Archive for Capitaneria di Porto


Big Ship reflections

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The "Zenith" carries stats stats

The “Zenith” in a happier moment.

Maybe all of you out there are sick of hearing about the Grandi Navi (Big Ships) kerfuffle, but it’s just about daily news here.  It provides a needed (though I wouldn’t say “welcome”) break from the other endless topics, such as everything else that’s screwy around here.

But something happened two days ago which in my opinion changes the entire scheme of the bureaucratic/political/economic volleyball game between the Comune, the small but obnoxious band of protesters, and the Port Authority.

As you know, there has been and continues to be an exhausting back and forth between these factions about What to Do About the Big Ships.  All these heated remarks and assertions, which keep fizzing and flaming like sodium dropped in a glass of water, are based on the conviction that a big ship is a clear and present and inevitable and catastrophic danger to Venice. Every remark on the subject, like acqua alta, starts from the unstated assumption that it is inherently hazardous.

As you also know, I am not convinced.  Not being convinced doesn’t mean that I find the behemoths attractive, but there is a difference between something being ugly and something being bad.  The protesters don’t want them in the city for reasons which have nothing to do either with the ships or the city, and so have created an issue where one didn’t exist before, and doesn’t have to exist now, either.

The subject has been twisted around in a way that brings to mind the observation of Seneca the Younger regarding the difference between the Roman and Etruscan outlook on the cosmos:

Whereas we believe lightning to be released as a result of the collision of clouds, they believe that the clouds collide so as to release lightning: for … they are led to believe not that things have a meaning insofar as they occur, but rather that they occur because they must have a meaning.

Because the big ships could be dangerous, we have to assume that they will be dangerous.

Don’t misunderstand.  I think it would be a terrible thing if a big ship suddenly lost control and ran into the Piazza San Marco killing countless people and cleaving the Doge’s Palace in twain.  I also think it would be a terrible thing if an eagle dropped a turtle on my head.  So many terrible things hurt and/or kill people every day — abusive husbands, cigarettes, car crashes, malaria-bearing mosquitoes — that fixating on the big ships seems excessive.

But there’s good news!

Two days ago a sort of fire-drill occurred.  It wasn’t planned, and it wasn’t fun, but in my opinion it demonstrated that the people who would have to deal with the much-dreaded emergency in the Bacino of San Marco are very much up to the task.

A Big Ship named “Zenith” (soon, I guess, to be rechristened “Nadir”) carrying 1,828 (or 1,672) passengers and 620 (or 603) crew members caught fire.  That is, a fire broke out in the engine room. The ship was not far from Chioggia, in the first night of its cruise heading toward Venice.  The fire was quickly brought under control, but the ship lost all power and was anchored ten miles offshore (seasick pills anybody?), in the dark, etc. Scenarios that are too familiar from recent Carnival line carnivals.

At 4:20 AM, after having spent ten hours trying to get the engines started,  the captain called the Capitaneria di Porto for help and a flotilla of assistance was immediately thrown into action.  Three large motor patrol vessels of the C di P began heading south, along with a large fireboat with firemen, two big tugboats (“Marina C” and “Hippos”), soon followed by another two (“Angelina C” and “Ivonne C”).  Aboard the tugboats were more firemen and seamen from the Coast Guard. Also divers.

The tugboats managed to attach their towlines to the ship — not easy in a heavy sea — and tow her into the lagoon at Malamocco at about 4 knots/7 kilometers per hour. All this took most of the day. At 11:00 PM the ship was finally moored at the industrial zone at Marghera. Total elapsed time: 20 hours.

Why is this good news?  First of all, the passengers lived through it and the experience didn’t last for days and days, as has been the case in some other similar events.

Second, and most important,  the Venetian maritime system showed itself  highly capable of resolving this emergency in admirable form.

So if they were able to accomplish all this in a long and complicated situation, why would they not be able to intervene immediately  in the Bacino of San Marco if a Big Ship lost power, when two tugboats are already attached, and there are rarely waves or wind to match those of the open sea?

Maybe Seneca the Younger has the answer to that.  My answer is that it appears they’d be able to do just fine.

Categories : Venetian Problems
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How to blight a festa

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The procession of the feast of the Redentore, depicted by Canaletto. Let us not forget, in all the turmoil about the party, that this is essentially a religious occasion. Or at least it was supposed to be.

As I’ve related probably all too well, summer is loaded with more festas than the average barge with paying festa-goers.  I have a reason for making that comparison, because once again we are now on the verge of the festa del Redentore, the “Notte Famossissima,” inspiration of song and story, one of the great parties of the world (though  in terms of sheer tonnage I wouldn’t compare it to, say, the Kumbh Mela, which technically isn’t a party.  But still).  In a word, it’s tonight.

What is inspiring lively conversation this year, however, is the drastic decision announced a mere two days ago by the Capitaneria di Porto, the branch of the navy which is responsible for certain tracts of the lagoon. The commanders have made it clear that this year they’re throwing the book at the festivizers, and are ready to fine and possibly confiscate the large barges known as “topomotori” which usually show up carrying ten times as many people as they’re allowed. Without any safety equipment of any kind.

The classic Venetian topomotore, in the rio di San Trovaso. If it can carry refrigerators or bricks, why not beer and sarde in saor? And, of course, the hordes to consume them?

Yes, illegally overloaded barges have become part of the tradition, because they are a wonderful size for carrying large tables groaning with food and drink surrounded by the aforementioned people, a few of them also groaning.  These working boats are typically certified to carry “cose” (things) but not “persone” (people).  I suppose a clever lawyer could try to make a case for the people qualifying as things, but I’ll stop here.

Technical note: Of course you’ve seen these barges plying the Venetian waters every day loaded with merchandise with people aboard to heft the cargo, but the legal limit is six.

These restrictions also apply to the big fishing boats that trundle up from Chioggia and Pellestrina — they hold more people (good!) but they are impossible to present as anything other than what they are.  (“Certainly, sir, all these women and children are professional fishermen too…..”).

What is really upsetting people isn’t primarily that that oppressed minority known as Venetian families is going to be prevented from enjoying a Venetian (debatable, by now) event.  The truly distressed people are the barge owners who are now accustomed to making money by renting their vessels for the evening.  The intake (in small, unmarked bills) to the party’s organizer could be 100 euros per person, with a payload of up to 40 people.  The barge owner could expect 300-400 euros just for letting his boat leave the dock.

A typical fishing boat from the area of Pellestrina and Chioggia, proudly vaunting its illegal clam-sifting attachment. These boats can hold astonishing numbers of people.

Some nervous organizers have already canceled their parties. Others are saying, “We’re going to chance it.  Out of thousands of boats, why should they pick me?” I like the way estimating odds works: Your chance of winning the lottery (in your own eyes) is from reasonable to even very high; your chance of being fined for carrying a clan, a tribe, an entire linguistic group, is almost nil. Such is the power of human desire.

What’s modestly upsetting me is that this drama was avoidable because, as the Capitaneria has pointed out,  the owners of these barges could have avoided all this unpleasantness by coming to the office in time to apply for official permission to “occasionally” carry more people than usual.  I didn’t know such an option existed because it doesn’t affect me, but it would seem that a person with a barge, especially one who was looking forward to a couple of hundred free euros, might have exerted himself to acquire a more extensive knowledge of the rules of the road.  And that forestalling this awkwardness in a timely manner could have been done without even breaking a sweat. But I forgot. Drama is so much more entertaining than just doing things the easy way.

As an interesting additional factor in the evening’s excitement (and in this case, totally unavoidable by anybody) is the weather.  They’re predicting wind, and also rain.  Perhaps even thunder and lightning.  Looking at the forecast, maybe people would have canceled anyway.  Or maybe the organizers and owners would have calculated the odds in their favor, as per usual.

I can hear it now: “With all these thousands of boats, why should it rain on me?”

We weren’t planning on being in a boat anyway, but on watching from the shoreline, like two years ago.  The only thing that could spoil my evening would be for the gelateria to run out of ice cream.




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Categories : Venetian Events
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