As is typical of so many things related to gondolas, the rowing is different from that of other types of boats. Most rowing styles are accomplished while sitting down, but Venetian boats are rowed while standing. And while most methods of rowing require that you face backwards, the Venetian rower enjoys a forward-facing position. Yes, it requires a bit more balance, but the trade-offs are worth it. Facing forward, you can see where you’re going, and standing up offers a high vantage point and gives you the ability to interact more with your passengers and passing boats.
In “voga alla Veneta” (rowing like Venetians), the first stroke is a push forward known as the “premer”. Many Americans pronounce it “premi”. It’s an easy concept and while there are subtle nuances involved in doing it properly, a beginner can usually get the main idea of the premer in a couple of minutes.
Gondoliera Ina Mierig executes a premer stroke.
Photo by Steinmetz
After the premer, the gondolier needs to return the oar to its original position to push again and again. Rather than lifting the blade out of the water, a single gondolier will return the blade forward while keeping it submerged and adding a slight downward turn, thus adding resistance. This resistance helps to keep the oar from popping out of the oarlock. More importantly, however, it corrects the lopsided movement caused when rowing from only one side of the gondola. This return stroke, which is responsible for correction, is known as the “stalia” – often pronounced “stai” (rhymes with sky).
Here Ina demonstrates a proper "stai"
Outside of Venice, people often assume that the gondola is pushed along with a pole like the punt boats of England. This misconception is partially due to the fact that a gondolier typically does not remove the blade of his oar from the water.
If you are familiar with canoeing, you know the “J-stroke” – another stroke which involves a correction upon return. The difference of course is that in voga alla Veneta, there is a type of oarlock known as a “forcola”. The oar is referred to as a “remo” by the Venetians. Using a remo and forcola, a gondolier can achieve remarkable levels of control with the right training, especially considering that the gondola is 36 feet long. I began as a gondolier on motorized gondolas with electric power, and while I still see many benefits to having a motor, I much prefer rowing. There are no mechanical or electrical systems to fail - just two pieces of wood and a problem-solving mind. I also find that folks enjoy the gentle movements associated with rowing.
When two or more people are rowing a Venetian boat, they do not stai with the blade submerged, but rather return by lifting it out at the end of the push, bringing it forward and dipping in to premer again; this eliminates the extra drag associated with a correcting return stroke. Most American gondoliers row exclusively solo. The “premi and stai” method is standard procedure. Group rowing requires some adjustment to eliminate the typical solo-rowing stai.
I’ve spent years assembling a small library of gondola and Venice-related books. By far the best book for learning about how to row like a Venetian is Gilberto Penzo’s “Forcole Remi e Voga alla Veneta”, available at http://www.veniceboats.com/.