Vogalonga – Che bella cosa!

The poster for Venice’s 46th Vogalonga (“Long Row”) held on 5 June 2022. Photograph by Philip Plisson.

16 June 2022

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch combines two things that he has wanted to do for a long time.

For those who have never visited Venice, it would be reasonable to suspect the New York Times guilty of hyperbole when it called what is, unpromisingly, a collection of over 100 islands lying in a shallow lagoon, “Undoubtedly the most beautiful city built by man.” However, the highly acclaimed travel writer, Jan Morris, whose book Venice has not been out of print since it was first published in 1960, concurred: “One might claim (that Venice is) most physically beautiful of all the cities of the world.” 

Thus, when my first visit to the UNESCO World Heritage Site was combined with my participation in the Vogalonga, a rowing and paddling event that attracts nearly 8000 participants from Venice, from the rest of Italy and from around the world, I was very happy. Even the prospect of rowing 30k in a coxed four after a twenty-five-year break from both sweep and crew rowing did not lessen my enthusiasm (much). 

I had first received an invitation from Richard Robinson, Chairman of the City Barge Boat Club (CBBC) in Oxford, to take part in the Vogalonga under CBBC’s colours in 2020 but, of course, the pandemic intervened. I have written about City Barge before. In my 2019 article I said:

For 25 years, the members of the City Barge Boat Club 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.”

The start of a previous Vogalonga. Arguably, this photograph outdoes the same view painted by Canaletto around 1740, “The Basin of San Marco on Ascension Day.”

The website vogalonga.com explains:

The Vogalonga is a non-competitive celebration for all rowers (that) brings together Venetians and enthusiasts from around the world…

Rowing boats of any weight and size can take part in the event. There is also no limit in the number of rowers in a craft. The Organising Committee reserves the right to close registration once the set maximum number of participants (approx. 8000) or 2000 craft has been reached…

It all started one day in 1974 when three friends took part in a regatta in ‘mascarete’ boats. At the time, enthusiasts of Venetian style rowing (voga alla veneta) were few and far between in a world where many were more and more inclined to favour the use of motor crafts in the lagoon. 

(A) group came up with the idea of a non-competitive rowing event as a form of protest against the deterioration of the city and the adverse effects of wave motion caused by motor traffic in the lagoon. 

All those in favour of reinstating Venetian (boating) traditions were invited to join the cause: these included rowing enthusiasts and others who had long ‘laid down their oars’. This simple spontaneous act of indignation led to the Vogalonga venture…

A 30km course along the canals through the most pleasant and charming places in the lagoon was charted out…

Venice had awakened and once again found a voice and taken on a new life form. It wasn’t only Venetians who were present either… The Vogalonga gradually became more and more popular with ever greater numbers of participants… In a very short time, this wave of enthusiasm gave rise to more than fifty rowing clubs. Gradually they equipped themselves with splendid 10, 12 or 18-oar crafts. All this contributed to a renewed sense of pride in the area and its skills which prior to this event had almost disappeared.

According to the statistics page of the website, in 2019, 2,000 boats containing 7,527 rowers took part (1,045 from Venice, 1,371 from the rest of Italy and 5,111 from abroad).

Walking to our boat

The rest of my crew already knew each other and had rowed together at Birmingham and Stratford-upon-Avon. I was the unknown quantity, but Maggie, Karen, Heather and Tom proved great company both in the boat and out. Most of us stayed in the same hotel in the south of Venice and, on the morning of the Vogalonga, walked through the near-deserted streets to the Querini rowing club (Canottieri Querini) on Venice’s north side. Querini and City Barge have close links and the Venetians lend a coxed four, the Flora, to the Oxford club every year.

Karen, Maggie and Tom.
How could I not take this picture?
The only time to visit the usually overcrowded St Mark’s Square is early in the morning.
Vogalonga boats left incongruously by the hospital, Scuola Grande di San Marco. Picture: @nicolapadovan

Canottieri Querini

Querini is named after Count Francesco Querini (1867 – 1900), a Venetian version of Robert Falcon Scott (or possibly, Captain Lawrence Oates). He was a scientist and naval officer from one of Venice’s most illustrious and ancient families. In 1899, he joined the Duke of Abruzzi’s expedition to reach the North Pole, a goal that had become something of an international competition. After twelve days, the attempt was abandoned but Querini’s section was lost on the return and the bodies were never found. His friend, Count Piero Foscari, and twenty dissatisfied members of the Royal Rowing Society Bucintoro founded Canottieri Querini in his memory. “Canottieri” refers to rowing “English Style” sitting down, then a rather aristocratic activity – unlike the widespread Venetian stand up rowing. Today, however, Querini favours Venetian rowing over the so-called English style.  

Canottieri Querini on the Fondamente Nuove.
Querini viewed from the water.
Inside part of the Querini boathouse. The bust is of Francesco Querini.
The view from the clubroom.
The Querini website has a wonderful section of historic club photographs.

Going afloat

The busy scene outside Querini as both members and visitors attempted to get their boats on the water.
Several Thames based clubs were boating and I saw many familiar faces – including these from London Rowing Club.
Members of Molesey Boat Club on Querini’s pontoon. My crew rowed in an identical boat, a sliding seat coxed four with offset seating making outriggers unnecessary.
Ready for the off. Myself (bow), Maggie (2), Tom (cox), Karen (3) and Heather (stroke).

On the way to the start

Vogalonga 2022

The start is in the Bacino di San Marco, the wide stretch of water in front of St. Mark’s Square and the Ducal Palace. The 30km course extends over the northern lagoon, past the islands of Sant’Erasmo, Burano and Mazzorbo and through the centre of Murano before returning to Venice via the canale di Cannareggio and proceeding down the Grand Canal to the finish.
The start in the Bacino di San Marco. This picture is from 2017 but it is still worth reproducing. Picture: @RiiInterai / Riccardo Roiter Rigoni.
Our boat was kept in the back of the Querini boathouse, so we were last to go afloat from there and missed, for better or worse, the main start.
All craft propelled by oars or paddles were welcome.
The lagoon is very shallow in parts and some crews got out of their boats for a refreshing swim – or a walk.
A Cornish training gig from Hampshire’s Langstone Pilot Gig Club navigates the canal running through the island of Marino.

It proved very difficult to take satisfactory pictures from the boat during our brief stops, so I have posted a few of the best shots that appeared on Twitter under the hashtag Vogalonga2022.

Canale di Cannaregio

While much of the course is on the wide open Venetian Lagoon, there are various “choke points” (“punto critici”) where a lot of boats try to go through a narrow canal at the same time. The most “cririci” place that we encountered was at the canale di Cannaregio, the entry point back into Venice after navigating the lagoon and the smaller islands.

This picture of the canale di Cannaregio appears to show the water traffic moving well but, by the time we got there, it took ninety minutes to travel 250 metres. Picture: @sharjah24
Although most rowers took the antics on the canale di Cannaregio in good spirit, the only official attempt to organise the traffic came from an increasingly animated but largely ignored Italian policeman shouting through a loudhailer at the canal entrance and, amazingly, two police divers in the water – one can be seen here on the right in orange. In keeping with an attitude to health and safety at variance with that of British Rowing, few lifejackets, safety boats or outboard engine kill cords were visible. Picture: @sachtext
The diners at the restaurants along the canale di Cannaregio were provided with much entertainment. Picture: @sachtext
The “peata” is the most commonly-used transport boat on the Venetian canals. It is rowed here by the Gruppo Sportivo Voga Riviera del Brenta from Moranzani on the nearby mainland. Picture: @sachtext
Two hundred metres into the canale di Cannaregio, the Ponte dei Tre Archi provides a very picturesque bottleneck. Picture: @sachtext

Canal Grande

From the Cannareggio Canal we entered the Grand Canal and rowed along this most spectacular of waterways past palazzos dating from the 13th to 18th centuries to the finish point at the end of the canal opposite the Basilica della Salute.

Some boats were returning, others had yet to finish. Picture: @MuseoArchheoVene
Passing the Rialto Mercato ferry stop. Picture: @MrGusFraser
Opposite the fish market, Campo Della Pescaria. Picture: @MrGusFraser

Back to Querini

By the time we returned the Flora to Querini we had been on the water for six-and-a-half hours and had not eaten properly since the previous evening. Thus, we were delighted to be invited into the clubroom for a meal of delicious homemade pasta and desserts, accompanied by local wines and cheeses – all topped off with some wonderful Venetian hospitality. Here, one of our hosts is serving a signature dish of Venice, bigoli in salsa (whole-wheat bigoli pasta, onion and anchovies). 
A very happy crew.
My participation medal. I am very proud of the fact that the small blister on my thumb (pictured) was the only damage to my hands. This could be due to my enormously skilful rowing (or, perhaps, to not pulling too hard). Also, I took the advice of legendary CUBC boatman, Alf Twinn, who told his rowers that, “Gentleman’s hands Sir, you want gentleman’s hands” i.e. that you want the softest possible hands to avoid blisters.

The Vogalonga is on many rower’s “bucket list” but this implies that it is an event to be “ticked off” and not done again. However, I am sure that many thousands of the participants are like me and intend to return to a beautiful city, welcoming people and wonderful rowing event as often as they can.

One comment

  1. A beautifully written piece, with stunning photography.
    It all goes to reaffirm my love for magnificent Venice.

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