Amsterdam, Tirza and her project partner Leentje Visser got to work building a gondola there in the Netherlands.  The boat was completed in 1998. 

It was 9:30am.  
I was supposed to meet Tirza at a dock further down the canal, 
but after a half-hour of people watching at the farmer’s market 
I saw Tirza getting off her bicycle.  
We’d never met, but I recognized her easily in her signature red skirt and blouse.  There are many recognizable people in the gondola world, but none stand out like the tall Dutch lady, rowing barefooted in a red dress.  
It’s absolutely iconic, and it really suits her … and her city.
Tirza – The Lady in Red on her gorgeous gondola.

We climbed aboard the gondola that she’d built, loosened the lines, and were off and cruising.  Tirza rowed for a while as we chatted about the various people and boats that we knew.  Her expert command of the vessel was as I had expected.  What struck me about the boat (among other things) was her glossy finish. The Dutch are known for many things.  Along with tulips, windmills, and a remarkable ability to keep the sea out of places, they have really got paints and varnishes down to a science. 

After a while I got the opportunity to step up onto the back and row the gondola.
She handled wonderfully, very much like one of my gondolas back in California.  The winds played with us a little, only enough to make it challenging at times, but every time I needed the boat to do something, she responded as I would expect a Venice-built craft to do.
Navigating the various channels and turns was a fun undertaking.  Often we would emerge from a tunnel-like bridge and have to make an immediate turn or head into a situation somewhat blind.

In my opinion, there are a few criteria that determine the quality of a gondola:
  1. How she looks - and this boat looks beautiful.  If I didn’t know that she wasn’t built in Venice, I would have thought she had been.
  2. How she holds up. Tirza built her gondola in 1998 and she looks like she was built last year.
  3. How she handles.  The more I reflect on how Tirza’s gondola responded to the various maneuvers required, the more I appreciate how well the gondola handled.

From the very start of our journey there were tourboats -- the ubiquitous long and low glass-topped bateaus like you might see in Paris -- but these ones seem to have been designed for this city, with very little margin for error as far as bridge clearance is concerned.  I’m accustomed to rowing around large vessels, but I don’t usually do it in such tight quarters.
As the morning warmed up, we encountered more and more of them, along with all sorts of other passenger boats.  The canals of Amsterdam are quite impressive -- even more so from a boat.  Seeing them from a gondola was pretty much a dream-come-true for me.

Every arched bridge has a series of lights along it’s arched edges.  We were out in the daytime.  I can only imagine how it must look all lit up in the evening.
My time window was coming to a close and we needed to get back to the place where the gondola ties up. 
Heading up a wide thoroughfare waterway, I needed to take a left turn into a tight canal which was framed by one of Amsterdam’s small arching bridges.  As we approached and I was just about to execute the turn, a big glass-topped tour boat came rumbling out from under the archway.  I braked hard, turning the gondola to the right as she slowed.  Then I dropped into sotomorso and got out of the way as the whole body of the tour boat came out -- only to pivot counterclockwise in order to line up with another bridge and then continue on up the thoroughfare.
I wheeled around and began my approach again.
Tirza sat at the front of the gondola serving as a lookout.
“Here comes a second one.”
Just like the first one, another big tour boat, which barely fit, emerged from the archway and performed the same pivot-and-go maneuver while I pulled the same moves I’d done a few minutes earlier.
Lining up for try number three, and, yep, you guessed it.
Tirza announced the third giant moving obstacle and I spun the gondola around once more.
At this point we’d lost a bit of time and I was starting to wonder if there was a better route to take, but the fourth time I approached was not thwarted by another tour boat and we were on our way through the archway and heading towards home.  Tirza jumped up and took over rowing while I packed up my things.  She had already called for a taxi to meet me and it was all going according to plan, until … the taxi didn’t show up.  We tried to talk another cab driver into taking me to the ship terminal, but, well, honestly I couldn’t understand what they were talking about (in Dutch).  I was about to hoof it over to a spot where I thought I could hail a taxi (probably a loser of an idea) and Tirza said “Here, get on the back of my bike!”

My Amsterdam rowing adventure had ended, 
but the REAL adventure was about to begin.

Just about everyone in Holland has a bike. They’re the most bicycle-oriented people in all of Europe, if not the world.  Many of their bikes have a small book-rack on the back, and some have a cushion of sorts on it.  Next thing I knew, I was seated on this cushion, feet perched perilously on the edges of the fender supports, and holding on while Tirza pedaled barefoot through bike traffic, foot traffic, and even car and bus traffic.
It was a wild ride, and often I couldn’t see ahead because the seat was low and Tirza is taller than I am.

Unfortunately, as I was hanging on at this point, there are no photos for the bicycle portion of our adventure.

I learned more about Dutch people and their bike culture in that crazy ride than I thought possible.  At one point we were speeding towards a railway station when a clueless tourist with his face in his cellphone, stepped in front of us.   

I saw it coming and instinctively shouted “HEYYY!!!” 
He got out of the way just in time 
(and learned a little about Dutch bike culture as well).

My friend Tirza, who had been so accommodating with her boat, really went above and beyond to help me get to the terminal.   
We arrived in record time, and I walked in with about a minute to spare.

I have been lucky enough to row gondolas in many places over the years, but my morning in Amsterdam was by far one of the most memorable experiences -- both on the back of a gondola...and the back of a bicycle.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

A Heated Contest on the Grand Canal

On May 1st, Nena Almansi of Row Venice joined forces with Giorgio Sabbadin - one of her fellow members of the Remiera Canottieri Cannaregio rowing club.  
Their purpose: 
to compete in a tandem pupparin race down the Grand Canal in Venice.

This was the ninth edition of a "mixed" men-women regata organized by the charity Biri Biri, dedicated to the memory of Ettore Pagan.

They rowed their brown/"marron" boat from the starting line at the Giardini di Castello, up the Grand Canal, arriving at the fish market.  

It was not an easy win though.
There were ten boats fighting towards the finish.

According to Nena's account:
the "flying start" has always been complicated.  
In this case the orange boat (which was closest to shore) 
had the disadvantage.
The offshore vessels immediately gained ground, 
thanks also to a more favorable current, 
which lead to a chase between four boats:
the canarin (yellow), 
marron (brown), 
reserve (red and green), 
and viola (a light violet purple).

As they transitioned from the rough waters of the basin to the entrance of the Grand Canal, it seemed that the order would be canarin, reserve, marron, viola.

Some close calls were observed.
Canarin and reserve got tangled up for a moment.
Lots of jockeying and strategic rowing.
In the end, the first pupparin to cross the line was the marron, 
second - viola, 
Canarin in third.

 Top four finishers
1. Elena Almansi and Giorgio Sabbadin
2. Nausicaa Cimarosto and Riccardo Salviato
3. Luisella Schiavon and Nicolò Schiavon
4. Romina Catanzaro and Marino Almansi

 Almansi and Sabbadin with trophies.

Some interesting details:
- Elena Almansi usually competes in tandem with Romina Catanzaro, but because this was a "mixed" event, they ended up on different boats.

- Elena and Giorgio are both members of the
Remiera Canottieri Cannaregio rowing club (colors are black and green).

- Third place finishers were both members of the famous Schiavon family.  Luisella has been part of a winning team from many regatas, including Regata Storica.

- While the fourth boat was rowed by Romina Catanzaro (Elena Almansi's partner), the other rower on that boat was Almansi's father.

- Another Row Venice rower, Cristina Montin and her tandem partner Marino Pompeo finished in sixth place.

Judges included the Famous Vittorio Orio and Luisella Marzi - the first female official in this regata.

Congrats to all the finishers in this unique and exciting contest.

To read more, see:
Memorial Ettore Pagan - Regata mista su Pupparini - Com'e andata

and "A remi in Canal Grande". Vincono Giorgio Sabadin ed Elena Almansi