Standing Up For Rowing

The “Nicolotta”, an 11-metre, privately owned ‘balotina’, a boat similar to the famous Venetian ‘gondola’, but with a narrower, more rounded hull. It is flying the current civil and state flag of the Italian Region of Veneto and is moored outside the City Barge Boat Club at Longbridges Boathouse, Oxford, half way between Folly and Donnington Bridges.

27 September 2017

Tim Koch looks the wrong way.

In most rowing clubs, the quest for speed dominates, as does the idea that a rower should both sit down and look, not where they are going, but they have come from. However, in a small corner of Oxford, they like to mix things up a bit. For 25 years, the members of the City Barge Boat Club (CBBC) have been propelling boats, either while looking backwards and sitting on seats both sliding and fixed, or while standing up and facing forwards, rowing in Venetian style, something that appeals to logic but defies convention. Whatever position they adopt, it is usually how well the craft moves, not how fast, that most concerns the City Barge crews. They summarise all this in their mission statement:

City Barge rows unusual boats in Oxford and elsewhere, and enjoys social events connected with rowing for pleasure. Our different groups of rowers and supporters overlap, intermingle, and have fun.

On Saturday, 16 September, City Barge stalwart, Richard Robinson, invited me to witness all this for myself. I am pleased to report that, standing or sitting, facing backwards or forwards, CBBC members and their guests do have great fun, both on and off the water.

Although it is their gondolas that are the most famous, the Venetians have developed about 30 models of boat. City Barge owns, or has access to, six variants. For more conventional rowing, the club has, or can generally use, a six-oared shallop, two skiffs and a gig.

Some of the City Barge fleet outside its base at Longbridges Boathouse. It shares a clubroom with Oxford University’s Hertford College Boat Club, because the founder of City Barge, the late Richard Norton, was also a great benefactor of HCBC.

The above boats are, furtherest to closest:

Piero, a 9-metre sandolo. This type of flat bottomed boat was once the most common craft in the often shallow Venetian lagoon on account of its great versatility, it was used for both fishing and for carrying goods and people.

Settemari, a 7-metre mascareta, a small and light kind of sandolo. Its name allegedly derives from its use by masked prostitutes in times past (which reminds me of an old Donald McGill seaside postcard joke about ‘oars’).

Giulietta, a 10-metre gondolino, a ’little gondola’ designed to be light and fast for racing.

Serena, a 9-metre sandolo, made in Britain.

In the background is the six-oared shallop, Royal Thamesis, which is rowed conventionally on fixed seats. City Barge looks after the craft on behalf of the Drapers’ Guild. This is through another connection formed by Richard Norton.

Tim Williams, right, City Barge’s ‘Standing Captain’ for Venetian rowing (there is also a ‘Sitting Captain’ for conventional rowing) and committee member, Tony Meadows, left, view some other examples of the City Barge fleet. Boathouses belonging to many of the Oxford Colleges are visible on ‘Boathouse Island’ in the distance.

In later life, Tony Meadows decided to do a degree in Italian. So, in preparation for a year studying in Venice, he learned voga alla veneta, the traditional Venetian rowing style, with City Barge. The boats Tim and Tony are looking at are, left to right:

Regalo, a 9-metre sandolo, made almost entirely of mahogany, making her heavy and stable.

Allegra, another 9-metre sandolo, this one owned by Richard Bailey, the club Chairman. The combination of the club boats and the member’s boats means that City Barge has access to the largest collection of Venetian boats outside of Italy.

Ashley Clarke, an 8-metre sandolo in which most City Barge members learn to row Venetian style.

A better view of the balotina, “Nicolotta”.

On the day I visited, City Barge was playing host to 30 visitors from Settemari la Remiera di Cannaregio dal 1977, a classic Venetian rowing club from Cannaregio, the northernmost of the six historic districts of Venice. The Italians spent the morning sightseeing in Oxford, so City Barge members took the shallop and some Venetian boats past Boathouse Island, under Folly Bridge, and headed upstream. On the outward journey, I was perched on the bows of a sandolo, trying not to upset the balance, but on the return trip, I had a more comfortable ride in the shallop.

A sandolo in action.
Tony Meadows, not reaching Mach 2 as he did when a Concorde pilot, but still getting much pleasure from a more basic technology. The ‘rowlock’ is called the ‘fórcola’ and is usually carved from walnut. The oar is called the ‘remo’.
The fórcola on the “Nicolotta” has two different points of control. It is a work of art on its own, rather more attractive than a metal rigger and plastic oarlock.
In skillful hands, a Venetian boat, such as this sandolo, does not need even numbers rowing on both sides.
Venturing under Folly Bridge. The Thames at Oxford has a stretch of two-and-a-half miles between Iffley Lock and Osney Lock. City Barge often ventures through Osney Lock to go upstream to Port Meadow, or downstream through Iffley Lock to Sandford. Also, the River Cherwell joins the Thames on this stretch and is navigable for a mile upstream.
Upstream of Folly Bridge.
The six-oared shallop, “Royal Thamesis”, in action. She is a replica of Queen Mary’s barge of 1689.
A carving of Tamesis copied from Henley Bridge adorns the stern of Royal Thamesis.
“Royal Thamesis” moored at Longbridges.
We had to share the river with the Isis Sculls, a head race held in multiple divisions over an 1850-metre upstream course, organised by the City of Oxford Rowing Club.
The flag formerly used by the Republic of Venice flies over Longbridges Boathouse.
The Venetian visitors from the “Settemari” club return from sightseeing in Oxford. There was racing planned for the afternoon but this did not stop them taking wine with their clubhouse lunch. It would have been rude for the rest of us not to join them…
City Barge gave each guest from Venice an umbrella which marked 25 years of CBBC and 40 years of “Settemari”. The Italians then proceeded to put on an impromptu song and dance involving the brollies.

After lunch, there were time trials as visitors, hosts and mixed crews raced sandolos around a little island in a nature reserve next to the Longbridges Boathouse. Each circuit of the narrow waterway took about five minutes and needed a great deal of skill to take the bends and stay out of the overhanging foliage.

Passing the start line.
Building up speed.
Expertly rowing a “mascareta” single handed.
Navigating the island.
I do not know the story of the abandoned or lost shoe, but I am sure that it was an interesting one.
Approaching the finish.
Rowing facing backwards in a boring piece of moulded plastic may never be the same again.

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