Tuesday, June 30, 2009
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.
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
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...
Monday, June 29, 2009
Sunday, June 28, 2009
Saturday, June 27, 2009
A female gondolier has been officially confirmed. There are many news stories to be found on-line, but I think Nan over at the Living Venice blog covers it best.
Friday, June 26, 2009
We had been preparing for this adventure for a long time.
Planning, purchasing, packing, and in our minds - plotting how we thought it would go.
Some of us built whole family vacations around the Vogalonga, others were there for only a few days.
Sure, we were all in good rowing shape already
- it's part of a gondolier's job to be so.
Nevertheless, we had been training for this adventure - getting together for group rows, and deliberately putting in more hours on the back of a gondola.
When we arrived in Venice, we went out on the lagoon in club boats as often as we could.
Of course it wasn't something we were forced to do - HECK NO! We love rowing Venetian boats - especially in the Veneto, but all the same, we went at it with vigor.
So when the big day arrived, we were ready for the adventure (whatever that adventure might be).
Mother Nature's Surprise
The weather has been mentioned in previous posts, and for good reason.
Short of a war breaking out in the region, there really isn't anything that can put a damper on the Vogalonga…except horrible weather.
Unlike other sporting events, it seems that there's no definitive way to compare this Vogalonga with the 34 others, and I don't want to exaggerate, but I will commit to saying that at times it was awful. The wind was wicked; it churned up the sea. Everyone on my boat spent the whole day in long sleeves and long pants. Sunlight cheated through periodically, other times the skies were dark and the clouds unfriendly.
My daughter Cassandra was a passenger in our boat and she describes the clouds as "dark and evil", comparing them to something you might see only in a movie.
The only thing that didn't happen was rain, but with the conditions as they were, most folks probably would have just laughed hysterically if we'd received a downpour - it certainly would have been fitting.
video by Elisa Mohr
Early on the morning of the 31st, things at the GSVVM were excited and lively - typical atmosphere of a big event there.
The sun was shining and many expected the rest of the day to be the same.
Club members were scurrying about, getting their boats ready, hammering in their forcola wedges, tossing their gear in, and lining up to hit the bathroom one last time.
Tim had left earlier than everyone else - he was rowing solo and wanted to beat the crowds.
Megan Sliger and I were on a four-person sandolo with club member Alessandra Puppo, and GSVVM President Bepi Penzo.
My wife and our other daughter Isabella were lucky enough to sit as passengers in the bow of the Mestrina - the GSVVM's pride and joy - a fourteen-person "quattordesona".
Other California rowers had come out separately, and I've heard that they ended up rowing with another club, but I don't know for sure.
photo by Dawn Reinard
As we rolled our sandolo over to the hoist, we found ourselves in sea of people and boats - boats of all types, and people from all over Europe - all waiting for one of the hoists and jockeying for position.
What happened next didn't surprise me:
Bepi Penzo (a man who personifies the phrase "larger than life") barked a few commands, grabbed the sandolo by the tail, and started dragging it through the crowd. When you're with the president of the club, your boat is in the water without delay.
Hittin' It (or more correctly "Getting Hit")
After the sandolo was in the water and we were all situated, we set out towards Venice, only to be greeted by unrelenting crosswinds and rolling swells.
The Gruppo Sportivo Voga Veneta - Mestre is on the mainland, just a stone's throw from the long bridge that joins Venice with the rest of the world.
This means that getting to the Bacino di San Marco (where Vogalonga starts), requires an extra four miles of rowing.
The journey from the GSVVM to Cannaregio is not usually a great undertaking - I've done it many times, both solo and in a group.
Heading across the lagoon that morning, our boat was tossed about, and some of the crew were literally knocked off their feet numerous times.
We kept rowing, taking water to the face, and struggling to keep the boat going in the right direction.
It didn't take long to realize that the only way to get from point A to point B in such a wind was to "fly diagonal" like a small airplane against a crosswind.
Other boats were getting knocked around too.
Some boaters realized they'd "brought the wrong kind of boat for the conditions" and packed it in.
People quickly lost their struggles, and a number of boats turned back before even getting to the other end of the long bridge.
photo by Cassandra Mohr
Entering the City
Bepi and I took turns rowing a poppa, and after a long and unexpected fight, we reached Venice - entering at the Cannaregio Canal.
We encountered many rowing club boats that had clearly been prepared for the Vogalonga, but were not in the race. Uniformed rowers were standing around on the fondamenta - not looking like they were in any hurry to get to the starting line and join the row.
Conditions in the canal city were much more tolerable, and as we passed under the Tre Archi bridge it seemed like the wind was leaving us.
An overcast sky painted every bridge and building a dull gray.
Heading up the Grand Canal was nothing short of surreal: the place was empty, and for the first time, Venice seemed like a ghost town.
To be continued...
Thursday, June 25, 2009
Here's another video clip taken as the Mestrina was approaching Burano.
I'm told that with the headwind, reaching the island seemed to take forever.
In the audio you can hear my wife, daughter, and another guest talking.
Those "hospitality" seats have hosted many passengers over the years - some more well-known than others.
One time at the club, president Bepi Penzo showed me a photo of the same boat in a procession, with none other than Mikhail Gorbachev - former head of the USSR - sitting in one of those seats.
Here's another clip from May 31st.
This one was shot as the Mestrina was crossing from Mestre to Venice.
At this very early stage, some boats had already thrown in the towel, the rest were fighting a wicked crosswind.
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
The wind was a little more noticeable in this clip.
While rowing straight into the wind was a hassle for many participants, I've heard from a lot of rowers who said the real wind-related problems occurred when they needed to turn a corner and encountered crosswinds which would force them into obstacles or run them aground in the shallows.
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
That "Gondola Greg" guy is still trying to figure out how to work his cellphone.
The time has come, my friends,
to throw up some video clips from Vogalonga
(and pray that they work).
The above clip was taken by my wife Elisa, from the passenger seat of the GSVVM's quattordesona "Mestrina".
It was the 2009 Vogalonga, and this clip was taken just after the starting gun had fired.
You can hear the church bells ringing, the wind blowing, and towards the end, some rowers in another boat learning the hard way, that the bigger boats tend to "assert themselves" in traffic.
Monday, June 22, 2009
but there were a few I just couldn't resist.
Here's one that was posted on the Vaporetto:It, of course, indicates that passengers should not wear backpacks while on board, but should carry them instead.
I got a kick out of how the zipper on the pack is smiling in the green image.
Here's another photo I took while on the middle platform of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
I looked all over the platform, but I didn't see anybody walking around in all red.
that must explain why my pocket didn't get picked.
Sunday, June 21, 2009
Saturday, June 20, 2009
Many times I would go to the boat storage area, with it's carport-like roof, and I'd pick out a boat to row.
Several times I spotted this boat and noticed how dirty she was.
I thought she would look great if someone took the time to clean her up, but it seemed like it would take a lot of work.
Then, on May 30th, a few of the GSVVM guys pulled her out and just went nuts cleaning her up.
In about 15 minutes they'd gone through her completely and were ready to take her out for a test run.
Just goes to show that a group of determined guys,
who know what they're doing, can get a lot done in a short time.
There was some discussion among the guys as to whether the boat was a sandolo or a mascareta. Eventually someone who everyone was willing to listen to, proclaimed that she was a sort of hybrid.
One guy spent the whole time obsessing over the floorboards.
I couldn't get a clear answer regarding her age,
but the boat was built by Cantiere Agostino Amadi on the island of Burano.
The stern on the grass with floorboards in place.
Later on, some other club members rolled her over to another part of the property just prior to the big GSVVM pre-Vogalonga celebration dinner.
Friday, June 19, 2009
Each morning I would take the Vaporetto to Piazzale Roma to catch a bus to Mestre where my rowing club is.
The first time I caught sight of this hoist, there were boats and people there but my camera was deep in my backpack.
Each time after that, I would have it ready and the place would be empty.
Finally, on the last day of our stay, there was a mascareta there and I snapped a shot.
Here's a close-up:
Bepi Penzo at the GSVVM said this hoist is usually used by members of a rowing club by the name of "Ferrovia" - no doubt the name indicates that they are close to the train station.
I was looking through all of my photos after returning home, and found another shot of the "hidden hoist"...taken by my daughter Cassandra.
Here it is:
It looks like she got a better shot than I did.
I've heard it said that Venice has around 65 rowing clubs now. For me, that number is currently unverified, but even if it's half that - there are a lot of clubs out there. And is evidenced by this photo, you never know where you'll find them.
Thursday, June 18, 2009
In the days leading up to the 2009 Vogalonga, everyone rowed:
to get in shape,
to get in the groove,
or just to get psyched.
In retrospect, we should have known from the weather patterns in the days before the race, that it was gonna be a bad-weather-day.
But most folks seemed to just hope things would "blow over" rather than "blow hard" on the big day.
On Friday the 29th of May, after going out on the lagoon earlier in separate boats, Tim Reinard and I ended up back at the GSVVM with 15 or 20 other members of the club.
The wind had picked up a lot and everyone was sitting around the snack shack (it's really more of a bar disguised as a small house with tables and chairs outside).
As is common at the GSVVM, we were busy telling stories (and maybe a few exaggerated ones), and the folks there had all agreed that the weather was no good for rowing.
I believe someone even said, in Venetian dialect, that "only a crazy fool would go out in that wind".
Tim and I began to talk about it,
and as you might expect,
we both agreed that if we wanted to,
we surely could row in that mess.
We looked at each other, both got a crazy grin, and I said "hey, why don't we go over and just look at it".
So we walked out to where the hoists are,
saw flags flying stiff in the wind,
and then walked back - pensively mulling it over.
By the time we got back to the club, we had both independently made up our minds. We grabbed the nearest mascareta and started to prepare it for a row.
The president of the club and some of the senior members began to question our motives, abilities, and, well...our sanity too. But one guy saw the look we had and fetched us the right forcole and remi.
As we wheeled the mascareta over to a hoist, the GSVVM's stalwart hoist operator, Gino, saw us coming and just shook his head. He was huddled up with two other people in a parking-attendant style booth. I can only imagine what he was thinking: "Crazy Americans!"
The GSVVM hoist was busy so we went to the Canottieri Mestre's hoist.
I'm pretty sure that that hoist operator was thinking "Crazy Americans" and "Crazy GSVVM guys".
Tim and I were happy to give such representation.
Tim's wife Dawn was on hand to take a few photos of us "Crazy Americans" hitting the lagoon; she took some great shots, especially considering the wind and rain.
Tim talks about a plan, and I nod my head and put on Chapstick.
Megan Sliger looks on as the mascareta splashes down.
The two Crazy Americans try to get on the same page before taking to the waves.
Heading out with hoisting straps in the foreground.
Into the "Big Snotty" we go.
After the launch, and ensuing frenzy of rowing,
we disappeared up a mainland channel and into an area lost in time.
The winds weren't as fierce, but the sky continued to leak on us periodically.
We eventually came upon Fort Marghera - an old maritime fort which was built in the 19th Century, and has been, for the most part, deserted.
Tying up the boat, we set out on foot and explored. Some of the buildings there appear to have been sitting empty for a very long time.
I'm sure we were breaking some kind of Italian law, and perhaps that added to the thrill of it.
After our investigation, we returned to our mascareta and rowed back into the big snotty sea conditions with fervor.
Getting the boat positioned under the hoist proved to be a challenge, but like every other phase of the adventure - a welcome one.
Hoisting out again, the operator still thought we were crazy, but by that time he recognized that we knew what we were doing.
And we had a blast in the process.
Considering the best approach.
Bringing her in carefully...
...and fighting a fat crosswind in the process.
We were just cracking up in this photo.
I believe my words were something like:
"Dude, that was so awesome!"
Setting the mascareta back on her rolling cradle.
Tim moving the perfectly balanced boat.
All in all, the whole adventure was terrific.
Of all the experiences I had in Venice this spring, that row with Tim was definitely one of my favorites.