Rowing the Voga Longa

The Voga Longa - a 30 km row round the lagoons and canals of Venice with over 1000 craft of all types - doesn’t feature on any rowing calendar and had never featured in my 25 plus years of international rowing travel. But I’d heard from a few people who had ventured to Italy to take part in it that it was one of those events you just had to do sometime. And I’d never been to Venice. So when I heard (two weeks before the event) from Drago and Tony that some guys from Sons of the Thames needed a cox for it I offered my services and booked my flight.

I did no more preparation for the event beyond checking the weather forecast (rain) and packing my hand held gps (on which Peter Horton had loaded the local charts). Arriving there the day before the race, the boat trip from the airport to St Marks gave me more of a flavour of what to expect. Venice is a mass of (very) low lying islands, with the deeper channels in the lagoons between them marked with wooden posts. There are boats everywhere and lots of wash, but what was clear to see was the respect paid to small craft, with our high speed little ferry slowing down when anything smaller came close. This was encouraging as by then I had ascertained that we were rowing in a coxed pair and that we would have to cross this very same stretch of water.

Mark (who is a seriously super star organiser – boats for this event are like gold dust) had found us a boat from Diadora rowing club on the Lido, the island at the far end of the lagoon that shelters the rest of the Venice archipelago from the Adriatic. Getting there from our hotel involved a boat ride and then a bus trip. The very friendly boathouse manager showed us our boat, aptly named Adriatico, which he proudly told us had been built in 1920. At least it looked very sea worthy - Venice and our start line looked a long way away across a large expanse of very bouncy water.The route across wasn’t exactly obvious and I was very grateful for my gps as we set off across the lagoon. The boat rode the waves quite remarkably well and we negotiated fishing nets and ferries and duly found the entrance to a canal which Mark had ear-marked for a beer stop. The guys then offered to let me try rowing on the way back and we practiced swapping over in the lee of an island. I’m not exactly built to row a coxed pair – never mind one this heavy – but I loved it!

Pre-race prep that night consisted of a trip to Harry’s Bar for a dry martini and then some pasta loading ahead of an early night. We wanted to be in the start area well ahead of the 9am start and, getting there for 830am, we parked ourselves strategically ahead of the larger boats and with other smaller and slower craft. 

These all started off and we followed them – we reckon we crossed the “line” at 845am – and this meant we were still ahead of the big craft at the first big bottle neck and a 90 degree turn left at the end of the island. There were boats of all types everywhere and a lot of cries of “Attenzione!” - a pair with old wooden blades is a surprisingly wide vessel and manoeuvrable only if both blades are actually free to row.

The race then takes you up to its furthest away point and the island of Burano (which confusingly had a different name on my gps) and where you can get land on a beach and pay calls of nature. We took the opportunity here to swap rowers over – with Jeremy now steering and me rowing. Setting off again we crossed another lagoon and then rowed through Murano, under a bridge packed with people. While still in the shelter of the island and this time on the water – Adriatico is a remarkable little boat – we swapped back to me coxing to make sure Jeremy and Mark got to row up the Grand Canal. Lucky we did so then as the excitement of rowing had distracted me from my role as navigator and we were much closer to home than I’d realised. Very shortly thereafter we turned into the Grand Canal.

And there we met chaos! A current was pushing boats onto the first bridge and boats had got jammed sideways across the canal and no one was going anywhere. Then Mark inspiredly suggested we go across some red buoys (see the photo above), take our blades out of the gates and manoeuver our way through the inside arch. This was achieved remarkably easily to cheers from the assembled throng on the bridge, and off we set down a near deserted canal. It felt rather like a victory parade- with crowds cheering and even people singing. At the far end of the canal we collected our medals and certificates and set off back to our favourite little bar for some very well earned beers, ahead of a row back across to the rowing club and to say a fond good bye to Adriatico.

I’d reckoned the race could take us c 6 hours. In fact it took us 4 hours 15 min. I haven’t mentioned the weather – it did indeed rain hard for much of the first part, but the sun came out as we entered the canal. I have also failed to mention the sights we saw. Venice is packed full of them, but it was the atmosphere of the event itself that was by far the most amazing.

Would I go back to do it again? You bet!

Hilary Cook