by Roderick Conway Morris

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Daily Telegraph
Start of the Vogalonga in the Bacino di San Marco

Venice's 'Long Row'

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 8 May 1992


At 9 o'clock on Sunday, May 17, a cannon will boom out over the waters in front of St. Mark's Square and 2,000 rowers in 600 or so boats will bend their backs to set out on the Vogalonga, Venice's annual aquatic marathon.

The Vogalonga - meaning 'Long Row' in Venetian dialect - was launched in 1975 as a protest against the inexorable rise of motor traffic in the lagoon, the damage that pollution, wash and noise were inflicting on buildings and the natural environment, and to encourage the preservation of the centuries-old rowing skills and traditions. For the duration of the eventpowered boats are banned, including public water buses. An eagerly awaited occasion in which everyone, young and old, can take part, the Vogalonga is a dramatic and festive beginning to the rowing and racing season, and an annual celebration of the city's identity.

The first two Vogalongas were, if anything, a little too spectacular. In 1975, when for the first time the hundreds of tightly bunched boats rounded the point into a narrow channel at the far eastern end of the city, the scene turned into a re-enactment of the Battle of Actium, as oars clashed and boats collided. 'Curses, invitations to take rowing lessons, apologies and mutual accusations of incompetence' filled the air, according to the local rowing writer Antonio Mauro, and oars were unsportingly used for non-rowing purposes.

The following year, hardly had the armada got going under a drizzling and overcast sky before a violent storm hit the lagoon, sweeping its suddenly heaving waters with driving, icy rain. Some boats foundered, others battled their way to islands or sand banks, or lashed themselves to bricole, the wooden piles marking the channels. Miraculously, thanks to the acts of personal courage and the rescue services, nobody was drowned, and a 'happy few' even managed to complete the course (the scrolls and medallions awarded to every rower to reach the finish being regarded, from that year, not so much as sporting souvenirs as decorations for valor).

Every kind of traditional lagoon craft takes part in the Vogalonga, from gondolas and caorline (six-oared fishing barges) to skiffs used for wildfowl hunting in the marshes. Apart from rowing clubs and private entrants, there are also crews representing shops, banks, insurance companies, the fire brigade, the Fenice opera house and religious orders. Scores of other oar-driven boats, including sculls,whalers, kayaks and Indian canoes, many from other parts of Italy and abroad, swell the ranks (the Cambridge University crew among them in the inaugural year).

The 32-kilometer (20-mile)course goes from St. Mark's Basin to Sant'Elena, at the east end of the city, then on to the cluster of islands - Burano, Mazzorbo, Torcello - in the north of the lagoon, and back via the glassblowers' island of Murano and through the Cannaregio and Grand canals to St. Mark's Square. The fit and determined can, depending on the wind and weather, complete the circuit in one and a half to two hours, the less athletic or ambitious taking up to five or more. Last year's oldest participant was Aldo Narduzzi, 81, an old lagoon hand.

Although the Vogalonga is emphatically a non-competitive occasion, subtle rivalries emerge as local clubs try to improve their times, and individuals, duos and teams, limbering up for the new regatta season, flex their muscles in preparation for the big meets. An amusing sideshow is the dawn vigils - to be first to register and be issued with the coveted No. 1, usually hotly disputed between the Jewish Club in the Ghetto and the Capuchin Friars of the Redentore church, but captured this year by a group campaigning for Venetian autonomy.

Refreshments are offered by philanthropists at various stages on the route, the most picturesque being at the halfway point on the canal running through the island of Mazzorbo. Here a bright red Coca-Cola barge doles out soft drinks, while a few yards away along the quay, local fishermen park a raffish, bacchanalian boat draped with nets dispensing fried fish and generous draughts of white wine. Seeing boats imperiously surging past the first temptation and performing emergency stops at the second is a memorable sight.

It is well worth being on the waterfront between St. Mark's Square and Sant'Elena to watch the start. Afterward, to see the rowers return, the Cannaregio Canal, with its spacious quays on either side, enthusiastic local crowds, not to mention waterfront bars (watching exhausted rowers can be thirsty work), is a good vantage point. A final tip: trattorias all over the city tend to get packed at lunchtime with the returning heroes and heroines and their well-wishers, so it's best to book a table in advance.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023