Friday, June 12, 2009

Il Miracolo della Madonna del Capitello

On May 31st 2009 I participated in the Vogalonga, a regatta founded to protest "Moto Ondosso", the boat wake that is one of the worst threats to Venice. As some of you may know this years event had some wind. The following is a description of my experience in Venice, Mestre and the Vogalonga, in retrospect.

This years flight to Venice had the quality of lasting forever in the air but on the ground at San Marco Airport it seemed but a moment. Dawn and I met a nice couple traveling with a toddler and we shared a water taxi into the city. Like a gondola ride the water taxi from the airport costs a good piece of every ones travel budget but there is no better way to arrive in the city. After being escorted to our "garden view" apartment we spent the rest of the day resting and collecting Howard and Barbara, my parents, from the Ferrovia.

Over the next few days different combinations of the four of us visited the Salute church, cycled on the Lido, watched the Rialto fish market come to life, rediscovered the joys of watching the ballet of boat traffic from the Rialto bridge, and so many other little things. I even ran into many Venetian friends who I had met over my last few visits. Samantha on the prua remo.

Part of all this, really the main part, is about rowing. For 10 years I have consistently endeavored to improve my rowing and with the acquisition of actual venetian gondolas I have reached a point where I feel as though I could row at least as well as some of the bottom tier rowers in Venice. Ah, what a claim. Sadly there is nowhere in California to test it. So Venice. I had participated in three other Vogalongas but this time I was going to row Valesana, a rare two oared style of rowing. I was lucky enough to have a sandolo which could be rowed Valesana and spent years trying to get good at it. This year a Venetian gondolier I know, with no qualms, passed me the oar to his gondola and relaxed as I rowed he and my family past motor boats and other gondolas in the narrow winding canals. I took that as a vote of confidence.

The crew for my training rows.

Greg Mohr kindly introduced my family to a new family in Venice. Mestre really, which is situated at the end of the Ponte Liberta, the bridge to Venice. The people at the Groupo Sportivo Voga Veneto Mestre are some of the kindest and most generous people I have met anywhere. Greg and I did some training rows together and I took Dawn on a cruise to Forte Marghera, a partially restored star shaped fort surrounded by water and built by the conquering Napoleonic Army. Eating is a sport second only to rowing at the GSVVM and pasta and wine continually appeared like magic. The dinner held at the GSVVM the night before the Vogalonga was classic Venetian fare featuring pasta and four kinds of fish, some you ate like pop corn and the rest you ate like chicken. Wine was pumped from the largest jugs I have ever seen and German beer was tapped, with a mallet! Bepi Penzo would find me and drag me over to a group of Venetians introducing me as Bepi Venexiano and having me sing "Venezia No" to the surprise of the listeners. A may pole was raised, to the strains of traditional German music played on guitar, violin, and flute. A gift from the Germans whose club is affiliated with the GSVVM. This replaced the one snapped by high winds. Many hands raised the pole with the help of two thin, cleaned, pine trunks, with a short length of rope tied to each of the tips. Once up it was clamped tightly into its base. It had been painted white with a blue stripe curling from base to tip. It had scenes, cut from wood and painted, of their town on it as well as crew and Venetian rowing scenes. The weather vane on top itself was topped by the figures of a dancing German couple, one side of which the frau is bare breasted.

Then, of course, there is the day of the Voga Longa. I woke at 5:30 am, rechecked my bag, kissed my wife and walked outside. My heart sank as I stood there feeling and hearing the strongest wind I have felt in the city. Months of training, planning, juggling and expense were blowing away in that wind. It was really incomprehensible and one of those things it is useless to try and comprehend. I though for a moment and decided it was possible that it would calm down. I turned and made my way to Piazza Roma.

There were only the stirrings of the new day at P. Roma. After a quick scan of the buses I looked at the line of empty taxis and went and stood by the first one. It was a minute or two before the driver appeared and his price was usual. As the taxi darted out of Venice and onto the bridge I got a look at the lagoon I needed to row across just to get to the starting line. My heart sank again. Wind, waves and white caps, it was an angry lagoon. Now I was thinking a mix of "It's not a day for you." back to "It may calm down.".

As the cab drove away and I walked through the the gates of the club not a soul was in sight. I had planned to arrive early so I could cross the lagoon and martial my strength before the regatta. Now I needed to go early in order to just be on time for the start. I walked by the rows of sandolo and mascaretta and up to the club building. No one. I walked to the waterfront. It seemed the wind was milder. I walked back to the club. I needed to go, where was Gino? Then he appeared. He walked into the kitchen and came out with a plate of fish from the night before. As Gino was the crane operator I wasn't going any where without him. I pointed to the fish and he waved me into the kitchen where I filled a small plate with them. We ate in silence and after a while I left him and went and rolled out the mascaretta they had chosen for me.


As I hammered the twin forcolas home with shims a club member, who I had not met before, said to me "This might not be the day for you.". I countered with a list of my experience but he remained unconvinced. As this was occurring Gino appeared behind the man, looked at me and gave an almost imperceptible nod. It was all I needed. Gino knew what I could do. Two days before he had shook my hand and hugged me saying "Bravi, Bravi, un professionale." after I nailed a docking in tough conditions. "Grazie" I said and meant it. The next day after another solid landing he said kind things again and again I said "Grazie". He smiled, turned, and muttered in Venet as he walked away "Grazie, grazie, all he can say is grazie." I knew I was in.

Gino walked off talking to the man and I turned and hustled my boat out to the waterfront where the cranes are and looked back for Gino thinking he was following. There was no sign of him. In that moment of waiting I felt the call of wild and found a spot behind some sail boats. As I emerged Gino was walking swiftly towards the crane looking around for me. Spotting me he said some form of "Hurry up" so I quickly wheeled the boat into position between the belts and in a minute it was in the water and I was climbing aboard.

"OOOOooooooooooooooooooeeEEEEEEEEEEH" was the last thing I heard from my biggest fan as I put my bow over into the wind and escaped the swirling chop near the seawall. With the wind at my back I popped in my second oar and headed toward the small Isola dei Osei on my way to Venice. As I rowed by the island and in its lee I prepared myself for the blast of wind to come.

Thirty feet from the island the second oar was back in the boat. I set a good angle for the wind and pushed my way forward. My memory of rowing this first section of the lagoon is mostly a blur. Instead of rowing straight at Venice I had to keep my bow pointing nearly into the wind with the effect that I was moving sideways toward the city. Occasionally an extra strong gust on the port side would throw my bow over but one or two strong strokes put me back at a good angle and on I went. The wind was relentless. All hopes of the wind dying were dead. I crabbed along the narrowly dredged channel. Close behind me were shallows deep enough to float the boat but not deep enough for the oar to work and behind that was the Ponte Liberta against whose pilings man or vessel could not easily escape on this day. There was no one around, only the trains and cars hurtling along behind me on the bridge. There's a point you reach when rowing in tough conditions when your focus is absolute and your actions mechanical. On this day I didn't worry about skill but my endurance. There was no turning back. Either I would win or the lagoon would.

About a half hour into it I began to be passed by crews in sculls, the Germans launching from the GSVVM. The first to pass me was something like a ships boat of four oars. Seeing me crab along they offered me a line to tow me to the city. I considered for a moment then politely refused, I still felt good. It was rowing in a high wind. I have rowed many times in strong winds which sometimes gust or blow steady and sometimes seem to come from every direction at once. I have always made it back.

This days wind was a steady from one direction, the one direction that sweeps the length of the lagoon producing rough conditions that were at their peak of power the last third of the route I was rowing. As I rowed I could feel the wind strengthening. During the first part of the row the lagoon was somewhat in the lee of the mainland. Now I was experiencing the full force of the wind. My bow was being pushed over more and more. I was constantly keeping in mind the basics, left hand pushes and the right hand brings the oar back, relax every muscle except the ones you are using, singing helps with pace and breathing. I was constantly resetting these thoughts in my mind. I had heard of the Madonna di Capitella, an icon of the Virgin Mary, placed on a bricola on the lagoon and I had always wanted to see it. At one point on my row I looked up from my mechanical haze and there she was. It would be wrong not to mention that she interceded. Renewed I rowed on.

> Ciao, Bella!

The little Island of San Secondo stood between me and the city and I decided a few minutes in her lee would be good. That was about the time the waves started coming. In sets of three they would come, not too big but as the bow climbed them the wind would push my nose over. When they came I had to row straight at them and reset my angle when they passed. A lot of extra work that didn't bring me any closer to my destination. Reset, relax, fight and push. A moment of not rowing and it was the shallows then the bridge for me.

The lee of San Secondo was a welcome break. I slid my bow into the mud and sat down. As I drank some water I looked towards Venice. I was nearly there but I was also feeling run down. After a short break I backed the boat out and prepared to return to the wind. As I set my angle and pushed on yet again I was greeted by a set of waves that were larger than the others I had gone over. I pointed my nose into the first wave and it rose up and up then "wham", the bow slammed flatly as it went over and buried itself in the face of the next wave. I cannot describe the feeling of being fatigued, rowing in the wind and then having a wave break over the bow of your boat. It was at this point things got difficult.

The next set was coming so instead of rowing directly at them I took an angle I hoped would keep the bow from digging into the second wave. This worked but as my bow went up the wind took it, really took it. It blew me sideways parallel with the waves which as any rower knows is a bad place to be. This time it took more than a couple of strokes to get back into the wind. The next set I aimed straight with a new result, the bow went up then down into the base of the next wave and the water rolled, "prua di popa", bow to stern, getting my feet wet. The whole time from San Secondo to Venice I had to choose between being blow sideways or having waves go over the bow. I mostly chose the waves as pushing my bow back into position when the wind took it was tough. At least ten waves broke over my bow and on one occasion the wind blew my bow over and nearly knocked me off my feet, with a roar I fought it back. Reset, relax, fight, push.

I was now nearly to Venice with the Cannaregio canal within reach. So much water was sloshing around it was getting hard to row. At this time a six oar caorlina from the club rowed by me aiming for a canal right up against the railway which was parallel to the Cannaregio. I wanted to get the the Cannaregio but I couldn't handle any more sets so I followed the caorlina. They pulled into the canal and against a seawall they stopped, looking at each other in way that said "What the hell was that!". As I rowed up they all looked at me. "Do you have a sesola?" I asked and I pointed down at the water in my boat. A few eyes got wide and a kind lady explained that they only had a sponge and that maybe this was not the day for me.

I set myself to getting the water out of the boat which took at least a half hour of labor. When dry I tried to decide what was next. The caorlina had gone deeper into the canal we were on so I followed. The canal narrowed and narrowed and turned until it met finally with the cannaregio canal. Right at the end of the narow canal there were two wooden posts placed so that you couldn't get past then. I sat dumbfounded as every kind of boat including many from the club rowed past. Somewhere I had missed the turn the caorlina took. Now I had to turn and row backwards, through a narrow windy canal, looking for a place to turn spin around. After a while I had room to turn so I brought her around and went looking for the right canal to take which I found after a few minutes.

When I emerged on the cannaregio the crush of boats had passed and I was alone. I rowed on until I came to the grand canal. It was still windy but not as choppy so I put my second oar in its fork and rowed up the grand canal toward the bacino San Marco. With the exception of a few taxis I had the entire Grand Canal to myself. As I rowed under the Rialto Bridge a few people cheered. As I continued on boats began passing me going to other direction, away from the start. Kayakers, canoes and crew boats who had given up at the starting line. Mixed in with them I saw three different boats rowing Valesana, the style I was rowing. At this point it was clear that there was no way I was going to attempt the course. I felt pretty good but it was all adrenaline.

As I approached the Salute church I looked at the bacino and it was empty. The cannon had sounded, the field had yelled "San Marco" with oars raised and then had left. I rowed over to the officials barge, showed my number and they gave me my medal and certificate of participation. After a few minutes rest I turned my boat around and headed back into the Grand Canal. There were even fewer boats than before so I slowed down and took it all in. It is a rare treat to row alone on the grand canal and this was my victory lap, I wanted enjoy it.

Photo taken By John Reinard

I rowed under the Rialto bridge again, then to the Cannaregio and under the three arch bridge, and down to where the canal meets the lagoon. I tied off near the end climbed onto the fondamente and sat in a chair, drinking water and eating a sandwich. Another six man caorlina from the club rowed up and the men held onto the fondamente. They had clearly given it up and were resting before crossing the lagoon to Mestre. I recognized the guy on the popa and we chatted briefly. Soon they were in a conversation about what the best route for returning to the club. They didn't look like they were looking forward it.

As I watched them leave the waves and wind tossed them around but soon they had their angle and were on their way. I watched them for a while, rowing as a team, and saw them take a break in the lee of San Secondo. I felt pretty rested and as I needed to get the boat back I prepared to make a second crossing. I secured everything in the boat the best I could, untied, and rowed into the lagoon.

It was going pretty well at first but soon it became clear it would not work. On the way over I had the wind on my port side or the "strong side" where a few forward strokes of the oar would bring me back into the wind. Now the wind was on the starboard or"weak side" which means I had to bring my nose back into the wind using the return stroke and side strokes which slows you down as you turn right into the wind. After about 400 yard and still far from San Secondo I called it off and with what strength I had left I rowed back to the city and back to the canal I first entered. Now what? I asked a few taxi's for a tow but they had no interest. Finally a father and his teenage son putted past in a motor boat. I explained the situation and offered to pay for a tow across the lagoon back to the club. They agreed and in a minute we were side tied and off. The father asked his son if the bow line I had tied looked ok and he said "Si."

Immediately on entering the lagoon the waves started hitting us. Water was shooting up between the boats soaking me. The boaters son crawled to the bow and covered himself with a tarp. We lost a bumper so I held on to the side of the motor boat to keep the vessels from coming to close and shooting up more water. After what seemed a long time we reach the waterfront at the rowing club. I held out a large note to the boater but he refused it. We untied our boats and were clear. I had to quickly pop my forcola back in and row over to the waiting crane. Gino saw me and cheered. As I halted in the straps I looked up at Gino who was smiling at me in a way that said "So, how was that?"

Gino lowered the mascaretta onto the cart and while it was half held by the straps and half on the cart I motioned to him that I wanted to get the water out. He looked inside then at me and said "take it to the club get the water out there."

I rolled the sloshing vessels down the path to the club. Everyone seemed in good spirits but there was an atmosphere of gravity as, for all, it was a serious day of rowing. Giani greeted me and looked me up and down, soaked and nearly shivering, and then to the boat. "Is there a sesola handy?" I asked. He wasn't smiling, he wasn't frowning. "We can roll the boat over to get the water out" He said. Giani and I lifted the bow till the stern touched the ground and someone took the cart away. We laid her flat then will the help of two others we rolled her over and gallons poured out. We put her back on the cart and I began sponging the remnants of the water. "How did it go out there?" Giani asked and I told him about the crossing and showed him the medal. "Prua di popa?" He asked when I mentioned the the waves. "Si" I replied. As we rolled the boat into the shed he smiled at me and asked if I was hungry and I said that I was.

Five minutes later I was eating a plate of pasta and fish and drinking wine with the some other club members wearing a donated jacket while my sweatshirt dried on a nearby railing. Everyone seemed to produce wine bottles out of thin air. Dawn and my parents arrived at the club. I had called them to let them know where I was. Greg Mohr arrived with his crew and each had the same look as everyone, as though they had been through something big.

The "Three Bepi's" sing "Venezia No"

A young German woman came up to us and asked if anyone spoke english and the everyone at the table pointed at me. She expained that her boyfriend had bent over to get a article from their vessel and the car key had fallen out of his pocket into the lagoon. I translated and asked about a mechanic. A club member went off to call and came back a few minutes later. He tried to speak but realizing he didn't know the words held his wrists together in front of him. "Con il polizia?" I asked. "Si" was the reply. I looked at the German woman and said "The mechanic is in jail.". A minute later she was eating pasta and drinking a welcome glass of wine. After a while the fire department came with their fire engine and opened her door. Then the six of them drank a glass of wine at the wooden shack of a snack bar on the club grounds.

The rest of the time we talked until my parents, fatigued by their journeys that day, desired to return to the city. Caught up in goodbyes I walked out a few moments after my parents and Dawn stayed to gather her things. Not far from the gates of the club she caught up and said "You should have stayed a few minutes longer" "Why?" "Because Giani and two others were arm in arm dancing and kicking chanting "Bep-i Venex-iano Bep-i Venex-iano" I paused and asked "Really?"

The events of the eight days we were in Venice, now several months past, have the quality of an excellant day dream. Beauty and granduer, struggle and trial, romance and affection, these were the sacred waters which immersed us in the Lion City. Back into the normal routine at home it seems like all of this happened to someone else. But it didn't. Late at night as I row lovers on the star sheltered waters of my home bacino I remember crossing the lagoon and my heart races. Then I think of the Madonna di Capitello and I row on.