The Vogalonga cometh


That sound you may have thought was silence from out here was actually the sound of me putting my shoulder to the titanic wheel, so to speak, of the registration work for the annual event known as the Vogalonga, or “long row.”

This year it will be held on this coming Sunday, June 12. It has never been held this late in the year (May has been its preferred month), and I’ll explain the reason for this in a moment.

Just like people, each of these oar-driven marathons for the past 36 years is different, yet each one is the same.  Thousands of rowers in all sorts of boats proceeding around a 30-km (18-mile) course betwixt the islands of the northern lagoon.

Every year there are more of them rowing in single kayaks, and far too many of them get in the way and do things that do not demonstrate a profound experience either of boats and a tidal lagoon, by which I mean they don’t seem to realize there is a tide working harder than even they are — against them, with them, or a blend of both.  Their not taking the tide into account conduces to many little surprises for them.  Any nearby Venetians, knowing this, have already come up with Plan B to avoid getting involved in their assorted miscalculations.

The start is always impressive, though this image doesn't give anything near the sense of mass migration you feel at the waterline.

Back to the registration work: It goes on for two weeks, and today and tomorrow, being the last days (and being the weekend) will be spectacularly chaotic at the office, as thousands of just-arrived, already-happy-and-excited rowers appear to claim their pectoral with the registration number, and the T-shirts allotted to them.  There is often much debate among them about what size Ingrid or Francois is going to need, while masses of waiting rowers pile up behind them.

In the early days — last week — I’d take a Medium (or whatever) out of its plastic bag to demonstrate what it looked like (leading to more debate…..). But those days are gone.  If somebody asks me now for two Large, I just give them to him/her.  If they want to exchange them they have to go to the back of the line and wait their turn.  It’s either me doing that, or fifty impatient rowers deciding to take matters into their own hands.

Briefly, the reason why we will be rowing for hours in mid-June (which translates as “probably scorchingly hot”) is because this year it’s Venice’s turn to host an annual event which rotates among the four participating cities of Venice, Pisa, Florence, and Genoa.

It’s called the Palio of the Four Ancient Maritime Republics, and it’s rowed on eight-oar boats, something like life-saving boats, called “galleons.”  In case you’re wondering what Pisa is doing in the lineup, Pisa was an important port city before the harbor silted up and they built that tower and batches of city on top of it. They’ve been digging up sunken Roman ships in town for years now.

Fine, I hear you say, but how does this concern the Vogalonga?  Because the organizing committee of the Palio thought it would be cool to hold their race on the afternoon of the Vogalonga, seeing as there would already be so many  boats in the water (us).  The rowers could just stay in the water and watch the race and provide a lot of nautical garnish to the spectacle.

I will have to let you know how that fantasy works out, because from my own experience, I can say that the last thing anybody feels like doing at the end of possibly five hours in a boat is to stay in the boat, even to watch the World Cup.  Your primary thoughts at the end are for food, shade, a shower, and a chaise longue, if not a bed in a room with the blinds pulled down.

You have no secondary thoughts.  If you did, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t be to stay in or near the water and watch a race that starts at 6:00 PM.

But what, as I often ask myself, do I know? I’ll let you know how it all turns out.

Back to the registration work.  There are two questions many people can’t resist asking when they sign up.  One is “How many boats are there?”  I don’t know and I don’t really try to know.  I’m just slinging T-shirts.  And besides, does it matter?  Have they organized an office pool on who bets closest to the correct number?  They’re here, so whether there are 2,893 or 5,001 boats can’t make any real difference.  Perhaps I’m wrong.

Second baffling question: “What’s the weather going to be?”  If any forecast, even for six hours from now, turned out to be correct, it would be amazing. Instead of replying, “You believe forecasts?” I have always tended to say, “All I can tell you is that whatever the weather is for you, it’s going to be the same for everybody else.”

This year I’m trying something different.  When they ask me, I just say “Beautiful. It’s going to be beautiful.” I’ll either be right or wrong, just like any other forecaster.

I experienced an amusing variation this year: I brought the Vogalonga cell phone home last night and left it on while I recharged it.  Two calls came in at 11:40 PM. I was sound asleep.

I didn’t even answer them, I just turned the phone off and tried to get back to reclaim that dream they so rudely interrupted.

Checking the numbers this morning, I see that one call was from an area near Rome, the other from Munich.  When I got up at 5:00, I was extremely tempted to call them back.  But the satisfaction would only have been momentary, so I let it go.

I may not be helpfully demonstrating T-shirt sizes anymore, but at least I haven’t descended to the level of vendetta.

The start may have been impressive, but it's the return that really gets you. Too many boats in the Cannaregio Canal, most of whom want to get ahead of you in very little space. There is usually a certain amount of shouting at this point.



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Categories : Venetian Events


  1. Hello,

    > cities of Venice, Pisa, Florence, and Genoa. It’s called the Palio of the Four Ancient Maritime Republics …

    With regards to the ancient maritime republics, it should be (A)malfi, not Florence. Fiorenza is located way inland. Amalfi was a naval power, at least before they got raised by a big earthquake circa 1340AD and their crest is still part of the italian naval flag.

    BTW, I think 12th June 2011 is a good choice, because the 13th (Pentecost monday) is a paid holiday in some countries, so more people will be able to join, hopefully. The very essence of the Vogalonga event is to overwhelm motorboats with the sheer number of rowing participants, a kind of “critical mass” demonstration.

  2. John Garrett says:

    I’m surprised that you have not pointed out that the Cannaregio Crush provides an annual opportunity to demonstrate the superiority of la voga alla veneta in the circumstances under which it evolved. In a standing position, with a long heavy oar that is free from the boat, the vogatrice can push, prod, thump (gently), block, or just reach over the top of, most other kinds of craft. Kayaks are particularly vulnerable. However kayaks deserve some sympathy because they are at least quiet, unlike dragon boats, and they don’t take up as much room as outrigger canoes or English style rowing boats. Also their lack of basic skills in self preservation, such as not thinking to look for traffic behind you before stopping for a drink, does help to keep their numbers down.

    • Erla says:

      Everything you say is absolutely true. The reason I didn’t say it is because I counted on you to do it! Wish you’d been here, though — there was a record number of those little single kayaks. It was like a plague of tiger mosquitoes. You’d have had a great time swatting them.

  3. Yvonne says:

    Now, if you had married a man who was, say, a librarian, and his passion was collecting stamps, you wouldn’t be having all these great experiences. 🙂

  4. Cinque says:

    My experience with the Vogalonga in 2005 was too overwhelming to ask questions. I remember silently standing there during the sign-up process wide-eyed and astounded by what I was experiencing. I can’t wait to go back.

    I’m happy to have found your blog. We met in 2005 at Diadora. I was with a group of Californians that rowed an old six-oar caorlina. I’ll be checking back here regularly. Thank you for sharing your experience.

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      I think it’s amazing that we’ve reconnected this way. Were you with Mike O’Toole, or did you come by some other means? Glad to know you’re reading my scribbles, I continue to try my best.

  5. Andrew says:

    Have a lovely day. Wish I was there!

    • Erla says:

      It was lovely, in fact, and I may give a report, if only a brief one, before long. I too wish you’d been here. Please correct that situation next year!

  6. Steven says:

    Any person who has lived in Italy for even the shortest length of time would know that the presence of English words on one’s clothing is almost a sure sign that the wearer is an Italian resident, if not a native Italian. Especially, as if often the case, if the script is specifically American English with nonsensical references to, say, “1954 Super Bowl Ohio Yankees”.

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      Interesting observation but I don’t grasp how it relates to anything I’ve written. Can you clarify for me? I’d like not to make any unnecessary mistakes again.

      • Steven says:

        I’m sorry, but I somehow posted this comment on the wrong one of your entries! It was intended for the Rialto Market Encounter post, and referred to the fact that the “touchy” (in both senses) woman you encountered at the market seemed to assume from the English words on your shirt that you did not live in Venice and then claimed that she herself had lived in Venice for 20 years. Alas, my comment had absolutely nothing to do with your excellent post on the Vogalonga!
        Steven recently posted..Festa di Sant Antonio at S Francesco della Vigna

        • Erla says:

          Thanks for that. I had pretty much forgotten the brief encounter in which my T-shirt played an unwitting role.

  7. Mary Ann
    Twitter: maietm.org

    Trust you are now blissfully relaxing. Did you row? Looked for you as the crowds wafted past Sant’Erasmo, but the quantity and variety of vessels was quite overwhelming!

    My neighbour was quite tetchy, “The politicians have even stolen this from us; it started as a Venetian protest against the motorboats; now it’s a mass tourism event.” (but then he did offer to take me out and teach me how to row!) :-))

    Agree with Yvonne: what if Lino had been, say, an insect afficiando?!

    • Erla says:

      I hardly ever do what might be called “relaxing,” though I think I know what you mean. (Don’t you need free time to relax? That must be what’s holding me back.) Yes, I rowed — like last year, I was on a six-oar pink balotina. My being defended from the hours of sun by a baseball cap and big sunglasses might have helped obscure me. As for your neighbor’s remark, I touched on that in my report last year (or was it the year before?). Short version: The Vogalonga was never begun as a protest against motondoso, nor as a protest against anything. It was started spontaneously by a batch of friends who thought it would be a fun thing to do. Once it began to be organized (not by politicians, may I note, though it’s become a habit to blame them for everything), it gradually began to change, along with the addition of this spurious foundation-myth of its being born as a protest. In 1975 motondoso wasn’t anything like the problem it is today, and nobody would start an event like this as a protest, in my opinion, because it would be futile. As you see every year, there are more boats in the Vogalonga, and more motondoso. So if this is supposed to be a protest, somebody ought to check the fine print because it is having exactly the opposite effect.