Travel: Learning to row like a Venetian

04/27/2014 12:00 AM

04/24/2014 12:36 PM

It was true, as the staff at Venice’s five-star Luna Hotel Baglioni graciously indicated, that my family and I could hail a water taxi from the luxury hotel’s private dock. But faced with another day of criminally delightful pampering, I decided instead to try something that I’d long wanted to do here: row my own boat.

Ever since I first visited this Italian city as a scruffy backpacking teen several decades ago, I’d wondered how the gondoliers were able to so nimbly navigate its watery warrens in their slender black boats. But it wasn’t until this recent March trip that I learned that anyone can be his or her own gondolier by taking lessons in Venetian rowing.

Many of the city’s two dozen or so società, or rowing clubs, offer instruction in the skill. Concierges at swankier hotels such as ours can make the arrangements, or you can do so yourself. With a brief email exchange, I scheduled a lesson the next day with the folks at Row Venice. The cost for an hour and a half lesson is 80 euros (about $110), a fraction of the fare for riding in a gondola for the same amount of time. And, as I soon learned, rowing instead of riding is way more fun.

The next morning, as my wife and 11-year-old son slept in, I walked through the quiet and narrow calli, or waterside streets, to meet my teacher. Fortified with several cappuccini and slices of fresh blood oranges from my hotel, I gave myself a pep talk.

I’d rowed in college. Done a little kayaking at home in Florida. Even tried stand-up paddleboarding. This couldn’t be so different, right? OK, at least don’t fall into the canal.

My American-born teacher, Nan McElroy, met me at the marina in Sacca Misericordia, on the city’s north side. As she prepared the boat, we went over the basics. First, our vessel is not a gondola but a two-person batellina coda di gambero, or small shrimp-tail boat. Like a gondola, it’s flat-bottomed, but it’s also wider and therefore less tippy. “It makes a great first-time rowing boat,” McElroy said.

As is the case with dozens of other kinds of local people-powered boats, ours was all about voga alla Veneta, the traditional Venetian standing rowing technique. “Not all Venetian boats are gondolas, but any Venetian boat you row, you row the same way,” McElroy said.

The origins of this peculiar kind of rowing are as murky as the waters over which its practitioners glide. McElroy’s account traced it to early waterborne settlers who wanted to be able to see where they were going. Whatever the truth, it sure looks more dignified than sitting bent over your oar, galley-slave-style.

McElroy started me out rowing in the bow, which is easier, because in the rear you also have to steer. Up front, she showed me how to set the long oar in the forcola, or oar rest, a crooked piece of wood that looks like a “Harry Potter” movie prop. Next, she made sure that my feet were properly positioned – right foot pointing forward, toes about even with the forcola, so that I can use it as a fulcrum against which to push the oar – and gave me pointers on how to hold the oar palm-down and how to follow it high and with my body as I push for a more efficient stroke.

“Think of it as taking a step forward that you don’t quite complete,” she said. “You’re just taking a walk in the boat.”

A dozen or so awkward strokes later, I realized that I was actually doing it. Rowing a boat in Venice. Not well, of course. I was still too stiff, mostly with fear that I’d make us capsize. “None of our students has yet to fall in the water,” McElroy assured me. “But they’ve come close.”

We glided through narrow canals, past grand palazzi and more modest houses. McElroy rowed in back, deftly steering us around corners and other boats.

Several watery blocks later, I was feeling more at ease. My oar popped out of the forcola less frequently. I was putting more of my legs into my strokes. I wanted to believe I was getting the hang of it.

We ducked our heads as we slid beneath a low bridge and emerged into sunlight. Even with the sounds of the awakening city, the gentle creak of oars and McElroy’s occasional words of encouragement and correction, I was struck by the quiet. Venice didn’t get nicknamed La Serenissima – the most serene of cities – for nothing.

“For a thousand years, this was the only way to get around the city,” McElroy said, gently flicking her wrist to send us around another impossibly narrow corner. “It’s the best way to experience the city today.”

Once a film editor in Los Angeles, McElroy fell in love with rowing when she moved to Venice a decade ago. Eager to help preserve and promote traditional Venetian rowing, she teamed up last year with British-born Jane Caporal at Caporal’s nonprofit outfit, Row Venice.

Many of her local friends compete in races hosted by rowing clubs, each with its own colors and insignia. McElroy is strictly a recreational rower, although she’s on the water nearly every day. “I never go to the gym,” she said. “This is the best exercise ever.”

On any given day, she and a handful of other instructors introduce Venetian rowing to a growing mix of visitors eager for a way to experience Venice’s waterways without the usual tourist trappings. “We get every type of person, from almost every country,” she said. “Athletes. Never-been-in-a-boat-of-any-kind types. Retirees. Teenagers. Honeymooners. You name it.”

Women, she teased, tend to be quicker learners because guys often expect instant mastery or use force when what’s needed is finesse. “We perform minor miracles,” she joked. “In an hour and a half we can teach anyone to row.”

Lessons are conducted in neighborhood canals or out in the more wide-open lagoon, depending on weather conditions and student aptitude. “Out in the lagoon, you don’t have to worry about running into anything,” she said with a laugh. “But you don’t get to experience the neighborhoods.”

Though McElroy bemoans the boom in Venice’s motorboat traffic, which prompted a brief ban on motorboats last year to highlight their ill effects on the city’s architecture, she’s no Luddite. A Bluetooth earpiece allows her to answer her cellphone while rowing. As if on cue, a friend in a passing motorboat waved and teased, “Guarda Signora Tecnologia”: Check out Ms. Technology.

About halfway through our lesson, McElroy told me that I was ready to row in the back. To make it easier on me, she lashed the oar to the forcola with a piece of rope – a kind of aquatic training wheels.

The technique for rowing in back is much the same as for the front, except for changing sides and the added duty of steering, which I quickly discovered was a little like rubbing your belly and patting your head at the same time.

The stroke forward is similar. But when you finish, instead of lifting the oar out of the water, you leave it in, twisting it slightly so that it’s parallel with the surface of the water. Then you gently push down on the oar as you pull back, careful to keep it in the forcola, so that the blade drags through the water on the right side of the boat. In this way, you compensate for the motion of the initial stroke forward.

To turn right, after you finish the forward stroke, you twist the blade so that it points toward the bow of the boat. To turn left, you make a stronger forward stroke and ease off – or skip – the correcting downward pressure after.

Gaining in confidence, if not competence, I exchanged nods and ciaos with passing boatmen, fantasizing that they mistook me for a local. That dream was soon shattered when I nearly ran us into a wall, and McElroy casually kicked a sneakered foot off it, sending us back in the right direction.

As if reading my mind, McElroy suggested we stop for a drink. We tied up and popped into Vino-Vero, her neighborhood wine bar. A trained sommelier, McElroy also leads highfalutin bar-hopping trips at night by boat. A couple of glasses of chilled Prosecco and chitchat with locals later, we were back in the boat. Whether from the Italian bubbly or genuine improvement, I felt more relaxed as I worked my forward oar. I didn’t even flinch when, as we approached a blind corner, McElroy suddenly hollered “Oe!” in cheerful warning to potential oncoming traffic. A woman crossing the bridge smiled and answered helpfully, “Non c’é nessuno.” There’s no one there.

By lesson’s end, I was wondering what it would be like to spend Christmas in Venice. And if it was possible to row then. “You can row year-round, unless the wind is blowing too hard,” McElroy said.

Of course, I considered, even on blustery days, there are always plenty of cozy spots like Vino-Vero where one can find a restorative treat.

When I told my wife and son over lunch how much fun my rowing lesson had been, they said that they wanted to try it, too. But an early train back to Rome the next morning meant that they’d have to wait till our next visit. Christmas in Venice, they agreed, sounded like a very fine idea.

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