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.
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.
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.
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.
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.