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Bring on the Santas

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1x1.trans Bring on the Santas

Yes, Virginia, those are Vikings masquerading as Santa Claus. Hide the chickens and the cow.

Before we leave the subject and the scales and bones and gift-wrapping of Christmas behind, one last glimpse of holiday merriment. I wasn’t there, I’m sorry to say — I was sorry to say it the day it occurred, too, which was December 21.

The event: A “corteo,” or boat procession, in the Grand Canal, composed of anyone who wanted to row as long as he or she was dressed as Santa Claus (or “Babbo Natale,” as he’s known here).

The reason: First, because it seemed like a fun thing to do.  Second, because it seemed like an amusing occasion for the Coordinamento delle Remiere (the association of rowing clubs) to give a prize and a big round of applause to the dwindling group of hardy souls who have rowed in all 40 Vogalongas.  I say “dwindling” because in May there were 24 such persons, and on Santa Sunday there were 22.

The special bonus: Fog.  Fog and just enough wind to make the air feel even sharper.  But would this deter anyone willing to pull out the boat and pull on the red-and-white outfit?  Obviously not.

Because I was busy elsewhere, Lino armed a modest sandolo and headed for the lineup joined (happily for Lino and I think also happily for the others) by Gabriele De Mattia, a former rowing student of his and ex-cadet of the Francesco Morosini Naval School, and his girlfriend, Francesca Rosso.  She had never rowed before, but Lino soon took care of that.

So the three of them spent the morning rowing, and Lino was awarded a red pennant, such as those given to the winners of races here, with his name on it, and everybody was happy. Especially when the sun finally came out.

So a big shout-out to Francesca, who when she wasn’t rowing, was taking pictures.  If she hadn’t been there, you all would just have had to imagine it.  As would I.  This is better.

1x1.trans Bring on the Santas

Floating around while waiting for the official start (“official” being whenever somebody said “We’re ready, let’s go”), this batch of Saint Nicks had time to make sure their team of  reindeer was comfortable at the bow.  It appears that one of them is either trying to get in, or attempting to disembark.

1x1.trans Bring on the Santas

No reindeer, caribou, or moose were harmed in the making of this boat. But I would like to see the paperwork on those beards.

1x1.trans Bring on the Santas

How very “Be Prepared” — they brought their own tree, in case somebody needed a place to put their presents.

1x1.trans Bring on the Santas

1x1.trans Bring on the Santas

Here is Gabriele, who clearly had forgotten nothing despite a year into university life. It wasn’t snowing, but evidently there were interludes of unusually aggressive fog-flakes, or drops, or crystals, or something.

1x1.trans Bring on the Santas

It’s the invasion of the Kris Kringle-Snatchers, heading upstream to the Rialto Market where something hot to drink must be waiting.

1x1.trans Bring on the Santas

Not strictly Venetian, but any boat bearing a Saint Nicholas is welcome at the party. If this boat were to capsize, they’d all be bobbing around like Yuletide beach balls.

1x1.trans Bring on the Santas

And speaking of the party, here was the entire regiment waiting for the prizes and refreshments. Did you know that in the Germanic tradition, it was Odin, king of the gods, who left presents in the boots that children left by the chimney? Not that I’m trying to rank Saint Nicholas, just trying to add to the holiday atmosphere.


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Santa Marta: party on!

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1x1.trans Santa Marta: party on!

“La Vigilia di Santa Marta” (The Eve of Santa Marta) by Canaletto. c. 1760. ( This view shows the Zattere, with the church of Santa Marta the last building in the distance.  I realize that they did not have stadium lighting back then, but I’d have hoped to see more of the famous illuminated boats.  I think he was paying too much attention to the geometry of the painting and not enough attention to what was really going on.  Or maybe that’s just my way of saying “I wish I’d been there.”

July 29, as all the world knows, is the feast day of Santa Marta.  Or in any case, now the world knows.

She is essentially forgotten here; her church has been deconsecrated, swallowed and partially digested by the Maritime Zone, and her celebration — once one of the greatest of the many great festivals here — is gone forever.  Only a painting by Canaletto brings us the tiniest (and darkest) glimpse of what was once a very big night in Venice.  Her name today is used mainly to refer to the adjacent neighborhood.

The reason I didn’t get this post finished by July 29 is because I got lost reading assorted accounts, some of them first-hand, about this uber-fest. It didn’t take me long to conclude that the fabled feast of the Redentore, which has remained a very big deal, was really nothing so remarkable compared to Santa Marta’s.  The Redentore had fireworks, it’s true, but Marta had fresh sole.

Fish was an excuse for a colossal boating party?  Why not?  The Venetian civil and religious calendar was bursting with events of every type and voltage. A very short list would note the festivals of Santa Maria della Carita’, Palm Sunday, S. Stefano, “Fat Thursday,” May 1, or the Doge’s Visit to the Monastery of the Virgins, S. Isidoro, the taking of Constantinople (1204), the regaining of Candia (1204), S. John the Baptist “Beheaded,” Sunday after Ascension Day, the victory over Padua (1214), the defense of Scutari (1479), the victory of Lepanto (1571), S. Rocco, Corpus Domini, the victory of the Dardanelles (1656), and the conquest of the Morea (1687).  These are just a few of the major events; the Venetians also commemorated defeats. There was something going on almost every day.

But there was always room for more, and although Santa Marta couldn’t claim to have sponsored any particular victory, discovery, or other noteworthy occurrence, her feast day conveniently fell in the period when the weather was suffocatingly hot, and the sole were in season.  Plus, her church was located on a little lobe of land facing lots of water, and there was a beach.  All this says “Put on your red dress, baby, ’cause we goin’ out tonight” to me.

1x1.trans Santa Marta: party on!

Joan Blaue’s map of the late 1600’s shows the peninsula crowned by the church of Santa Marta, but I don’t see a beach. On the other hand, I do see rows of rafts formed of logs — “zattere” — in front of their eponymous stretch of waterfront. Nice.

1x1.trans Santa Marta: party on!

On Ludovico Ughi’s 1729 map, “Pictorial Representation of the Illustrious City of Venice Dedicated to the Reign of the Most Serene Dominion of Venice,” we see something like beach surrounding Santa Marta’s headland. To each cartographer his own.

1x1.trans Santa Marta: party on!

And this is how how that little lobe of land looks today. The big docks at Tronchetto were built in two stages in the 20th century, and Santa Marta (lower right corner of land) has become an afterthought. (

The basic components were: Everybody in Venice, either on land or on the water, regardless of social station or disposable income; every boat in Venice — so many boats you could hardly see the water, festooned with illuminated balloons and carrying improvised little arbors formed by frondy branches; music, song and dance, and lots and lots of fresh sole.

1x1.trans Santa Marta: party on!

A “genteel” sole, who was more the star of the evening than Santa Marta herself.

July is the season for sfogi zentili, or Solea vulgaris, and while the Venetians could bring their own vittles, plenty of them also bought the fish which had just been saute’d, either on the beach or on the street by enterprising entrepreneurs.  If you were really in luck, there would be moonlight, too.

The best and most famous chronicler of this party was Giustina Renier Michiel, who was born in 1755 and belonged to several  patrician Venetian families.  She spent 20 years researching her six-volume work, Origine delle Feste Veneziane (1830), but the fact that she had personal memories of many of these events makes her books exceptional.

I started to translate what she wrote about the feast of Santa Marta, but she went on so long, and her style sounded so curious in English, that I became tired and discontented.  So I’m going to give some bits and summarize the rest.  Anyway, it’s clear that the event was so phenomenal that even people who saw it finally gave up trying to describe it adequately or coherently.

Here is her version of how the festa was born:

In the old days many groups went out in certain boats to fish for sole, the best fish that one eats in July.  (Lino concurs with date and description.)

And in the evening they would go back to the beach by the church of Santa Marta and feast on the fish, enjoying the cool air that restored their depleted strength after the labor of fishing, as well as the heat of the season.

Later on, as the population became richer, and softness set in, the work of fishing was left to the poor people, who had to do it in order to live, and what used to be a fatiguing labor changed into a singular entertainment.”

My version: It didn’t take long for everybody else in Venice to say “A cookout on the beach?  We’re on our way.”  Everybody started making Santa Marta’s Eve a great reason to head for her neighborhood and eat fish, garnished and enlivened by the classic saor sauce of sweet-sour onions.  It was like a gigantic clambake, a barbecue, a luau, for thousands and thousands of people.

Obviously the beach was too small for everybody, so the boats made themselves at home on the Giudecca Canal, “whose waters could only be seen in flashes, and almost seemed to be strips of fire, agitated by the oars of so many boats that covered the water and which doubled the effect of the lights which were on the boats.”

1x1.trans Santa Marta: party on!

The “Bucintoro dei Savoia,”also called the “Bucintoro del Po,” is the only surviving example of a Venetian peota of the 18th century.  It was built in 1730 by a squero on Burano for Carlo Emmanuele III di Savoia and is now the property of the Civic Museums of Torino.  Most noble families had one, and they were just the thing for big events such as the Regata Storica, processions honoring doges and kings, and alfresco picnics featuring a big fish fry.

The patricians came out on their fabulously ornate peote, and often carrying musicians who sang and played wind instruments.  There were scores of the classic fishing boat called a tartana, draped with variously-colored balloons and loaded with laughing families and friends.  There were artisans in their battellos, and hundreds of light little gondolas, and plenty of gondolas da fresco, and there were even the burchielle, the heavy cargo boats that carried sand and lumber.  If it could float, it joined the vast confusion of boats being rowed languidly in every direction, or tied up along the Zattere where there was just as much happy turmoil ashore.

1x1.trans Santa Marta: party on!

Or, if you were a fisherman, you might come out in an equally impressive (in its way) boat — a caorlina da seragia. Only a few still exist, and this very old craft has retained its original pitch waterproofing. You could fit several families, aristocratic or otherwise, into this monster.

1x1.trans Santa Marta: party on!

Or if all you had was a little s’ciopon, you’d have bedecked it too, and come out with the food and family.

The Gazzetta Urbana of 1787:  “Along this riva, called the Zattere, the cafe’s and bars are crammed to overflowing with people.  There are tables set up outside their doors, and everything is so lit up that it seems to be daytime.

“The passage (of people) in all the streets leading to Santa Marta was dense and continuous, and the splendid gathering at the Caffe of San Basegio, at the head of the Zattere, formed a separate spectacle, in which our Adriatic beauties, wearing modern shimmering caps in the Greek style, ornamented with plumes, inflamed with their glances the hearts of the young men who, like butterflies, always flutter around the flare of a woman’s beauty.”

Also amid the throng were little ambulatory kitchens — a man with a basket of sole would put two stones on the ground, then lay two bunches of sticks crosswise on them, light a little charcoal under them, pour some oil in a pan, and stand there bawling for business.  He kept a container of saor ready to put on the fish.

Renier Michiel:  “The entire length of this district was full of a grand concourse of people, moving toward the piazza of Santa Marta which was the best vantage point to enjoy the spectacle.  On the piazza there were more food vendors, some of them selling roast chicken.  There is a racket of cups, plates, the yells of the vendors, the music from the boats on the water. Every house is transformed into a sort of tavern where people eat and drink, and there was perfect joy and harmony.”

“Perfect joy and harmony”?  How can this be (apart from the fact that she was looking back on it, years later, when the festival was gone forever)?

I think it’s because Santa Marta was secretly taking care of people. She is the patroness of cooks, butlers, laundry-workers, servants,  housewives, and waiters. Though I suppose you could just say “housewives” and leave it at that.

Because as Santa Marta, and 99 percent of women on earth, can attest, while some people at a party are laughing and scarfing the canapes and playing with the dog and singing comic songs and reveling in industrial-size helpings of joy and harmony, there’s at least one person somewhere in the background doing everything to make it seem as if there is absolutely nothing that needs to be done.

And I have no doubt that when the boats went home at dawn on July 29, there was somebody who had to put the boat away and swab the bilge and pick up every single fishbone, as well as deal with the dishes and the wine- and saor-stained clothes.  Behind every great saint is somebody with a bucket and mop, I say.

1x1.trans Santa Marta: party on!

You can barely make out the “Punta di Santa Marta” from the roof of the Molino Stucky Hilton.

1x1.trans Santa Marta: party on!

The church of Santa Marta in 1934 was only slightly in the way of progress.  Trains came down onto the waterfront to deliver or collect cargo to the ships in the maritime zone.  No more beach.

1x1.trans Santa Marta: party on!

There’s still a church in there somewhere behind the parking lot.  Ex-church, that is, restored and now used as an exhibition space. Nice that it’s not falling to ruin, but any possible trace of character or history has been thoroughly expunged.

1x1.trans Santa Marta: party on!

I realize that it wasn’t ever the most heavily decorated building in Venice, but they seem to have gone to the opposite extreme here.  Seen from this angle, it could be a Potemkin church.

1x1.trans Santa Marta: party on!

To review in closing: This entire area of water was completely covered with illuminated boats full of people singing and eating and laughing and being happy. And I think it’s safe to say that most of them were not tourists. That’s something else to recall occasionally — that Venice had an amazing life that had nothing to do with tourism.  Seem strange?  They’d think we’re even stranger.



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1x1.trans And this little piggy finished fourth in the Regata Storica

Pig in glass: good. (Marchio Artistico Murano

1x1.trans And this little piggy finished fourth in the Regata Storica

Pig in crate, not so good. (Uncredited photo, Associazione Animali in Citta’ ONLUS

Seeing that by now I have drilled into everyone’s brain the fact that the Regata Storica is an event that has been held over the past several centuries, it’s fair to say that many of its attributes could be regarded as traditions.

Tradition, as I have drilled, etc., is a word intended to connote The Way We’ve Always Done It. But a closer look at many traditions demonstrates clearly, even to those in the back of the room, that they can be changed, eventually to become the new Old Traditions.

Take the pig.

For about the last hundred years, if not more, the traditional prize to the pair of men finishing fourth in the Regata Storica on the gondolinos was a live piglet.  I have not yet begun the search for the reason for this, so just accept the fact that along with a blue pennant and some money, the pair got a young Sus scrofa domestica.

And they weren’t merely presented with the little swine at the end of the race.  Before the race even formed up, the creature was put into a crate, placed on a boat, and exhibited up and down the Grand Canal.

By 2002 the animal rights organizations finally overcame this tradition, having claimed for years that the practice was cruel and inhumane.  I saw the parade of the pig once, and it didn’t look so degrading to me.  He was a lot more comfortable than anyone on the #1 vaporetto on a Sunday afternoon, and nobody in the animal rights organizations cares about them.

Returning to the subject of the fourth-place prize: Either people lived closer to the earth back then, 0r there were fewer scruples running around unsupervised, so a live pig seemed like a fine thing.  The idea was not to divide it, like the baby brought before Solomon, but to send it to the country somewhere to be fattened and cossetted and tended until it was time for it to achieve its true destiny: Sausage.  Soppressa.  Pork chops,  Pork roast, and so on.

There is a hoary old joke about this undertaking, which can be altered according to whichever town or place you want to insult.  The person who told it to me was insulting Pellestrina, and it was made funnier by his imitation of the distinctive local accent.  To Venetians, this way of speaking implies something rustic (to put it politely) and uncouth (to be frank).  It implies individuals who would not consider pig-fattening to be anything out of the ordinary.

So:  Two men from Pellestrina enter the Regata Storica, finish fourth, and get the pig.  They are being interviewed by the national reporter, who asks them what they plan to do with it.

“I’m going to take it home,” says one.

“Take it home?” says the reporter.  “Do you have a pigsty?”


“So where will you keep it?”

“Oh, I’ll keep it in the kitchen,” the racer replies.

“The kitchen!” blurts the reporter.  “But what about the smell?”

“Oh,” the racer says, “he’ll get used to it.”

1x1.trans And this little piggy finished fourth in the Regata Storica

Regata Storica, 2013: Andrea Bertoldini (left) and Martino Vianello pose with their pennants and their pigs. (Uncredited photo,

What would be a good substitute for a live pig? I hear you ask.

A pig made of Murano glass.  And it doesn’t have to be fed or slaughtered, or shared out in perfectly equal halves, because they make two of them.

Now we come to the real point of the story.  A few weeks ago, the very enterprising and high-spirited members of the Settimari rowing club decided to add something else to the prize line-up.  They dispensed with the annoyance of raising and killing a pig, and got right to the point of it all, which in Venice translates as Food.

They planned a big dinner in their small clubhouse, invited Martino Vianello and Andrea Bertoldini, who had finished fourth this year, and uncrated two gigantic roasted whole pigs, ordered from somewhere in Umbria where the art of roasting pigs has reached the sublime.

If you’re a vegetarian and still reading (unlikely, I admit), you might want to stop now.

We spent several hours gorging on one, and the other was given to the pair, who didn’t anticipate any trouble at all in dividing and consuming it.  Just like the old days, but better.

Because, as Andrea Bertoldini explained it to me, a live pig was really a problem.  He’s been racing for at least 20 years, and has finished fourth in other editions of the Regata, so he has had first-hand experience of what being awarded a baby pig really means.

It’s not just taking care of it for months (you generally give it to somebody who’s already got the sties and the feed and the mud and all).  It’s that you start to become attached to it, like Fern Arable; you feel sorry for it, and so everything gets derailed in the Natural Order of Things.

So Andrea was perfectly fine with dispensing with the tradition and moving on to something new, and easier to handle.

Better yet, he and Martino were each awarded a plaque which proclaimed them to be a “Principe del Porchetto” (Prince of Roast Pork).  This was not only original, and cleverer than the old joke, but a play on the term “Re del Remo” (King of the Oar), which is given to the couple which wins the Regata Storica five years in a row.

Andrea and Martino have finished fourth in various years, but this the second year in a row they did it, and so the title of “prince” implied that if they were to come in fourth for the next three Regatas, they could be called King of Roast Pork.

Maybe you had to be there.

In any case, you’d have loved it.  You never had to look into the creature’s soulful eyes, and you got as much as you wanted of the tender, herb-infused meat encased in dark greasy skin that was insanely crunchy.  If you were to shut your mind about what you were eating, it wouldn’t have been because the animal inspired pity.  It would be because you refused to think about what the food was going to do to your arteries.

If those two really do become Kings of Roast Pork, they’re going to have to spit-roast an entire herd of swine to supply the celebration.  I’ve already got my plate and fork and cholesterol medicine ready.

1x1.trans And this little piggy finished fourth in the Regata Storica

Andrea Bertoldini (is he always on the left?) and Martino Vianello being feted at the Settemari porkfest, listening to the proclamations made by the Assessore for Sport, Roberto Panciera, (second from right) and club president, Massimo Rigo (far right).

1x1.trans And this little piggy finished fourth in the Regata Storica


1x1.trans And this little piggy finished fourth in the Regata Storica

This soft-spoken couple brought the massive quadrupeds from a company named Quartiglia. I’ve always been sorry that the roasting process makes the animal look like it’s smiling, but you can get past that if you love the meat.

1x1.trans And this little piggy finished fourth in the Regata Storica

Show this to your arteries, then run.

1x1.trans And this little piggy finished fourth in the Regata Storica

Just keep those plates coming.

1x1.trans And this little piggy finished fourth in the Regata Storica

I’d send you the aroma if I could.

1x1.trans And this little piggy finished fourth in the Regata Storica

Martino is enjoying this, along with everybody else. I didn’t ask him if this was better than winning the race because I know the answer. But it’s definitely not bad.



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Shipping boats

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1x1.trans Shipping boats

This is a view of the typical vehicle (in England known as an articulated lorry, if that helps; in the US, it has various names, such as tractor-trailer). The situation here is another trip and boat, but I wanted to set the scene: water, crane, truck. Olindo is somewhere nearby, just outside the frame.

A few readers have asked how the Venetian boats travel to and from these foreign locations I keep jaunting off to.

In three words:  Trucks, cranes, and Olindo.

In my first expedition with a traveling gondola, however, which we had taken to the lake of Bolsena for a big festival, we had the truck and Olindo, but no crane.  I don’t remember how we got the boat into the water, but a whole bunch of us had to turn to in order to get the gondola back up into the truck by hand.  When I saw what we were about to do (it was early in my shipping life), I thought it was impossible.  When I think back on it, it still seems impossible.  And yet, we did it.

I should mention that there were about ten of us per side.  Maybe more.  And at least two people — Olindo and Lino — understood the geometry and physics of the operation, so we weren’t relying solely on brute strength.

Obviously, picking boats up and pushing them around by hand is not ideal — for the boat, I mean, the heck with us.  There are always plenty of XY-chromosome people hovering nearby, eager to show how strong they are.  But we had no choice.

So the plan is simple.  You row or tow your boat to Punta San Giuliano, on the edge of the lagoon where the bridge touches land.

Because there are three boat clubs there, there are also three cranes, of which I have only ever used the biggest.  And the trucks will arrive, often driven by foreign nationals, often from somewhere in the Balkans.  These drivers communicate by means of international truck-language, which is based on an assortment of gestures and shouts.

And there will be Olindo.  He is the magus of boat transport, the scion of Chiarentin Trasporti, founded by his father in 1922 when boats still FAR outnumbered motorized vehicles.  And because his father’s blood was condensed and consumed by hauling boats up the Brenta river by means of his own arms (until he could afford a horse), Olindo has inherited a mystic capacity of knowing exactly how to handle any sort of boat — positioned, braced, lashed, counterpoised, and otherwise settled for a long truck ride in such a way as to come out looking better than when it left.  Or certainly not worse.

Some people understand animals, some people even claim to understand women.  Olindo understands boats.  The boat has yet to be born so big, delicate, or valuable that can ruffle him in any way.  Usually it’s the amateurs who are trying to HELP that drive him over his recommended personal rpm’s.

So sending the boats to Orleans was pretty routine.  The only thing that was different from other trips was the size of the crane brought in by the city to pluck many of the boats from the Loire and send them home.  Its hydraulic arm could have been measured in football-field-lengths, and it could lift a maximum of 25 tons. I thought the Diesona was big; the crane thought it was a  splinter.

The only living thing I know that could match that crane for strength, inch for pound for atmospheres, would be Olindo, actually.  If they ever made him hydraulic, we wouldn’t need Archimedes’ proverbial fulcrum and level — he could move the world by himself.

Too bad there wouldn’t be a truck big enough to hold it.  Though the shouts and gestures would probably be the same.


1x1.trans Shipping boats

Here an eight-oar gondola is hoisted, ready to be placed on the truck which is about to back up for loading. The boat isn’t lifted over the side of the momentarily topless  truck, but slid into it from the rear. This phase is accomplished very slowly, aided by shouts and gestures which essentially mean “go slowly” and “stop immediately.”  Olindo is ready to grab the boat, arm already outstretched.

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So far, so good.

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The spare tires are strategically placed to brace the boat against jouncing.

1x1.trans Shipping boats

You can see why it’s important to calculate the boat length correctly. In this case, it was enough to unscrew and remove the heavy metal “ferro” on the bow of the boat.  We were prepared for that.

1x1.trans Shipping boats

One small detail of the many strappings and lashings involved, none of which is at random, or accomplished with anything resembling “Well, let’s hope for the best,” or “It looks like that ought to do it.”  More geometry, more decades of experience at work.

1x1.trans Shipping boats

On another trip, we had to use the famous metal sawhorses in order to carry two gondolas at once. More straps, more lashings.

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A rare glimpse of Olindo’s face (left); he’s usually moving too briskly and looking elsewhere to allow useful portraits.

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Last phase: Closing the truck’s top and sides.

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In Orleans, we weren’t there for the unloading, but we all stood by for the loading for the trip home. The mythic crane is in position, halfway between the river and the street, where a line of trucks was waiting for their cargo.

1x1.trans Shipping boats

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These men weren’t Olindo, but they got the job done with no wasted time or motion.

1x1.trans Shipping boats

The “Diesona” has been disassembled, and is ready to be lifted onto the truck. From here on, the process followed its immemorial phases.



1x1.trans Shipping boats
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