by Eric Johnson
With the boom of the canon we were off, the start of the 27th Vogalonga had begun. This was my fifth race; my first was in 1994 and was the beginning of my infatuation with the city of Venice. The Vogalonga is an annual regatta held each May in Venice, Italy. It was first organized as part of a celebration to promote the Venetian style of rowing, and as a kind of protest against the motorized boats that now plow through the canals of Venice. Regata Gondolas, Mascareta, Gondolinos, Caorlinas, Sandolos and Puparins cover the lagoon outside San Marco as the beginning of the race draws near.
The Vogalonga is a non-competitive race, however, it is over 18 miles long. Much like a marathon, just to finish the race in a respectable time is the goal. This year, I decided to row a four-man Sandolo with my American teammates, having already rowed in a Mascareta and Caorlina in previous events. As you start the race in front of San Marco, you can’t help but take a moment to gaze over the fleet of gondolas. I think to myself that this is the reason I love being a gondolier. The unique experience of an American participating in an event like this in a city such as Venice is truly amazing.
The course takes you out past the outer islands such as Vignole, Sant Erasmo and Burano, which serves as the halfway point. It is here that most participants stop and rest, and of course partake in some wine and grappa consumption. It is hard for the Venetians not to notice our boat, with the American flag flying off our stern; a certain amount of pride can be taken in their acceptance of outsiders. One of only a few non-Venetian teams to row Venetian style, we show the great respect we have for this part of their culture.
As we finished our wine, we pulled off the wall and headed back toward Venice. By this time, the conditions of the lagoon start to worsen. The wind picks up and the chop starts to play havoc with our small wooden boat. It is here that all four oarsmen have to be in perfect sync. Balance is key, and keeping the oar in the forcola is crucial if you want to finish the race with the rest of the pack. We row at a steady pace toward Murano as our arms start to burn and hands begin to swell. The years of rowing in the United States pay off, due to the thick calluses that have formed on our hands. We’ve been rowing hard for two hours now and we need the cheers of the crowd to give us our second wind.
When you enter Murano’s Grand Canal, the spectators start to cheer for the racers. They line the sides of the canal clapping and yelling, “Bravo!, as the gondolas row past. Once through the island, the last long leg to the Cannaregio begins. I focus on the creaking of the forcolae and the water splashing against our bow to help keep my rhythm. After another hour of rowing, we enter the Cannaregio. This year there were close to 1,000 boats entered, and by now the pack has thinned out enough to squeeze through the canal, which is only about 80 feet wide. There are now thousands of spectators cheering and waving as we raise our oars in unison to salute the crow
We guide our Sandolo under bridges and around the corner to the Grand Canal, and toward San Marco to the start/finish line. As we row to the committee float, the announcer calls out our names. They drop our participant medals in the boat and we dock alongside the canal as we take in the overwhelming beauty of it all. We have just completed 18 miles and another Vogalonga. Before my blisters heal, I have already made plans to come back and race again next year. I really do love this city.