Been rowing a while, done all the usual Heads and Regattas, fancy something a bit different? Then do yourself a real favour, get over to Venice and join in the colourful melee that is the Vogalonga (Long row).
What started in 1974 as a protest against damage to the city caused by wash from powered craft has become an annual celebration of Venice’s unique relationship with boats. This years edition saw 8,000 competitors take to the water in 2,000 boats for a 30km row that isn’t strictly a race. In fact many crews appear more interested in the lunch menu than stroke rate but this relaxed vibe can make a welcome change.
We’re fortunate that a number of Marlow RC veterans are also members of Oxford’s City Barge club, who have an exchange arrangement with our generous Venetian hosts Querini boat club. Which is how we came to be rowing the lovely offset coxed four ‘Flora’ you see here.
She was perfect for the job – wide enough to cope with the chop, short enough to take the tight canal corners and as a bonus a perfect if unlikely ‘learn to row’ boat. Tell your partner you’re off to do the Fours Head and you might hear ‘see you later, enjoy yourself’. Tell them you’re off to Venice and you’ll probably get a different reaction.
Rowing doesn’t always make the best spectator sport but few places in the world have the glamorous viewing points and non rowing attractions that Venice can offer.
Having waved us off at the start our ‘fan club’ parked themselves outside a cafe by Rialto bridge in the sunshine waiting for us to return – apparently it’s thirsty work watching rowing. With 2,000 boats crammed into the Grand Canal, no marshalling and no starting order the start was predictably chaotic. We’d taken a cunning tip from a few experienced veterans and got there early to get to the front, but so had 8,000 others!
The first few corners had a real Formula 1 feel to them, lots of contestants and not much track, but after half an hour the boats thinned out a bit, we settled into a relaxed rhythm and enjoyed the stunning scenery. San Marco makes a great backdrop and for those rowers who think they’ve seen it all when was the last time you overtook a rowing boat with a piano and classical pianist on board?
We’d arrived in Venice with a scratch crew, Nadia our Cox hadn’t coxed before and Bill our 2 man (actually 3 in Italy where they count down from bow) hadn’t rowed on the water before but the wide boat, wide channels and friendly spirit made it a great place to learn. Noisy support through the islands of Murano and Burano with church bells pealing and locals cheering made light of the next two hours of old school rowing. Wooden boat, wooden macons, no stroke meter, no GPS, no 500m splits or check factor data just 2,500 firm strokes in the sun that brought us back to the main island and yet more cheering.
We stopped for a photo by Rialto and got a shout from our partners. The last two kilometres through the Grand Canal, packed with noisy supporters but otherwise empty was just fabulous and will linger long in the memory.
In true Spinal Tap fashion everything in Venice is turned up to 11, it’s my favourite European destination with art, culture and beauty around every corner. The water taxi drivers think they’re extras from Top Gun and even the bin men wear aviator shades and exude effortless cool.
With 500+ years spent honing the art of parting tourists from their cash Venice is never going to be a budget destination but the flights are very reasonable (£125 BA Gatwick) and taking a creative view it costs £10 to race 1km at Marlow Spring Regatta, so €25 for 30km with a t shirt and finishers medal thrown in surely represents a bargain of sorts. Works for me.
Overall I can’t recommend it too highly. Whatever else is on your bucket list add the Vogalonga to it – I promise you won’t regret it.
Many thanks to my crew mates John, Bill, Tim and Nadia, to Mike, Richard and the people at City Barge who made the row possible and particularly to our Venetian hosts Querini BC. In the end we finished about 55th (there are no results) in 2h 26mins. I feel slightly sorry for Bill, who rowed really well, after two outings his rowing career has probably peaked, but what a learn to row experience! We’re already looking forward to next year.
Mike Landers, Marlow Rowing Club