Archive for January, 2010

Jan
15

Motondoso, Part 3: The How

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“Motondoso” has very clear, and essentially simple, causes and effects. Anything moving in water, even eels, will create some kind of wake. The wake is the visible, surface part of the turbulence made by whatever is moving — in the present case, the motor’s propellers. The waves spread out in two directions until they dissipate.

In the case of motorboats in Venice, this fact is exacerbated by:

If it floats, it has to have a motor.  This appears to be the only rule that is universally obeyed.  This is an increasingly common scene in the Grand Canal.  (Photo: Venice Project Center)

If it floats, it has to have a motor. This appears to be the only rule that is universally obeyed. Here is an increasingly common scene in the Grand Canal. (Photo: Venice Project Center)

The number of boats:   There are thousands of registered boats in the city of Venice. There are also many which are unregistered. This number spikes every year in the summer when trippers from the hinterland come into the lagoon to spend their weekends roaming around, often at high speed but always with many horsepower, in motorboats of every shape and tonnage. Teenage boys, particularly  from the islands (by which we mean Sant’ Erasmo, Burano, Murano, are especially addicted to roaming at high speed at all hours with their girlfriends and boomboxes.

On a Sunday in July  a few years ago, a squad of volunteers from the Venice Project Center spread out at observation posts across the lagoon, from Chioggia to Burano. Their mission was to count the number and type of boats that passed their station. Whether it was a million boats passing once or one boat a million times, it didn’t matter. They came home with quite a list: every kind of small-to-smallish boat with motors ranging from 15 to 150 hp, hulking great Zodiacs, large cabin cruisers, ferries, vaporettos, tourist mega-launches, hydrofoils from Croatia, taxis, and more. After 11 hours, from 8:30 AM to 7:30 PM, they   analyzed their data. Result: A motorboat had passed somewhere, on the average, every one and a half seconds.

And if weekday traffic is heavy, weekend traffic is three times greater.

The types of boats: In the last 20 years, motor-powered traffic has doubled; at last count 30,000 trips are made in the city every day; 97 percent of these trips are in boats with motors. (There are currently 12 projects in the works for marinas which will add 8,000 more berths.) Of these 30,000 trips, a little  over half are made by some sort of working boat.  

More than 10,000 daily trips are by taxis or mega-launches, and more than 8,000 are by barges carrying some kind of goods (bricks,  plumbing supplies, cream puffs, etc.).   Studies have shown that if there is one category that over time causes the most damage, it’s not the taxi (I would have bet money on that).   It’s barges.   And they are everywhere.   It’s all barges, all the time.

 

This is the milk truck.

This is the milk truck.

 

Appliances and furniture.

Appliances and furniture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There have always been large heavy boats moving materials in Venice, but when they were propelled by oars, the backing-and-forthing needed to negotiate spaces and corners didn't involve creating heavy vortexes of water.

There have always been large heavy boats moving materials in Venice, but when they were propelled by oars, the backing-and-forthing needed to negotiate spaces and corners didn't involve creating heavy vortexes of water.

When a heavy boat runs into a wall, it can leave quite a calling card. Here is a popular place to tie up your barge while unloading cargo. Who did this? Everybody and nobody.

When a heavy boat runs into a wall, it can leave quite a calling card. Here is a popular place to tie up your barge while unloading cargo. Who did this? Everybody and nobody.

 

Toilet paper, detergent, and other household supplies come ashore with the flick of a few buttons. Life is good, unless you're an old and fragile city.

Toilet paper, detergent, and other household supplies come ashore with the flick of a few buttons. Life is good, unless you're an old and fragile city.

I know they're heavy, but all this boat to carry a few watermelons?
I know they’re heavy, but all this boat to carry a few watermelons?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is a peata, the mega-barge that built and maintained Venice well into the 20th century. It was usually rowed by two people, with one of them also at the tiller. And we require motors to do the same thing because we have to have speed.

This is a peata, the mega-barge that built and maintained Venice well into the 20th century. It was usually rowed by two people, with one of them also at the tiller. Now we require motors to do the same thing because we have to have speed.

These men knew and understood the lagoon, its tides and currents and winds, as no one ever will again, and they exploited them rather than fighting against them.

These men knew and understood the lagoon, its tides and currents and winds, as no one ever will again, and they exploited them rather than fighting against them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Traffic patterns: The problem isn’t merely the number and type of boats, but where they are.   Obviously, the more boats you have, the more waves they will create, and where space is limited (most canals in Venice) these waves quickly accumulate into a roiling mass that dissipates with extreme difficulty.   They are forced to go back and forth, hitting anything they come into contact with, until they finally wear themselves out and die.  

There are canals where the waves don’t expire for hours: the Grand Canal (unfortunately), the Rio Novo, the Rio di Noale, the Canale di Tessera toward the airport, the Canale delle Fondamente Nuove, and above all, the Canale della Giudecca.

This map makes it clear why the Giudecca Canal is fated to carry virtually every boat that wants the shortest route from the Maritime Zone/Tronchetto to and from San Marco.

This map makes it clear why the Giudecca Canal is fated to carry virtually every boat that wants the shortest route from the Maritime Zone/Tronchetto to and from San Marco.

This broad, deep channel has become Venice’s Cape Horn. It is a stretch of water 1.5 miles long [2 km] and 1,581 feet [482 m] wide, and is the shortest and fastest way to get from the Maritime Zone (cruise ship passengers, tourist groups from buses at Tronchetto, barges delivering goods of every sort) to the Bacino of San Marco. One study revealed that the biggest waves in the Lagoon are here; an even more recent survey, conducted with a new telecamera system installed by the Capitaneria di Porto, provided some specific numbers: 1,000 boats an hour transit here, or 10,000 in an ordinary workday.   In the summer, there are undoubtedly more, seeing that an “ordinary workday” includes masses of tourists.

One reason there are so many  boats  is due to the large number of barges, rendered necessary by an exotic system for distributing goods. If you are a restaurant and need paper products, they come on a barge. If you need tomato paste, it comes on another barge. If you need wine, it comes on another barge. In one especially busy internal canal, the amount of cargo and number of barges was analyzed, and it turns out that the stuff on 96 barges could have fit onto three.   But never forget the fundamental philosophy: “Io devo lavorare” (I have to work).

The types of boats: Their weight and length. The shape of their hulls. Their motors (horsepower and propeller shape). All these factors influence the waves that they create.

A number of intelligent and effective changes have been proposed over time, most of which that  would not be particularly complicated, but which would cost money.   So far no one has shown that they consider these changes to be  a worthwhile investment.

Example: The original motor taxis (c. 1930), apart from being smaller than those of  today, positioned their motors in the center of the boat. When the hulls (and motors)  became larger, everyone moved the motor to the stern, which immediately creates bigger waves.   But subsequent improvement in motors and their fuels means that today it would be feasible to maintain the current size of the taxi while moving the motor to the center once again, thereby  immediately minimizing its waves.  Feasible, but no one is interested.

Boats this large made of metal may be necessary for certain kinds of heavy labor, but they are hazardous to the city's foundations not only because of the damage they can cause if they run into a building or fondamenta.  The force of their motors during maneuvers, especially at low tide, really scour out the canal sediments, which are either carried away by the tide (potentially weakening foundations) or pushed up against the underwater walls of buildings which easily block sewer outflows.  Blocked sewers cause accumulations of corrosive chemicals inside the building walls, which eventually also damage the structure.

Boats this large made of metal may be necessary for certain kinds of heavy labor, but they are hazardous to the city's foundations. Although they don't create noticeable waves in the smaller canals because they are going slowly, they contribute to the wave damage in several ways. One is by the chunks they take out of walls if they mistake a maneuver, thereby opening the pathway to waves from smaller boats. Another is the force of their motors during maneuvers, especially at low tide, which can suck the earth out from under the sidewalks. Or the force can push the canal sediment up against the underwater walls of buildings where they plug up sewer outflows. Blocked sewers cause accumulations of corrosive chemicals inside the building walls, which eventually also damage the structure.

Speed: This is utterly fundamental. Speed limits were introduced in 2002 to confront the already serious problem of the waves; the average legal range, depending on what canal you’re in, is between 5-7 km/h. But tourist mega-launches, barges, taxis — almost every motorized boat in Venice has the same need: To get where they’re going as quickly as possible.  

This need has been imposed by the demands of mass tourism, which involves moving the maximum amount of cargo (people, laundry, bottled water, etc.) often many times during the day. Everyone makes up a timetable which suits them and then makes it work.

Studies by the Venice Project Center have revealed several speedy facts in crisp detail.

  1. The height of the waves increases exponentially as speed increases. A small barge traveling at 5 km/h would produce a wake about 2 cm high. The same boat going at 10 km/h produces a wake of nearly 15 cm. (Multiply the speed by 2, multiply the wake by 7.)
  2. Virtually all boats exceed the speed limit. The average speed on all boats in all canals was 12 km/h, which is more than 7 km/h over the maximum speed limit.
  3. Therefore, reducing the speed of the boats would drastically decrease the size of their wakes.

Speed limits would have a positive effect (if they were obeyed) but only if certain laws of hydrodynamics were taken into account, such as the one governing the wake produced relative to the weight of the boat. Here the speed limits have been adjusted to permit the vaporettos (waterbuses), among the heaviest daily craft, to go — not slower, which would be correct — but as fast as the timetable requires.

You can change the laws on speed limits all you want —  you’ll never change the laws of physics.  

Oh yes: there will be waves.

Next:  Part Four: The lagoon experience

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Jan
12

Motondoso, Part 2: The Why

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Read Part 1: The What;   Part 3: The How;    Suck It Up;  Part 4: The lagoon’s-eye view

If civilization has reached the stage where most people generally agree that it’s wrong to strike a woman, a child, even a dog, it’s not easy to explain, much less excuse, why an entire city should have to submit to this kind of abuse, a city which depends as much (or more) on its people than the people depend on it.

But then again, it is easy to explain. Sloth, egotism, and a  resistance to contradiction tougher than corrugated iron induce almost all the people with motorboats of whatever size or purpose either to deny that they are creating waves, or say that other perpetrators are far more guilty, or accept it with Zen-like resignation.

All of these put together foster a situation in which  a recent newspaper article could make a serious reference to  the “numerous reports (to the police, of excessive traffic/waves) by Venetians who when they go out in their motorboats have to work miracles to avoid ending up in the water because the waves are so strong.”

People in motorboats complaining about waves. Let me stop and think about that for a minute.

You'll find virtually any kind of boat with a motor in the Giudecca Canal, usually in a huge hurry.  Here we have taxis, one of countless barges, the Alilaguna airport waterbus, and a hotel launch.  What's missing here at the moment, strictly by chance, are innumerable private motorboats of all sizes, as well as the vehicles of public transport: vaporettos, motoscafos, and the ferryboat carrying cars to and from the Lido.

You'll find virtually any kind of boat with a motor in the Giudecca Canal, usually in a huge hurry. Here we have taxis, a tourist launch, one of countless barges, the Alilaguna airport waterbus, and a hotel launch. What's missing here at the moment, strictly by chance, are (among others) the garbage scows, innumerable private motorboats of all sizes, as well as the vehicles of public transport: vaporettos, motoscafos, and the ferryboat carrying cars to and from the Lido.

Waves don’t really care who causes them or why, but each one acts as a hammer hitting anything it reaches. A study more than 10 years ago revealed, via sensors in the Grand Canal, that a wave hit a wall every 1 1/2 seconds. One pauses to imagine what the public response might be in a city — say, Rome — in which a heavily loaded truck ran into a building, especially a monument, every 1 1/2 seconds.   Zen-like resignation doesn’t come to my mind.

For some reason, waves just don’t sound that bad. But they are. And even though they’re right out there in plain view, solutions — and many have been proposed, and re-proposed — have the doomed allure of the classic New Year’s diet: feasible, yet somehow impossible.

One reason is a lethargy at City Hall of spectacular dimensions caused, among several factors, by the lack of ability or desire on the part of the city’s administrators to resist the inevitable shrieking and ranting from any sector which feels threatened by any suggestion of limits. Example: The recent succumbing to pressure by the taxi drivers, and the awarding of 25 new taxi licenses. These will not be taxis which do not create waves, but they will be taxis traveling the same routes which already are suffering the most devastation.

These licenses were granted by the same officials who in other situations solemnly invoke the “battle against motondoso.” Hard to get anywhere with a battle when most of your officers are collaborating with the other side.

One of many signs in the lagoon notifying boaters of the speed limit, here in the Canale delle Scoasse along the Lido.  Note that the speed is given in kilometers (not knots) per hour.  If anyone is going this slowly it's either because he's just spotted a policeman up ahead, or his motor has died and he's being towed.

One of many signs in the lagoon notifying boaters of the speed limit, here in the Canale delle Scoasse along the Lido. Note that the speed is given in kilometers (not knots) per hour. If anyone is going this slowly it's either because he's just spotted a policeman up ahead, or his motor has died and he's being towed.

Of course there are laws — plenty of them. But they are only sluggishly enforced, especially those concerning speed limits. There are sporadic police “blitzes” which snag a certain number of offenders (it’s like shooting fish in a barrel), but these blitzes change nothing, not even for the people who have been handed fines. Taking your chances is part of the Mediterranean worldview, and laws are meant to be ignored.   Fines are part of the annual budget for many waterborne enterprises. Confiscate your taxi? We’ve got more. One taxi owner invited some city politicians to the launching of his new one.

Down here at the waterline, I can tell you that one of the biggest obstacles to reducing waves is contained in three words: “Io devo lavorare” (Literally, “I have to work.”   Figuratively, “Get off my back, do you want my wife and children to be thrown out onto the street to beg?”)

This phrase is lavishly used, on the assumption that it’s a free pass to whatever the person speaking it feels like doing. And when gondoliers stage one of their periodic protests, which are always dramatic because gondolas are inherently harmless, the little red “Danger: Irony” light starts to flash. Gondoliers spend all day carrying people around  through waves that range from “unpleasant” to “dangerous” to “life-threatening” (not an exaggeration; occasional passengers have risked drowning, and some have succeeded). But several gondolier cooperatives do a very lucrative business owning and operating a fleet of mega-tourist launches.  

My favorite little moment was when two gondoliers went to a meeting of Pax in Aqua, the citizens’ group committed to combating motondoso. They went in a motorboat.

It’s not that they should have swum there. I’m just saying.

The gondola race at Murano is one of the most important Venetian-rowing races ever.  Here is a small part of the motor-driven horde, lovers of the oar, which turns out to cheer on their friends and relatives.  Some of these fans will also be gondoliers.

The gondola race at Murano is one of the most important Venetian-rowing races ever. Here is a small part of the motor-driven horde, lovers of the oar, which turns out to cheer on their friends and relatives. Some of these fans will also be gondoliers.

I’ll tell you when I gave up. It wasn’t the Sunday afternoon we barely made it back alive rowing our little Venetian topetta from Bacan’, one of the most popular lagoon summer spots to hang out in boats, which means motorboats. The waves were heavy, frantic, aggressive; they came from every direction as boat wakes smashed into each other. So: No more Bacan’ for us. We can just stay home and take up paper-making.   Problem solved.

No, I could hear the air seep out of my capacity to hope on another Sunday afternoon in 2002, I think it was,  when we were walking along the rio di San Trovaso — a very narrow canal which is always busy because it’s one of the  shortest cuts between the Giudecca Canal and the Grand Canal.

For weeks, maybe months, long warning strips of red and white tape had been strung along parts of the fondamenta bordering the canal because it had become so unsafe to walk on. The waves from the constant traffic had done their inevitable work  weakening the sidewalks’ foundations, in which you could easily see cracks, cracks that were widening thanks to the waves rushing in and out, pulling the soil from beneath the paving stones.   The whole walkway  was ready to cave in.

In that period, the then-mayor Paolo Costa had tried a novel approach to the problem: He had appointed himself Special Commissioner against Motondoso, which gave him extraordinary powers to deal with the deteriorating situation and also — well, why not? — get an extra paycheck.

His idea was that the bureaucracy had proved incapable of dealing with  the waterborne anarchy which is obviously destroying the city, and the police hadn’t been noticeably effective in enforcing the laws (which you could understand, seeing that there are so few  police and so rarely are any dedicated to monitoring speed limits). Therefore  a sort of instant dictator would have to step in to impose order.

Even a classic boat, such as this Burano-type sandolo, almost always have motors clamped onto them.  It might be only 15 hp, but that's irrelevant.  A motor there must be.

Even classic Venetian boats, such as this Burano-type sandolo, almost always have a motor clamped onto them. It might be only 15 hp, but that's irrelevant. A motor there must be.

The resulting special decree (Ordinanza n.09/2002, prot. 38/2002, February 21, 2002) outlines speed limits, and boat specifications, and canals name by name, to a degree which makes it clear that if every regulation were to be obeyed wars would cease, hunger would disappear, and illness and poverty would become but an ancestral  bad dream. I’m sorry it’s only in Italian, it makes genuinely inspiring reading.

Suddenly we saw a motorboat come screaming down the canal, faster than any boat I’d ever seen here, hurling walls of white water against the trembling embankments. We stopped, stunned. Everybody walking along had stopped. Then the boat stopped. We heard voices. A few people on the sidewalk were talking to the people in the boat. And then it became clear.

They were filming “The Italian Job,” and this was just one of many sequences the city was to witness over the next few days or weeks (I can’t remember). Boats were racing up and down canals in a way that not even taxi-drivers could have dreamed of. Of course, if a taxi driver were to go this fast, he’d have to go to jail, or hell. For a movie, though — that’s something else entirely.

And who gave the permission for this film and these high-speed chases, and these walls of white water? The mayor. Excuse me, I meant the Special Commissioner against Motondoso.

I wish I could say I made that up, but I didn’t.

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Just one of the countless waves (here, the Giudecca Canal gives an uppercut to the Zattere) which are reducing Venice to rubble.

Just one of the countless waves (here, the Giudecca Canal lands a left hook on the Zattere) which are reducing Venice to rubble.

Slapping. Punching. Thudding. This is the sound of what things have come to. For 1,795 years, Venice celebrated Ascension Day with a ceremony in which the doge threw a golden ring into the sea and intoned the words: “Desponsamus te, O Mare, in signum veri perpetique dominii.”   (“I wed thee, O Sea, in sign of true and perpetual dominion.”)  In this case he was referring to the Adriatic, and possibly even the Mediterranean, and the Venetians did an excellent job of this for a long time.   But the Venetian lagoon is a body of water which resists domination.   It is not a happy marriage.

The gondoliers at the Molo, on the Bacino of San Marco in front of the Doge's Palace, finally installed a breakwater at their own expense. It's not the perfect solution, but it's better than nothing.

Over the past 50 years, the complex rapport between land and liquid, hitherto marred by only occasional bickering — an engineering misunderstanding, say, or some meteorological outburst — has now reached the stage of open battle.

But contrary to the general impression the world has of  Venice’s rapport with its waters, the most serious problem  does not involve acqua alta, or high tide. It is motondoso (sometimes moto ondoso), or the waves caused by motorboats, which is literally killing the lagoon’s erstwhile spouse.   And unlike other forms of pollution or pressure,  waves are a little hard to keep secret.   The sight and sound of crashing water has become nearly constant.

Venetians routinely refer to motondoso as “the cancer of Venice.”

If you’re not impressed by the roiling high seas surrounding the city (try stepping between the leaping and plunging dock and vaporetto after the motonave — or better yet, the Alilaguna, the yellow airport “bus” — has just passed), give a glance at any canal at low tide.

You’ll see walls with chunks of stone and brick gone, stone steps fallen askew, cracks and fissures snaking up building walls from the foundation to the second floor, and even higher. It doesn’t take many canals before you begin to wonder how the city manages to stay on its feet. There are palaces on virtually every canal which have holes in their foundations bigger than hula hoops —  dank caverns stretching back into the darkness. I have seen them with these very eyes. And if I’ve seen them, so has everybody else. But it just keeps getting worse.

Several years ago the fondamenta on the Giudecca facing the eponymous canal was finally completely repaired.  Years of pounding waves were causing it to literally fall into the canal.  But the waves continue as before — on the contrary, they’re increasing.  The force, the height, the frequency, pick what you will.  It’s all bad.  (One study has stated that the highest waves in the entire lagoon are in the Giudecca Canal.)

Therefore the fondamenta is beginning to weaken again in the same way, which you can check by looking at the point at which a building is attached to the fondamenta.  Cracks are opening up.  Again.  

So fixing — or saying you’ve fixed — a problem doesn’t count for much if you haven’t, you know, actually fixed it.

On the Giudecca: The green is dangerous to people above, the waves are dangerous to the fondamenta below. Waves can damage just about anything they can reach.

The constant spray from the waves creates the ideal environment for a type of algae which is spectacularly slippery. And in the winter, spray turns to ice. You're on your own.

It's not hard to find scenes like this, or worse, below the waterline. Here, a house near Campo Santa Maria Formosa. And just imagine how happy the owners of this house must be. Who pays for repairs is a saga unto itself. (Credit: Italia Nostra Venice Chapter)

Low tide here is an appalling revelation. One of the primary causes of this damage are enormous iron workboats. If one bumps into a wall even slightly, it opens a crack (or hole) which the waves keep eroding. Hey, it's not their wall. (Photo: Italia Nostra)

This is one version of the intermediate stage, here on the Riva dei Sette Martiri facing the Bacino of San Marco. The waves are working away underneath and eventually gravity will take over. This picture is a small illustration of how this phenomenon fits into real life: It's just normal by now. No warning sign or barrier to keep people away, no indication whatever that anything is going wrong here. This silent catastrophe is just sitting here peacefully in broad daylight as people wander by.

This is one version of the intermediate stage, here on the Riva dei Sette Martiri facing the Bacino of San Marco. The waves have been pushing and pulling underneath and gravity has begun to take over. Just imagine if this were happening under your house. And yet, this is normal by now. There are no warning signs or barriers, no indication whatever that anything is happening here. This silent catastrophe is just sitting here peacefully in broad daylight as people wander by.

Waves working night and day will eventually produce a result like this ruined fondamenta facing the Scomenzera canal just behind Piazzale Roma. The pavement looks like a dead parking lot but that is because it's undergoing renovation. This is almost certainly necessary because the pavement was giving way due to the waves in the canal weakening the soil upon which it rests. The stone border makes it eminently clear what that eventually means. The fondamenta will eventually be new, but the waves will continue – narrow as it is, this is a major canal for vaporetto and barge traffic.

Waves working night and day will eventually produce a result like this ruined fondamenta facing the Canale di Santa Chiara just behind Piazzale Roma. The former walkway looks like a dead parking lot because it's undergoing renovation, work almost certainly necessary because the pavement was giving way due to the pounding waves in the canal. The fondamenta will eventually be new, but the waves will continue – not only is the canal narrow, it is a major route for vaporetto and barge traffic.

Next: Part 2: The Why

Part 3:   The How

Suck It Up

Part 4: The lagoon’s eye view

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Jan
07

The Befana, racing

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Out in the countryside you may only need some twigs, a match, and a jug of wine to make a party, but in Venice you’ve got to have boats.   Boats that race, to be precise.   And before she finally moves on, the Befana has to get rowing.

Last year we rowed from the Lido to Venice with a strictly regulation street-sweeper's broom attached to the bow of our six-oar caorlina.  Just to blend with the decor, so to speak.

Last year we rowed from the Lido to Venice with a strictly regulation street-sweeper's broom attached to the bow of our six-oar caorlina. Just to blend with the decor, so to speak.

Ever since darkest antiquity sacred festivals have included some form of athletic competition.   The Olympic Games spring to mind, but even the tiniest hamlet lost in the mountains may still organize a foot race, or horse race, or something else, when their saint’s day comes around.   In ancient Greece some events, such as the funeral of a woman, would require a race reserved for women.

On Epiphany they held  the 32nd edition of the Regata de le Befane, the race of the Befanas, in the Grand Canal.     It’s fun to watch, doesn’t take long, there are free refreshments — they even hang an enormous calza caena, filled with only God and they know what, from the Rialto Bridge.   In fact the only people who take it seriously in any way are the five Befanas.

Who are these hags?   Men over 50, members of the Bucintoro rowing club, who have passed the eliminations for a place in the five-boat line-up.   The event is limited to five because more can’t fit abreast in the Grand Canal.     It’s just a sprint; the official schedule allots fifteen minutes to the race, but it really only takes about five.   Maybe eight.   But they are minutes filled with drama, at least for the participants.veneziazoom_new map of venice comp

The boats: Mascaretas, each rowed by one person with one oar.

The course:   The aforementioned Grand Canal, from the major curve in the Grand Canal (the “volta de Canal”) at the Palazzo Balbi between the Accademia and Rialto Bridges to just before the Rialto Bridge.

Last year's victor, Giovanni Rossi, known as "Specene'."  He finished second this year.  Even Befanas aren't immune to disappointment.

Last year's victor, Giovanni Rossi, known as "Specene'." He finished second this year. Even Befanas aren't immune to disappointment.

The garb: Strictly Befana, the men decked out in wigs and Dogpatch skirts and crocheted shawls, with scraggly brooms and weird teeth (often their own).

It takes a while to get them reasonably lined-up — it’s a “flying” start, which means each keeps inching forward while waiting for the starting gun.   This gambit often means a longish wait as the judge attempts to make them stay even, at least for a second.   They also have to wait for a break in the vaporettos coming and going, which isn’t so easy nowadays considering how many there are at any given point/moment.

They’re off!   The tide was going out — good, in a way but, as with all Venetian races, the luck of the draw which determines the positions in the starting line-up was a powerful factor in the outcome.   Because while they were all rowing against the tide, due to the shape of the canal some had more of it against them than others.   The man closest to the shore, if you will, had to confront slightly less current than the ones rowing more toward the middle (and, in fact, he’s the one who won).

It's harder than it may appear to get five boats lined up straight and ready to race.

It's harder than it may appear to get five boats lined up straight and ready to race.

But closer to the shore means that you have to work your way around the San Toma’ and San Silvestro vaporetto docks while the others are trying to get as close as possible to the left as well.   Sure it seems like a doofwit little diversion, five guys in costume flailing away with their oars like Mixmasters, but they take it as seriously as rowers take any race here.   Simmering rivalries, some having nothing to do with rowing but with club/personal/childhood events, can also heat up the competition.   Small world — long memories.

And they're off!

And they're off!

What I like best about all this isn’t so much the race itself as wandering around the Grand Canal in our boat waving to and trading badinage with our friends.   It may seem like a touristic event (and certainly there are plenty of bemused tourists and their kids lining the fondamentas and jamming the Rialto Bridge, enjoying the free drinks and galani and hard candies) but like many rowing events it has a pure neighborhood vibe.    Everybody knows everybody — everybody has always known everybody here — and even slight changes in rowing partners can excite comment, as can everything in a neighborhood.

And unlike tennis, or chess, or sumo wrestling, you don’t have to know anything about it to enjoy it.   That Befana — she’s quite a girl.   Or, you know, whatever she is.

The free refreshments are overseen by a phalanx of Befanas.

The free refreshments are overseen by a phalanx of Befanas.

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