After years of watching the gracious movements of rowers in the Venetian canals, I decided it was time to try this myself. I mustered up my courage and booked an initiation class ‘Voga alla Veneta’ with Venice On Board. It turned out to be one of the most fun experiences I ever had in Venice and I reckon that’s worth doing again. I highly recommend it to every frequent visitor of Venice.
In this post, I will tell you about my rowing experience in Venice, and give you some information about Venice On Board and how you can organize your own rowing session.
Prepare for the rowing class
The first and most important step is of course to book your rowing session. Lessons are organized every day of the week, from 8.30 in the morning until 5.30 in the evening. The initiation takes 90 minutes and costs 40 euros per person. For groups of 4 people or more, the price goes up to 45 euros per person, but you will get a bigger boat, half an hour extra and a second instructor. You can book the classes online via their website. Venice On Board is a small team, so don’t wait too long to make your reservation as the slots can fill up quickly. In case of bad weather, you can change the timing together with the team.
INSIDER TIP: If your preferred date cannot be booked online, send them an email to doublecheck the availability, as there are sometimes technical issues with the calendar on the site. This was also the case when I tried to book, so I was very happy to be able to arrange a session after my initial disappointment.
Equally important is to make sure you dress comfortably. First of all, you need good and non-slippery shoes to stand in the boat for a long period. I wore my favourite Keds sneakers and didn’t feel unstable. Your clothes should also give you enough freedom to move. We rowed at the beginning of April when it was rather cold, so I dressed in several layers with a light windstopper. I could then easily take off some layers if it would be too warm. As you are not participating in a regata, but rowing at slow speed, you don’t need a sports outfit but just something that won’t limit your movements. Being on the water is also a bit cooler than walking in the streets, so take this into account when choosing your outfit. In summer, don’t forget to take your sunglasses, a hat or a cap, some water and to protect your body with suncream.
Venice On Board is located on the outskirts of Cannaregio, so make sure you foresee enough time to arrive there before your class. The closest vaporetto stop is S. Alvise which takes you approx 10 min to walk. Their offices and meeting point (Fond. Contarini, Cannaregio 3009 G) are along the Rio della Sensa, where the canal flows into the lagoon. You can recognize it by the sign and all the plants in front of the small entrance. If you are early, you can admire the workshop of the team and the old boats which they are restoring. There is also a huge series of forcole (oarlocks) and other interesting rowing equipment and tools. I was very happy that we were early so we could nose about in this artisan’s heaven while waiting for Emiliano, our instructor. In case you wonder, there is also a bathroom which you can use before you get into the boat.
INSIDER TIP: Take the opportunity (before or after) your class to discover this quiet area of Venice. Cannaregio has many interesting sights, a wide variety of artisans and shops and plenty of bars and restaurants. You can find some inspiration in my post ‘Cannaregio: A walk along artisans and history in Venice’.
Understand the importance of rowing in Venice
Before getting into the boat, Emiliano gave us plenty of background information about Venice and the lagoon. He reminded us that, historically, rowing was a necessary skill for every Venetian, youg and old, as it was the only transportation means to get around the city. He also showed us the different types of boats that are used in Venice and explained the different parts of the forcola (the support on which you put the oar).
DID YOU KNOW? The size of the forcola depends on the height of the rower. A difference of 10 cm in height is approx. 1-1.5 cm difference in the forcola. Ardent rowers have their own forcola designed to their body, so they can row the boat without using too much energy. It is therefore a personal and expensive part of the boat, which is usually taken home and not left unattended.
During the session, we rowed a sanpierota, one of the most common rowing boats in Venice. Its elegant design is derived from the popular sandolo. As they were originally produced in San Pietro in Volta, it was called a sandolo di san Pietro, a sandolo sanpieroto or a sanpierota. A sanpierota is quite easy to manoeuvre and is stable, so perfect for a rowing initiation. The flat bottom allows it to access canals which aren’t very deep. The sanpierota can also be used for sailing or with an engine.
Voga alla Veneta, or rowing in Venetian style, differs from traditional rowing as you stand up and row with your face forward. This also implies that you push the paddle in the water instead of pulling, so it’s physically less heavy. The rationale behind standing in the boat is that you have a better view of the area around the boat as canals are often narrow and there isn’t much place to manoeuvre. It also allows to look into the water and see any obstacles under water. Did you realize that many canals are less than one metre deep? You can easily touch the ground with the oar.
Row like a professional
Now it’s time to start the real and most interesting part of the rowing session. The most difficult part of the rowing was, at least for me, getting into the boat which was quite low in the water. However, once you are in the boat, it feels rather stable and you don’t fear about falling in the water.
Emiliano first sailed the boat to a quiet spot in the canal, where he attached it with cords to 2 poles. There, we practiced the basic rowing technique. You have to stand with one foot in front of the other and keep your back straight. Moving the oar is a 4 step process: you have to turn it (as if you give gas on a motorbike), put it in the water, push your body and arm forward (as if you are dancing) and then pull it out of the water and start all over again. It’s a bit complicated in the beginning, but after a while it almost becomes an automatism. When you do it wrong, the oar falls out of the forcola and you have to lift it back into the forcola before you can continue. Luckily, Emiliano taught us a trick to do this so it wasn’t too hard. The difficulty is then to remember the right order of the movements and find your rhythm again. As you move with your entire body and not only with your arms, it isn’t as heavy as I thought it would have been. Afterwards, I mainly felt it in my wrists and ankles.
Once you know the basic movement, it’s time to sail through the quiet canals of Cannaregio. I took a class together with my husband, so we changed roles from time to time. This enables you to enjoy the rowing, but also to rest in between and to look around. There isn’t much traffic in these canals so there’s no need to worry that you will be hit by another boat (or hit one yourself). As a student, you stand in front of the boat to row, while the instructor rows in the back of the boat. He can therefore follow your rhythm and correct the steering if needed. The other guests in the boat sit on the bench in the middle. In the very narrow canals however, we were allowed to sit and Emiliano guided us safely through. It really was a lot of fun and not as difficult as you might think. I have to admit though that I’m not sure how much of the rowing I did, and how much Emiliano did. He said I was a good student, but he might as well just have been kind.
When you sail through the canals, it’s often difficult to recognize where you are. Emiliano showed us some nice things to do and visit so the tour is not only about rowing. He is very passionate about Venice, his family and rowing so he will tell you lots of interesting stories. It’s very relaxing to be on the water and discover another side of Venice. The 90 minutes flew by, which was a pitty as I could have continued for another hour. I will certainly book another class for my next trip at the end of May.
Meet Venice On Board
Venice On Board is a small organization created in 2013 by 3 young Venetians: Damiano Tonolotto, Nicola Ebner and Emiliano Simon. Their goal is to restore and maintain traditional old boats in their workshop in Cannaregio and to keep the rowing tradition and skills alive in Venice. The team also designs and builds their own forcolas and oars.
With the arrival of motorboats, rowing has been replaced as a traditional means of transportation. Hence, many Venetians don’t know how to row and consider it a competitive sports, used for the regatas. Venice On Board therefore teaches locals to row, with in-depth classes including all the technical elements. On top of that, they give initiation sessions to tourists and other interested people, such as the one I did. They also have sailing classes (vela al terzo) if you prefer that over rowing. A half day trip takes you for instance to the lagoon islands which are not accessible with the vaporetto.
To summarize, rowing in the canals of Venice is fun and it makes you temporarily feel like a local. Venice On Board is a great and passionate team so I highly recommend booking your rowing class with them. I certainly know that they will see me again on my next trips to Venice. If you wonder how the gondoliers learn to row, I suggest you read my post ‘An insider’s story from the world of gondoliers in Venice‘.
Enjoy your rowing!
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