My instructor, Elena Almansi from Row Venice, first learnt the “voga alla Veneta” technique of rowing gondolier-style, while standing up and facing forward with a single long oar. This was at the age of six when her father literally threw her into the deep end, leaving her in the Venice lagoon to row her way home.
Now, with her lilting Venice accent and reassuring manner, Elena is teaching me the basics in the safety of a shrimp-tailed batellina, which is more stable and wider than a gondola. “Just stand naturally, one foot in front of the other as if you’re about to walk,” she says, demonstrating the rocking motion which is easy enough to master. When I’ve heaved the surprisingly weighty 3.5m-long wooden oar into place, Elena continues: “Now twist your wrists, drop the oar into the water, then forward, twist back and out again, that’s all there is to it!”
I keep repeating the twist-drop-forward mantra as we set off around the quiet side canals of Venice’s Cannaregio district. Elena is rowing in the helmsman’s position at the tail of the boat, while I’m in front. After a wobbly start I find my rhythm, and feel a surge of exhilaration as we glide along the canal past elegant palazzi. I can do this!
Right on cue, Elena tells me I’m ready to try rowing from the stern, the real gondolier’s way. With trembling knees I clamber up onto the sloping tail where there are no sides to stop you toppling into the water. As I find my footing, she passes me the even longer oar which I rest into the back oarlock, beautifully carved in walnut wood.
Now I’m rowing on the opposite side. We go through the twist-drop routine again, and after only a few strokes, the heavy oar slips out of its oarlock, almost jerking me into the canal. I adjust position and try again, even more gently. Eventually I manage to row about 20m, whooping with joy at the sensation of being in command, high over the water, surrounded by graceful Venetian architecture.
All too soon, the lesson is over, but I’m already planning a return trip to master the technique. Who knows? Perhaps I’ll become another of the city’s official woman gondoliers.
Other watery experiences
SUP in the South Pacific
Try stand-up paddle-boarding (SUP) at the paradisical island of Efate, part of the Vanuatu archipelago in the South Pacific. Pre-book a lesson or accompanied tour online, or simply rent a board.
Kayaking the Norwegian fjords
Join a kayak tour and paddle your way through the breathtakingly beautiful Naeroyfjord in western Norway, within a UNESCO World Heritage area. You can sign up for lessons with Nordic Ventures; equipment is available for hire.
Learn to surf in Hawaii
Experience the exhilaration of riding the waves in the world surfer capital, Hawaii. Take a lesson with Kai Sallas’ Pro Surf School at a quiet, secluded beach or go on a surf tour of Oahu island’s best surf spots.
– TEXT BY SARAH LANE
PHOTOS 123RF.COM / NORDIC VENTURES FACEBOOK PAGE
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.