The sweat of the Venetian Lagoon

Venetian rowing is more than a sport. It's history, tradition, effort, technique, loneliness. It is the union of three elements: water, man and boat, a living wooden hull that you have to feel under your legs if you want to win those races in the Venetian Lagoon, a truly unique place.

The salty sea breeze is enveloping, even more so along that strip of water in front of Malamocco, which stretches lazily between the Lagoon and the sea in a hot summer afternoon. In this captivating place, the selections of all municipal regattas take place, in an atmosphere of peace and quiet that clashes with the frenzy of the old town crowded with tourists, marked by an endless procession of motor boats that seems to never end.

In front of the floating wharf where timekeepers and race directors have their seats, the tranquility is interrupted by the screaming of a small group of supporters who incite everyone, from the first of the very the last of the young champions.

Come on! Push, push... Don't give up, don't give up until the end!

A strong and distinct scream that fades out in the sultry surrounding. Nothing to do with the roar of the cheering fans during the “Storica”, the famous rowing challenge in the Grand Canal, something that can make your skin crawl. And yet, despite the inertia of a place that indulges in the slothfulness of its natural rhythm, the emotional impact of the racing crews in Malamocco is just as strong. The motivating screams that are lost in the air heighten the loneliness of the competitors who, 30 seconds apart, compete along that long stretch of the Lagoon.

The trajectory of wood

The gondolini, the boats of the champions, as well as the other boats reserved for women and young people, belong to the City of Venice, all numbered and each with a different colour. They are drawn before the race, as well as the starting lanes. Since every boat is different from one another and the boat experience really makes the difference between winning and losing, every rower should have rowed them at least once before. "I once put them all in the water, one next to the other, and I could not say what the best one was. Though slightly, they were all different! And it only takes a little when you're on board under pressure to truly make the difference". The wisdom and experience of the old Venetian rowing champion Sergio Tagliapietra, also known as Ciaci, helps us to understand that boats are always the result of craftwork, which is inevitably affected by a thousand variables related to the different stages of construction.

Wood is a living material, it breathes, it reacts to atmospheric changes during processing and is destined to come into contact with water, with the life of the lagoon: it interprets its moods and character, it adapts, it takes a trajectory.

Venetian rowing is all about trajectory: after the crazy effort made at the start in an attempt to get out of the lanes first and take the lead in the race, there are another six or seven kilometres of the race to manage. There, all that matters is to find the right trajectory, both for who stand in front and who follow, a thin boundary beyond which there is the possibility of winning and entering into the world of legends or there is losing and with that, throwing in the narrow waters of the canalasso any last hope of victory.

The gondolino is a living boat

Life and death. A clash that often returns when we talk about the Venetian lagoon, its rhythms, its traditions. As in the case of Venetian rowing, a sport that’s so particular, exceptional and linked to the uniqueness of a territory where water is an element that has always regulated its survival.

"The Eight is a beautiful boat to row in, but if I had to make a comparison with the gondolino I would say that with the Eight you're rowing on a dead boat lying on the water, while with the gondolino you're rowing on a living boat! The gondolino moves, reacts to the wind, to the current, to the motion of the waves, it never stops and in your whole career of regattas, it still won't be enough to fully understand it". This description still comes from Ciaci, and it has been dutifully quoted by the journalist Antonio Padovan in a splendid book, “Una vita per il remo” (a life on the oar), which summarizes the story of one of the legends of this sport, of the races, of the territory. An elegy of names evokes religious festivals (the Sensa, the Feast of the Ascension or that of the Redeemer, perhaps the most famous among the Venetian folk festivals), islands of the lagoon such as Burano or Sant'Erasmo, land of famous champions of the specialty, and the “Storica”, the regatta par excellence.

Fatigue and sacrifice since eight years’ old

An intense season of races that involves an increasingly restricted base of local enthusiasts, educated from childhood to refine the sensitivity, balance and rowing technique needed to slide the boat on the surface of the water. A harmonious movement where the coordinated thrust on the supports of the legs and arms reaches its maximum effectiveness only if "we know how to feel the boat sliding under the legs, under the bottom, something that comes from the know how to exploit the force of the oar: it is probably something that is already within us and that no one can ever teach". If for the Venetian rowing champion Ciaci the magic of the growth of a rower is connected to his talent, for those who work on the spread of Venetian rowing among young people the focus is different: "A sport that has in fatigue and in the spirit of sacrifice its characteristics like this one is today less and less charming among young Venetians; with the increase in water traffic in the lagoon, now incompatible with what can be a normal training activity, it is not easy to get them on our boats.

Graziana Pavanello, winner of the Historical Regatta for Women's Crews twice, is one of the most active members at Querini Rowing Club, the century-old rowing company that trains only boys and girls under 15. "Already at the age of eight you can row on schie, the small boats with which children can learn, then climb up category until you get to the maciarele, the boats with which the boys compete until 15. The races for them are more or less on two kilometres, roughly 15 minutes of regatta that at that age is more than enough."

Querini Rowing Club’s training

Angelo Dall'Acqua, shipyard worker in chief at Querini, introduces us to the headquarters of the company, where boats that have an important history, including some rowing hulls, or English canoes, which are rented to foreign enthusiasts during the Vogalonga at the end of May.

In the shipyard there is even a tank that serves to simulate rowing on the water and a small gym to complete the preparation for the young athletes: "It is used especially in winter when there isn’t much to do. A few machines, a few weights, at most we use ergometers when there are no conditions to get out. The muscle of the rower must remain elastic, so we focus on circuit training and not on strength. In this sport the greatest effort in the race is the power sprint at the start, then, once off the lanes you need stamina to keep up the pace until the end. Today the lever of our champions is very high, more than one person performs a specific preparation with a personal trainer and a nutritionist. Obviously this sport, like many others, has evolved, but the so-called fartlek (speed and endurance) training is always done on the boat.” Just as the champions of the past have always done, transforming hard work into daily training.

The muscles of the old Fishermen Champions

Ciaci, Veleno, Crea, Strigheta, Ciapate, Arsenico…  In every Venetian older than 50 these nicknames evoke legends, butterflies in the stomach, just as if we were talking about Muhammad Ali to a boxer, Fangio to a race driver , Pelé to a footballer. Until some time ago, these legends of Venetian rowing, besides being venerated in the city as real idols, were also able to make a living off their rowing career. The victory at the Storica was worth almost 30 million liras per crew. Winning at the time meant buying a house in the space of a few years.

However, today the prize in the Storica is worth much less. Despite this, rowing every day as a gondolier (as most of these younger rowers do), is still a profitable activity, especially in a city packed with tourist like Venice. In short, although it is true that the earnings of the regattas are no longer enough to sustain oneself during training, but it should also be considered the fact that some of the past champions came from a much harder and exhausting life. Ciaci, son of fishermen, born on the island of Burano in 1935, describes his days during the fishing season, from March to October: "We stayed out in the lagoon for 12 or 13 days, following the water cycle, we slept and cooked in the boat, four people in each caorlina, we woke up at three and a half in the morning, just before dawn, walking in the mud throughout the length of the nets.” And it wasn't over. The fish was kept in the ice and every night Ciaci or one of his brothers rowed with the fish of the day to the Rialto market in time for its opening. Then he would go back to reach the others in the lagoon.

Venetian rowing is also and above all a tribute. Every stroke of oar, every drop of sweat represents nothing more than a gesture of gratitude to those who lived in a world made of effort, sacrifice, devotion, work. And at the end also a passion for sport. True passion. It is a hymn to life, sung in silence, in solitude, in the fragile holiness of a place that has perhaps lost all hope of being able to regain possession of that ideal world. You understand why Venetian rowing is a matter of life and death.

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