My father-in-law grew up in New York City, more specifically, an Italian section of The Bronx. He has told me many times about how the best pizza in the world comes from New York City, how there will never be another ball player like DiMaggio, and that The Bronx is the only city in America with a “The” before the name. I’ve also gotten a sense of how much New Yorkers loved baseball when he was growing up there. Oh, sure, they love baseball now, but when my father-in-law was a kid not only did they live for baseball, every day after school they played ‘stickball’ in the streets. With such dedication, is it any wonder that many of baseball’s greats from the 30’s to the 50’s played for New York teams?
Why have I spent a whole paragraph talking about my father-in-law and the enthusiasm New Yorkers have for our national pastime? Because Venetians look at rowing in the same way.
“Voga alla Veneta” is to Venetians what baseball is to New Yorkers. I’ve heard that if you grow up in Japan, you learn karate; grow up in Hawaii, you hula. Venetians row. Sure they have boats with motors and sails, but they row – it’s played a major role in their history, and it’s part of their culture. So how does an American gondolier keep up with Venetians? How can he train for such an event?
In 2005, I had the honor of rowing in the parade portion of Venice’s famous Regata Storica on board the “Mestrina”, the flagship of a rowing club I’d been a member of since 2000. The Mestrina is a 14-man rowing vessel called a "Quatordesona"– bigger than a gondola but with some of the same structural elements. It was a great honor to be aboard. I had a blast; it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I also learned much about the dynamics of group rowing.
The challenges are many:
First there’s the challenge of rowing in a group – understanding the protocols common to team rowing on a Venetian boat, and staying with the rhythm of the group. The protocols can be learned by joining and being active in a Venetian rowing club. The rhythm is often set by the rower in front and really, you need to get used to the idea that someone else is dictating your movement. This is the most difficult challenge most American gondoliers face because we are almost always the only one rowing the boat. It’s easy to settle into the idea that you can set your own pace and not worry about an even rhythm. Consequently, when non-venetians find themselves in a team-rowing scenario, they have a tough time keeping up at times.
Second, the challenge of rowing somewhere other than the “poppa” is worthy of preparing oneself for. The height of the “forcola” (oarlock), the length of the “remo” (oar), and the balance in general are all different when you step down from the area most gondoliers row from at the back of the boat known as the “poppa”. New muscles need to be developed and establishing a new “muscle memory” becomes top priority.
An additional area of concern is having good form. From fencing to football, all sports have proper ways to do things – quite often an expert can simply watch another athlete and determine their skill level and how they have been trained. On this gondola, we will all have a combination of well-seasoned Venetians and younger Americans. No doubt, there will be some “suggestions” made by the Venetians as to form. While it could prove to be embarrassing, my hope is that Chris, Jon and I will learn from the situation and come out of it as better rowers.
Overall, this is an incredible opportunity, not only to develop our rowing skills, but also to take part in a great adventure for a great cause.