Racing Saint Barbara


Last Saturday I went to watch one of my favorite Venetian rowing races: The regata of Santa Barbara, an annual contest on six-oar caorlinas organized by the discharged sailors’ association in honor of Saint Barbara, patron saint of seamen and, by extension, of the Navy.

The only hint at 10:00 AM that something unusual might be imminent was the lone red buoy, fixed in front of the Arsenal to mark the finish line.

For every Regata Storica, there must be ten races held every month here (I’m making this number up — maybe it’s more), winter or summer, by rowing clubs, gondoliers, and assorted groups of every sort.  And don’t think that just because there isn’t any prize money that these races aren’t fought to the finish.

Technically, Saint Barbara’s day is December 4, but Saturday was more convenient for everybody and no doubt the good saint took it in stride. After all, her bones supposedly lay in a cupboard somewhere on Murano for about 400 years, so she’s fully aware of the prevailing attitude toward time here.

The crew of each boat was composed of four gondoliers who had done their (formerly compulsive) military service in the Navy, plus one boy from the Scuola Navale Militare F. Morosini, where Lino teaches rowing. For the first time in 15 years, there was also one fireman.

A statue of Saint Barbara is often found at the entrance to mines -- here in a lead mine at Pian dei Resinelli in Lombardy.

The firemen weren’t there to quell any spontaneous combustion; Saint Barbara is their patron saint too.  Generally speaking, she is assigned to watch over anyone who is dealing — intentionally or not — with things that go “boom.” If there are explosives, fire, or lightning involved, or the threat of sudden, violent, incendiary death, she is your go-to saint, and specifically protects sailors, firemen, artillerymen, miners, sappers, road-builders, geologists, mountaineers, petroleum workers, and the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps Aviation ordnancemen.  Also bell-ringers and architects — maybe there’s a link to high towers with no lightning rod.  This list is not exhaustive, by the way, I just decided to stop.

Trivia alert:  A powder-magazine or other storage area containing explosives is often referred to as the “santabarbara.”

It rained and fogged.  This is typical.  There have been times in the past 15 years when the sun beamed down on victors and vanquished alike but usually there’s water. Perhaps this is a helpful gesture from the saint, who abhors fire.

Getting the boats --not to mention the rowers -- ready, in the canal that leads to the Arsenal.

There were all the usual components:  Competitors who have known each other since before they were born, the benediction of the boats, the traditional pennants for the first four boats to cross the finish line, and other prizes offered by sponsors (Pasta Zara sent everyone home with a neat box containing two kilos of pasta), bottles of wine, even small trophies of Murano glass, presumably not in memory of Saint Barbara’s sojourn on the island.

There were assorted dignitaries, including an admiral, some of whom gave impromptu speeches into a microphone which could have used a dash of nitroglycerine to wake it up. Nobody listens anyway. The speeches were, also according to tradition, too long, too rambling, and often more than a little bit too self-congratulatory.  I will not name names but I know who they were.

The prizes were given, the photos were snapped, then everybody headed for the buffet.  As I have often mentioned, “Every psalm ends with the Gloria,” as they say here, and every event ends with food and drink.

And tradition requires — or maybe Saint Barbara requires, she being an extremely practical saint, it seems to me — that there should be pasta e fagioli. Not only at this race, but at 98 percent of amateur races here. Pasta and beans are hot, filling, delicious, hugely good for you and  can be made in massive batches reasonably far in advance.  Trivia alert:  Beans such as the borlotti used around here contain more protein than red meat, though I don’t think anybody cares.

So carry your bottle of Beano and dig in. Or plan to spend the rest of the day outdoors, in the fresh air.  For a gondolier, that’s obviously no problem. They often go back for seconds.

The boats head out onto the playing field, so to speak. These guys look like the ones to beat. Too bad they finished 8th -- next to last.

The boats line up to be blessed by Padre Manuel Paganuzzi, the chaplain at the Scuola Navale, and the rowers respond with the traditional salute, or "alzaremi." The man in the bow of the pink boat is cheating by not reversing his oar. Saint Barbara punished him: they finished dead last.

And they’re off! The starting line was down toward the Lido, even with the Giardini (Biennale) vaporetto stop, and they race to the Bacino of San Marco, go around one of the permanent buoys for ships and race down toward the Arsenal. Not very long, but there’s enough distance for strategy and maneuvering.

There are people ashore, like Lino, who can distinguish all the boat colors even in the fog. Then there are those like me.

Rounding the buoy — two of them, actually. On the left is the permanent black-and-grey float, plus an orange one as well, to prevent the rowers to cut cross-lots on the return and possibly run into boats that hadn’t yet rounded the buoy.

Thundering toward home. We can finally distinguish the outcome: Yellow, blue, white, and red will get the appropriate pennants.  The rest are battling it out  anyway.  Never give up the ship.

Crossing the finish line, each crew is expected to repeat the "alzaremi." As you can see, this tradition appears to be degenerating toward the "optional" category.


The judges take a minute to make sure they got the order of finish right.

Everybody immediately starts to remove all their stuff -- only the shell of the boat will go back to the city boathouse.

This young man – I’m assuming he practices yoga when he’s not rowing --is removing the platform on which he was standing. Each rower has one, but they belong to the boat. He's probably going to remove the wooden strips he had nailed to its underside.

The boats are stripped and all the speeches are finally over . On to the prize-giving, the perfect moment for the rain to start.

Third-year cadet Luca Merola displays his first-place red pennant, the perfect gift for today, his 18th birthday.

We eat! There’s enough pasta e fagioli to feed three battleships. The plastic bowls are also part of the tradition; weakened by the scalding heat of the contents and the weight of the jumbo portion, they sag dangerously and you burn your hands trying to hold them. It would depress me if this, for some reason, were not to happen.












I would be calling this the Ship of Fools if somebody else hadn't already come up with the phrase. In this minuscule motorboat we have: five of the six rowers of the red boat, who finished fourth (note rolled-up pennant), five oars, the paioli, or floorboards of the caorlina, a case of wine, and the corrugated fiberglass used to protect the boat from the rain. I'd say they're ready to head for the Bay of Biscay, if they don't encounter any waves. And if nobody breathes.

And the event ends as it began: fog, silence, and space. It's as if nothing had ever happened.

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Categories : Boatworld


  1. That’s very different from what I always see in the travel books about Venice. That race in remembrance of St. Barbara shows the more lively side of Venice, which veers away from the romantic and serene idea people hold of the place in their minds.

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      I’m really glad you found this interesting. Most travel writers aren’t here long enough to discover events like this, and I’m not sure they’re interested in any case. I feel qualified to say that because I wrote the National Geographic guidebook to Venice, and so not only do I know the sort of thing most publishers are looking for (which is what they’ve already seen or read about), I’ve also read far too many guidebooks on Venice, most of which seem to cannibalize each other without seeking anything original. Since this (and many non-touristic events, such as club races and local festas) aren’t publicized by the tourist office, it’s not easy for a visitor to know what’s going on. It’s too bad that many visitors seem to be satisfied just looking at the buildings and canals, without noticing much of what the people are doing. This happened at this race — there were a batch of the rowers standing around talking about how the race had gone, and two young women stood right by them, photographing the view of the Bacino San Marco. Doesn’t mean they’re wrong, it just means they weren’t picking up on the fact that actual Venetians were doing Venetian things right in front of them.

      • That is actually the difference between a traveler and a tourist. A tourist would just take notice of the physical beauty of a place, such as the architecture and landmarks. But a traveler digs deeper to learn about traditions, customs, culture and norms. Sometimes travelers even try to practice the norms and culture during their stay.

    • Erla says:

      I agree with you — unfortunately, the more correct term “tourism writer” doesn’t seem to appeal to anyone.

      I’d bet money that your original family name was Sciortino. Yes?

  2. Andrew says:

    Do you know where S. Barbara ended up, Erla?

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      I know that the remains of a person which are claimed to be those of Santa Barbara are in a small chapel attached to the church of San Martino on the island of Burano. That’s all I can tell you. There’s no way to prove that these are of her, but there’s no way to prove they aren’t. So everybody is fine with things the way they are.

      • Andrew says:

        I always think if people think they are the real ones that’s good enough for me. Not sure about the dragon bones in SS Maria e Donato though!

  3. […] As you know, every December 4 (for the past 16 years now) the gondoliers who are ex-sailors organize a regata in honor of the patron saint of the Navy: Barbara. […]