Archive for Boatworld
I am now re-establishing radio contact with the rest of the world. The recent crackling silence was completely predictable, at least to me. May is a great month if you’re a plant, but if you’re me, it’s an Olympic biathlon involving two of the city’s three biggest boating events: the corteo for the Festa de la Sensa, on Ascension Day (May 12 this year), and the Vogalonga (May 19).
Once again, I dedicated two weeks to working in the registration office for the Vogalonga. Sound simple? The first week, yes. The second week, right up to 6:00 PM the day before the event, was a crescendo of desperation — not on my part, but those who came, as one hollow-eyed supplicant put it, “A thousand kilometers over the Alps with our boats,” thinking they could sign up at the last minute and discovering that all the 1,700 bibs, one per boat, had already been booked.
I heard stories about people needing a number for their dying best friend. I didn’t hear any pleas based on expiring grandmothers or promises to small children, but the accumulated emotional tension began to take a toll on me. It wasn’t just the exclamations of doomed desire that were so tiring (“But why?” “But why?” “I have the money right here” “Can’t you find just one number for me?” “But I didn’t know” “I didn’t read the website” “I don’t have internet” “We’ve come all this way” “”Noooooooooooo, it can’t be truuuuuuuue”), it was my irritation at situations which could easily have been prevented if even one of their group had had a functioning medulla oblongata. Or whatever part of the brain governs logic and rationality. If there is such a part.
While everybody who already had their numbers were working themselves into a froth over the unpleasant weather forecast, I and my colleagues were struggling to resolve many silly and time-consuming and avoidable problems. Reservations made but not paid for; payments that didn’t correspond to the booking; adding people to boats; subtracting people from boats (fortunately nobody requested long division); and my all-time favorite, the single reservation for 20 rowers who were assumed by us to all occupy the same boat, but which it turned out were each rowing by themselves, hence requiring 19 more numbers. That was fun. “You need 19 numbers? Sure, I’ll just make them right here for you, like Subway sandwiches. You want pickles?”
Compared to all that, rowing the event is almost always easier, and more enjoyable, and more, well, rational.
You might have heard that it rained; you might have heard that the rain was something epic! That some boats capsized! Frankly, it was all much better than I’d feared. The rain came down in hurled handfuls of big hard round drops, then shifted, like a shower-head, to fine, thin and steady, then heavy and steady, then lots of little drizzly drops, then another downpour, then a pause, then another downpour. After Mazzorbo, the sun came out and we all dried off. As for overturned boats, if you ride a horse, what can happen to you? You fall off. If you’re in a boat, what can happen? You fall in. Lino’s fallen in countless times. I’ve fallen in, in January, no less. Get a grip, people.
There was the by-now traditional logjam in the Canale di Cannaregio, caused by the by-now traditionally inept, vision-impaired, brain-dead coxswains on the long rowing shells who seem not to understand that their boat needs to keep going straight forward and that their job is to see that it gets done. Big long boats slewing around slaunchwise and getting stuck are like big expensive beaver dams forcing all the arriving boats to jam up. It’s not just that they create problems — they don’t know what to do to fix them. As we see in the video by a certain Bas Schols; here’s the link for those who don’t see the clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qRyEnCKno3o .
A close second for the prize for Best Way to Create Problems goes to the people who just stop rowing and sit there in their boat, usually in narrowish spaces or at blind corners. You can hardly ever discover a reason for this. Of course they’re tired; we’re all tired. But when they’re driving in the center lane of the highway back home, do they just stop when they feel like it and sit there? I feel doubtful.
The Sunday before all this, May 12, was the Festa de la Sensa, and we participated in the commemoration of the “Wedding of the Sea.” We row out toward the Lido, following the big fancy ceremonial boat called the “Serenissima,” past the Morosini Naval School where the cadets are lined up along the embankment, as sharp as creases in starched organdy, shouting “Urrah!” when commanded to do so by the bosun’s whistle. That is absolutely the coolest thing about the entire event, though of course tossing the wreath into the water to commemorate the dead sailors is important too. And a ring-like object with ribbons tied onto it also gets blessed and tossed. Another chance to be crushed together in a boat-scrum, but at least here we all know each other and actually know how to move our boats around. That’s it for boats.
The rest of the month is a rapid unraveling of assorted appointments and events. For example, I sat most of the afternoon waiting for the long-expected boiler repairman to come replace the replacement washer from a few weeks ago. He was supposed to come in the morning, but only by calling up did we learn that he’d been moved to the afternoon. Dazzling efficiency! We could be in Sweden! Wait — it’s gets better. He phoned at 3:30 to say he couldn’t come because they hadn’t given him the part he needed to install. They thought they had, police said. (I am adhering to the practice recommended by the old city editor to the cub reporter, my former boss, who told him, “You can write anything you want to, as long as you add ‘comma police said.””)
At 6:00 it was off to the Generali Insurance Company’s boathouse for the presentation of the restored 8-oar gondolone. We needed to swell the ranks, it seemed, so we were there. We try to be good sports on land as well as sea. I was hoping they’d have cookies, but they got in a caterer and had hors d’oeuvres and asparagus risotto. I like being wrong like that.
Tomorrow afternoon Lino will be at Malamocco for hours, as one of the judges overseeing the eliminations for the next official rowing race (Sant’ Erasmo, June 2). That evening, dinner at the Non-Commissioned Naval Officers Club, a cholesterol-laden thank-you from a group of young French students because not only did we pick up the dropped/lost wallet of one of their members (containing 70 euros and also an address) but thanks to Skype and the fact that little Pauline’s father was home when I called, we managed to return it to her the next day. And a big shout-out to Mrs. Rideout and Mrs. Gordon, whose draconian French courses in high school are still paying off, if only in fractured form.
Friday evening, the annual corteo to transport the statue of Our Lady of Succor (“Maria Ausiliatrice”) from the church of San Pietro di Castello to the church of San Giuseppe. This year we’re going to be carrying as many people as we can, hoping to transfer into Venetian boats many of those who usually follow us on foot along the fondamente.
Saturday, a batch of us are off to Burano to collect four of our tornado-devastated boats from the boatyard where they have been repaired. We’re either towing or rowing them back; it doesn’t seem clear yet which one. I’m for rowing, myself, not that anyone consults me. The forecast isn’t too pretty.
Sunday, we’re going with a big group in a bus to Trieste to the annual reunion of the veterans of the Automobile Corps. Lino did his compulsory 18-month military service in Rome with this arm of the armed forces, repairing and maintaining Jeeps, trucks, and assorted ministerial vehicles. He recently joined the nearest chapter of the motorized veterans, and the big outing sounds like it’s going to be fun, except for the promised thunderstorms and drenching rain.
We’ll get to march around the Piazza dell’Unita’ d’Italia for a while, then go off to some countryside establishment to gorge on Friulian specialties (think San Daniele prosciutto and frico, or fried cheese) — possibly the true purpose of the expedition. Then to visit some famous nearby monastery blanketed by rose gardens. We’ll have to get up before 5:00 to get the train to Treviso, the starting point, but I’d walk to Treviso for a shot at a plate of frico.
Next week’s calendar is ominously empty. I say “ominous,” because you know how Nature feels about a vacuum.
Because man does not live by Venice alone — or we don’t, anyway — we occasionally go abroad (anywhere beyond the bridge) to vary our boating and socializing diet. Last weekend we went to Pavia, an exceptionally fine town not far from Milan, where we have been many times on other boating occasions in the summer. The object was to eat, drink, and row in an event organized by the Club Vogatori Pavesi. They call this little diversion the “Giorni della Merla,” in recognition of the fact that it is held during the frigid last few days of January which are often called “the days of the (female) blackbird.” Considering what madness was involved, they might just as well have called it the days of the cuckoo. If someone asked which you’d rather do: Row ten kilometers (six miles) up the Ticino River, against the current, in subzero weather, in the fog, in a boat weighing two tons (tempting, I know), OR: Drop and do 14,982 pushups without stopping, which would you pick? Because we did (A) and every muscle in my upper arms is convinced that I did (B). We departed the area of Borgo Ticino and finished at Canarazzo, a stretch of river which, like most of the Ticino, is not a stretch but a series of emphatic curves. These curves increase (or sometimes decrease) the current, and the trick is to recognize where the water is willing to come to some agreement with you. These agreements are brief and not very sincere.
Trivia alert: The Ticino is the second-most important river in Italy in terms of volume of water, surpassed only by the mighty Po. It rises in Switzerland, works its way through Lago Maggiore, and accumulates H20 from assorted tributaries along the way. It’s not that it’s so deep (at least in the parts we rowed), but somehow it manages to maintain a momentum that would do justice to a number of carnival rides. To attempt this little adventure in the spring when the Alpine snows are melting would be inconceivable; impressive inundations of the city are far from unknown. Rowing upstream is an interesting mental exercise, as well, especially in those areas where the current is especially strong and no matter how hard or fast you row, you can’t make the boat move forward. Not to mention those moments when we decided to row to the other shore to see if the water flowed any more peacefully there, which meant that while we were continuing to row, the river was carrying us back downstream over precious space we had struggled so hard to gain. These were the moments when the question arose all by itself: “Why am I doing this?” Many possible answers are available, beginning with our being put on this earth to suffer and ending with its reward being the steaming risotto of sausage and wine, and cauldron of lentils and cotechino, that were being stirred up at our destination, a shingly beach at Canarazzo. There is a primitive hut which provides shelter for a few tables and a simple cooking area. This area being the mother lode of rice, fixing risotto was normal. It would never happen at a big boating event in Venice, where pasta e fagioli, or bigoli in salsa, are the traditional heating and nourishing elements. I wouldn’t say that I’d row upstream ten kilometers every day just to eat risotto, but it was extremely good. Another reason I continued to slave away against the force of gravity which was carrying the water so powerfully downhill — not that I had much choice — was that I knew that the same force was going to carry us back to home base in record time. When lunch was finally over and we took to the river again, we barely had to move our oars as we sped past gravelly beaches and rustic shelters, while I amused myself by looking through the crystal water at the pebbly river bottom and seeing how remarkably fast it was moving. (Note: I realize that it was the water, not the river bottom, which was moving. I refer merely to the optical effect.) In a mere 30 minutes we covered the distance it had taken us nearly four hours to make in the morning. Then we ate hunks of panettone and drove back to Venice with our friends, a trip of 300 km which, when all goes well, takes about the same time as it took us to row to lunch. That tells you everything you need to know about the internal combustion engine.
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.
This year, seeing that the supply of willing gondoliers and/or ex-sailors is shrinking, each caorlina carried the usual one (1) student from the Morosini Naval School, four (4) gondoliers and one (1) fireman. Barbara is also patron saint of firemen, as well as miners, artillerymen, and just about anybody who uses substances which explode.
Gondoliers also tend to explode when things don’t go right, as witnessed by the reaction of Franco Dei Rossi (nicknamed ”Strigheta”) when his orange caorlina was cheated of its obviously well-deserved fourth place and consequent blue pennant. He used Ugly Words to the race judge, which was unfortunate; it was also too bad that many people could understand — nay, shared — his sentiments, as most naked eyes had seen his boat cross the finish line fourth.
But righteous indignation and loud voices (though not Ugly Words) from somebody is almost always part of the tradition, along with rain (it was blazingly sunny the day before and the day after the regata — does Santa Barbara not like her regata?), cold, and a feast afterward featuring pasta and fagioli (beans) which, if it didn’t warm hearts which were still festering with rage, did a great job in warming our gizzards.
There’s a saying here — perhaps in all of Italy, perhaps in the whole world — that the mother of the ignorant is always pregnant. I’d expand that to include the mentally infirm, the ethically deficient, and a smattering of Venetian rowing racers, the race judges, the spectators, and anybody else who is evidently suffering from hormone overload in any situation more emotional than drinking coffee.
I pause to note that, once again, this post has no photographs due to multiple crises inside my computer, which is being taken to the hospital today for a major operation. So there will be a lapse in communication while it — and I — recuperate.
Back to racers and judges and spectators.
The Regata Storica of a week ago (September 2, 2012) will be remembered more for the catastrophe which I am about to describe than for the fact that the Vignottini won and their lifelong rivals (D’Este and Tezzat) finished — not second — but THIRD. You hear the sound of a page being turned in the annals of Venetian rowing, because even if D’Este and company were to win the next five races in a row, the chink in the armor is now too obvious to ignore. He also looked extremely and uncharacteristically blown apart by the race.
But as I say, that isn’t what everybody is babbling about. They’re babbling about the way the judge’s motorboat ran into the yellow gondolino, which was third, thereby knocking it out of the race. Because Fate sometimes shows a dangerously unruly sense of humor, it couldn’t have happened somewhere up in the distant reaches of the Grand Canal where only three cats are around to notice the race, if they’re awake. Of course not. This hideous, and, I think, unprecedented, little crash occurred right in front of the reviewing stand at the finish line, where assorted race officials and scores of invited guests and lots of the salt of the earth in their own boats could see it PERFECTLY. Also the national television station whose cameras were broadcasting the event live.
Like most systems, the way the judges’ boats are choreographed is perfect, but only if the plan is executed. In this case, one judge’s boat follows the peloton up to a certain point in the Grand Canal (the “volta de canal,” at the curve of Ca’ Foscari where the bleachers and judges and finish line are all together). At that point, in order that the judge’s motorboat doesn’t have to cross the canal and thereby potentially get in the way of the boats as they are racing upstream, the first judge’s motorboat stops, and a second one, waiting on the other side of the canal out of harm’s way, picks up the task of following the herd.
But this time the first boat didn’t pull over to the side and stop, to hand off the race to the next boat. It paused, and then, without looking (or thinking, or something), the judge aboard told the driver to do something which clearly involved gunning the motor. I was in a boat right where this happened, so I am a certified eyewitness.
Whether the judge wanted to follow the race, or reposition the boat in some way, isn’t clear. But doing anything at that moment, in that location, was not only wrong, it was crazy. Because the yellow (“canarin”) gondolino, steaming ahead at full speed in an excellent third position, was right behind the propellers when they spun. In two nano-seconds, the left hind hip of the motorboat swerved left, hit the ferro of the prow of the gondolino, threw the very narrow and moving-very-fast boat off balance, and sent it hurtling off-course into the scrum of boats tied up to the pilings.
You might think that the only crazy person in this scenario would be the judge on the boat who told the driver to move instead of standing perfectly still. And you’d be right.
Except that almost immediately, other crazy people began to wail and vociferate. Wild ideas began to be thrown around in bars and in the newspaper (and even, I think, among the judges), almost all of which came down to suggesting that the crew on canarin be awarded the third-place pennant in a tie with the pair that actually did finish third.
The Vignottini even offered to pay the prize money to the unfortunate ex-third-place boat.
The issue still doesn’t seem to be settled, but here is how I see it:
First, I don’t understand why anyone thinks it makes sense to give a prize to someone who didn’t win it. A consolation prize would be nice, of course (a house in the mountains, maybe, or a six-month cruise to Polynesia), but a prize for racing pretty much requires that you race. If the crash had occurred three yards before the finish line, you might be able to make a case for their deserving some sort of pennant and/or money. But there was still plenty of race ahead. Who’s to say that they would have finished third? They might have come in first. Or even last.
Second, a racer with any degree of self-respect (possibly a very small category, true) wouldn’t want either a pennant or money that he hadn’t won himself. Why degrade them with stupid offers that are only moderately able to make the onlookers feel slightly better? Not to mention make the guilty judge feel slightly less bad.
Third, I’m glad I mentioned the judge. Because while the rowing world is in the throes of what seems to be a hormonal solar flare, no one so far has turned from the victims to the perpetrator.
Why, I ask myself, and am now asking the world at large, is everyone so fixated on making the victims feel better without pausing to suggest, much less demand, that the judge deserves a serious punishment? Can you think of a sport in which a referee or a judge who directly and visibly damages an athlete in the midst of the game doesn’t receive even the tiniest murmured reproof?
It gets crazier. Because last year, at the race at Burano, there was a crash between the first two boats at the buoy where the racecourse turns back, knocking both of them out of commission. The judge overseeing that crucial part of the race was so rattled that he stopped the race right there. The prizes were awarded according to the positions of the boats at the buoy, even though there was at least half again as much race still to go.
Yes: That was the same judge.
I began this post with a saying, so in closing I invoke a special Venetian aphorism: “Un’ xe bon, ma do xe coglion.” (OON zeh bone, ma doh zeh cole-YONE.) The literal translation makes no sense, but here’s what it means: Screw up once, you can be excused; screw up twice, and you’re an asshole.
If anyone but me manages to reach this conclusion, I’ll let you know. But it’s not looking very likely.