Friday, July 10, 2009

Swimmers in Venice

Windy Vogalonga.

In all the 35 years of the "Vogalonga" (the "Long Row"… of 30 kilometers) festival in Venice, they say 2009 was the windiest yet! That's the word on the streets… many of which in Venice are under water! Numerous boats capsized and there were dozens of swimmers (it's warm water). But drama aside, it was a very fun event! We all met up the day before at Capalonga, a camp-ground about an hour's drive from Venice, to fit out and load our kayaks onto a trailer in readiness for the early morning ride to town. Capalonga has classy rental kayaks. Giorgio showed us the route on the map, which loops around the Venice lagoon, and explained the timetable.

Next morning in Venice we threaded our adventurous friend Karen Darke from her wheelchair into her kayak, and Kate and Alex into their double, feeding the kayaks beneath and between long rowing shells and thrashing oars down a steep drop to the water. It’s the hardest part of the day, when everyone tries to launch at the same time, leaving just enough time to paddle through the canals to the start at the entrance to the Grand Canal by St Mark's Square.

A cannon booms, signaling the start, and the excitement carries through the air as everyone pulls away toward the north. The big flags on the boats and the skirts of the women standing rowers pull and flap in the wind. There are so many boats it looks as if you could walk from deck to deck from Venice to Lido. And some people do look as if they are walking… Venice is noted for stand-up rowing and there are a lot of gondolas. It's a natural development when the canals are so narrow; the oars angle steeply into the water instead of reaching low and wide. And of course it's an advantage to be facing forward, rather than looking behind like these rowers in rowing shells that almost run me over when I pause to take a photo. But today the gondolas are having a difficult time. They are flat-bottomed with shallow draught and offer a lot of windage.

Our course loops out past muddy banks to the town of Burano where all the houses are brightly painted in different colors. I hear every household uses a different color scheme. It's a town renowned for hand-made lace. We've been plugging away against the wind all the way so far, maybe for 15 kilometers, but as this is the turning point we’ll soon have the wind at our backs. We pause for a snack in the shelter of a narrow canal. It's not relaxing; the wind catches us, and local boats are constantly squeezing past. Although the festival has attracted participants (6,000 this year!) of every nationality, right now we have a just a mixture of English (Kate and Alex) and Swedish (Roland and Britta, who we have fun paddling with all over the world, and Elizabeth), with scarcely a word of Italian between us to offer in apology.

Back in the procession, we pass a barge handing out bottled water and bananas and cruise through sheltered waterways past abandoned islands. The lagoon has a history of man-made islands claimed from mud-banks that goes back for more than 2,000 years! But the walls that circle an island are only permanent while the islanders are there to maintain them. When an island is abandoned, the walls are eventually breached by the sea, and the lapping waves gradually wash the island away until all that is left is a mud bank.

We run into more open water, following a "road" bordered by lines of stakes that show the position of the shallows. The strong wind, plus a little contrary tidal flow, creates an awkward sea that sends boats broaching without warning, and it's all I can do to avoid collisions. But we reach the shelter of canals again at the brick-walled Murano. This is the town famous for its glass-making. The famous Venetian glass-makers were moved here in 1291 because of the danger of fire from their furnaces. Apart from all the fancy glass vases and mirrors, tiles for the mosaics on the fancy palaces in Venice come from here, as do the spectacular blown-glass chandeliers that are shipped all over the world. It's tempting to stop, but we leave Murano to follow the markers back to Venice, finally turning a corner past several swamped boats and water littered with floating oars and gear. Not every boat made it back, but here the canal forms a bottleneck, and there's almost nowhere to go, the boats are crammed together so tightly!

By the time we reach the spectacular Grand Canal, we have plenty of room again! Bridges are lined with cheering crowds, and there are shouts of encouragement from every building! We pass beneath Rialto Bridge, the stone bridge with all the shops on it, and we're on the home straight. Kristin eggs Kate along

with a question; "We're nearly there, but you can stop here if you like and take that canal back to the car…" Kate, weary now, retorts "No way! We get a medal if we finish? I'm going to get there if I have to swim!"

So the DoubleShot makes it to the finish! Kate and Alex collect their medals and certificates (so do we) and we cruise gently back to find Giorgio and Mauritzia, and Karen and Gabrielo, and carry the kayaks back to the trailer.

Next morning the papers describe scenes of disaster. There are swamped boats, swimmers and tales of collisions and strong wind. But we can laugh about it and relax back in the comfort of Capalonga, with a week of kayak tours, visits, restaurants and local wine ahead… The sun is warm. Life is sweet!

(Check out last years Vogalonga on Nigel's web-site)