Tuesday, June 30, 2009

"What a Long Strange Trip" - the Vogalonga Experience According to Greg - Part 2

photo by Cassandra Mohr

Rushing to the Start
This was to be my first Vogalonga.
I'd been to Venice several times, I'd seen the famous Regata Storica, but I'd always wanted to take part in the "Long Row".
Many of my friends had related similar stories
to me about the start of the race:
the festive atmosphere, the "sea of boats", and the ceremonial firing of the cannon which, for 35 years had served as the starting gun for Vogalonga.

As we rowed through the city of Venice, plowing down the Grand Canal, time was an issue and we were late.
The Cannon was to be fired at 9am.
Crossing the lagoon had taken much longer than expected.
At nine o'clock we passed under the Rialto bridge.
We had no idea whether the start would be on time or if the race officials would delay it for the many who had yet to arrive.
We heard no cannonfire.
We kept rowing, winding our way past dormant pallazzi and empty Vaporetto stops, past gondola traghetti and closed shops.
There were no delivery topos porting goods, or water busses chugging out black smoke - only a few rowing boats on their way to Bacino San Marco, and the four of us rowing our orange and blue sandolo.

It was the first of many moments that day, which could only be described as surreal.

Missing the Boats
At nine-fifteen, after passing under the Accademia Bridge, we made our way into the wide open basin where I hoped that just maybe, the start hadn't taken place yet.

No such luck.

The committee had fired the cannon,
the "sea of boats" had paddled,
and rowed, and splashed their way East, and the walls and rooftops of Venice's thousands of buildings had so effectively dampened the sound that we never heard the echo of cannonfire or the roar of the crowd as they clattered their way into the lagoon.

Trouble Ahead

As we left the Accademia bridge behind us, the conditions we'd fought so hard earlier came back,
and as we entered the basin in front of San Marco, the "sea of boats" may have been gone, but the wind and the waves were back.
It wasn't at full-strength in the basin but we could see it building out at the tip of Venice.
As boats were attempting to round the corner at Sant'Elena, they would get hit with a blast that began as a crosswind and, once they'd made the turn, became a headwind.

In the distance we could see them fighting it,
locals who were in-the-know would anticipate it, others, especially dragon boats and English-style "backwards boats" weren't always so prepared and many collisions occurred there.

in this image from left to right:
Megan Sliger, Dawn and Tim Reinard, Nereo Zane,
Greg Mohr, Bepi Penzo

When it was established that we would be rowing with the president of the club, I was honored, and maybe just a bit nervous.
Bepi had said I would row
a poppa, and while I was happy to hear that, I knew it wouldn't be a full-time arrangement.
You don't get to be a rowing club president without being just a little bit "Type A".
Bepi Penzo is an uproariously funny guy.
Where Bepi is, people have fun. He is a terrific.
Mr. Penzo is also one of the most proficient rowers I've shared a boat with, so I knew I'd end up
sharing the role of captain with him and was happy to do so.
Bepi had hosted all of us so graciously, making sure everyone felt welcome.
He had been a good friend to me for many years and received my friends as his own without hesitation.
On top of all that, it was his lagoon - Bepi knew the water there better than anybody.
I knew that even if I'd spent 100% of the time on the back of the boat, the president would still be on board and it would be foolish not to heed his counsel.

Things hadn't gone exactly according to plan with regard to
bringing a full team out from California, and when that plan went out the window, I settled into a mindset of "anything will do - I'm just looking for adventure".
This approach can be very helpful when I find myself surrounded by factors I cannot control.
"I'm just happy to be here" also comes in handy a lot, and it was certainly fitting in this instance.

photo provided by
Alessandra Puppo

Snack Break
The unexpected struggles to get to Bacino San Marco had drained us a bit and the race had already left without us. Bepi made an executive decision to duck into a small canal near the Giardini Pubblici and regroup, grab a snack, find a bathroom, etc.
As we made our way through the tight passageway, we were not alone; a few Venetian boats from various clubs came through, as did numerous kayaks.
The Venetian boats all seemed to be looking for a shortcut to continue the race, while the kayaks were headed in the other direction - many looking like they'd had enough and were done for the day.

Taking a Turn
After a short breather we shoved off and pressed on.

Reaching a canal intersection, we were greeted by a familiar blast of wind, which seemed to have whistled it's way down between the buildings with the sole purpose of nailing us broadside - which it did without delay.

We determined that following the canal in the direction of the race would be a lot of fighting in a tight space, while turning the other way, the wind would carry us back into the basin and we could continue following the traditional course.

As we re-entered Bacino San Marco, the clouds were looming, big and dark.
Bepi muttered something in dialect about how rain was coming and things were too dangerous.
With that, another decision had been made, and we began to row back in the direction of the starting area.

The Big Secret

What I'm about to reveal may surprise some people:
The Vogalonga is not really a race.

It's not competetive.

And while some rowers endeavor to be the first to finish, many more don't really care - they're just in it for the fun of rowing.

Despite what anyone may have laid claim to, you can't "win" the Vogalonga.

After crossing the basin once again, we came upon the judging platform, complete with race committee staff and some guy who really enjoyed monkeying around with a microphone. Like just about everyone else we'd encountered that day, the microphone guy knew Bepi Penzo and immediately recognized us - and quite loudly, I might add.

We sterned up to the floating platform, one of the committee staffers counted our crew and tossed in four plastic bags, each containing a medal and a small diploma-like paper stating that we'd completed the 35th Annual Vogalonga.

I toyed with the idea of showing my friends back home the medal and telling them I'd won the race...but someone else already did that.

photo by Cassandra Mohr

A Happy Return
After receiving our medals, we rowed our four-post sandolo back up the Grand Canal.

The Accademia Bridge was overflowing with spectators, who either didn't know or didn't care that we were going in the wrong direction and couldn't possibly have finished the course so early.
They cheered like mad.

Next we turned off the Grand Canal and into the Rio di Ca' Foscari, then continued on up the Rio Nuovo.
Rowing through that section of Venice was very quiet.
It was Sunday morning and the city was still waking up.
Both canals we traveled on are wide, and well-suited for cargo and passenger vessels looking to jump from one side of Venice to the other with little effort.
Again, though, there were very few boats on the water, and with such a wide berth, we relaxed and enjoyed the rowing.

Pretty soon we were back in the Grand Canal,
passing Piazzale Roma and under the new Calatrava Bridge.


By now, everyone in the boat had lost interest in trying to re-join the 2009 Vogalonga.
We had resigned ourselves to returning to the club.

Bepi had a clever idea to return to the mainland on the other side of the Ponte della Liberta (which bridges Venice with Mestre), thereby avoiding crosswinds.
Once we reached the other end of the lagoon,
we would cross under one of the arches and be a hundred meters from the hoist.

The plan sounded great,
and it would have been...if the tide had been a little higher.
we set out and were immediately greeted by two small English-style boats with rowers who warned us about the depth. Testing it for ourselves, we quickly ran aground on a mud-flat.
The plan had to be changed.

So with determination, we traversed the lagoon,
further from the bridge but still with less crosswind than there would have been on the other side.
The water was just deep enough to row,
and the whole floor of the lagoon was overgrown with a leafy green seaweed.

It was another very surreal moment.

I remember saying to Megan that we were
"rowing across a shallow sea of cabbage".

to be continued...


Tamas Feher from Hungary said...

Kudos to Greg for coming up front about the mission abort!

BTW, I am not exactly sure if the cannon-shot was done correctly this year. At exactly 09:00 I made a quick photo of the gondola fleet parked in Bacino Orseolo, yet haven't heard any artillery.

Minutes later met a hungarian canoist trio at the Schiavoni waterfront, who were just about to start. They said there was a cannonshot, but the smoke was larger then the sound effect.

(I think I will try to find out if those guys made it around OK? They were actually two girl and a guy and their fibre-glass canoe was old, worn and augmented with poncho + duct tape over the front.)

René Seindal said...

The cannon shot was there this year like the last.

I liked the part about the cabbage. Its a weird plant, which I have never seen anywhere else, but it is quite common around the lagoon.

Bepi Venexiano said...


It's a certificate of Participation not completion, and Greg, you certainly participated.

Gondola Greg said...

Oh MAN did I participate!

Tamas Feher from Hungary said...

I thought there was a 3 hour 30 minutes time limit to get the Vogalonga medal?

This would mean the Vogalonga is a competitive race to some degree?

Bepi Venexiano said...

If you pay your entry fee you get the medal and certificate.

Nereo Zane said...

Vogalonga is a non-competitive race. Participants have about six hours to complete the row.
Once you complete the whole path passing through all the check points you are entitled to get the medal and the certificate of participation.
Greg was lucky because he was on a boat with Bepi Penzo ...

Bepi Venexiano said...

My mistake Nereo. I should not have put it so simply. When I was in the Bacino San Marco that morning and the wind showed no signs of lessoning I rowed over to the officials barge where they noted my number and gave me a medal and certificate, probably because the poor weather.

One other hand, in a normal year, it would surprise me that a paid entry who didn't finish would be denied the medal. It's all for fun anyway.

Thanks again for driving my family into the city from Mestre.

Nereo said...

Ciao Bepi Venexiano, you're welcome! see you soon.
Yes, Vogalonga is for fun but to pay the fee isn't enough (in normal year with good weather) to get the medal and certificate otherwise the committee would deliver them at the same time you get the number ;-) . There are some exceptions though!