The First Pedal Powered Boat in Venice

Il Gazzettino newspaper headline

The clipping above was published in "Il Gazzettino" 15 may 2000. The highlited area translates roughly to " a curious pedal catamaran rode by a single young man finished the whole 32 kilometer course"

I've been building, racing, doing public appearances with human powered boats for over twenty years now; one if not the biggest events in my life concerning these craft happened in May of 2000. It was my participation in the annual running of the Vogalonga (Venetian for "Long Row" <>). I was handed the controls of one of the fastest marathon HP boats in Europe, and fresh out of witnessing the International Waterbike Regatta in Flensburg Germany. The race (although it's not officially a race; everyone who finishes wins) or regatta, or marathon is a fairly grueling 32 km course that tours from the south mouth of the Grand Canal eastward around the city to the north, past the Arsenal through a series of channels mud flats and islands northward to Burano/Torcello (8 km to the north), thru that island complex southward across the open lagoon through the canals of Murano (3km to the north), some more open lagoon, to the main canal in the Ghetto (Venetian for "cannon foundry"; yes, that's where the term got its name) in north Venice, letting in to the Grand Canal, and finally back to the finish line at the south end of the Grand Canal.

Il precourso

The City

Venice was first settled in mass by refugees from the Roman Empire. These refugees were running from the likes of the Attila the Hun between 350 and 450 or so AD. Since Venice is located in an inland stretch of sea, it lent itself to being the main European stopping off point for Mediterranean commerce. Sea travel was much less burdensome than land, so instead of going down to southern Italy, over stone roads, it was easier for Central European commerce to unload at Venice, and float it to wherever in the Mediterranean, particularly the East. Also, Venice was next to impossible to attack since horses couldn't mess with the lagoon, sieges couldn't be made against a city that got all it's resources from the sea anyway. Boat-sieges wouldn't work since Venice had control of all the boats in the area, and the city shrugged off water sieges with it's vast maritime resources. In the prosperous period, Venetians had control over the whole Mediterranean for that matter. So starting around 900 AD, and especially through the 1400's, and 1500's, Venice prospered: Venitians made money off of the Crusade, they controlled a better part of the Mediterranean coastline, they made lots of money off of trade from Europe to the East, a good part of the battle of Lepanto was fought with Venetian resources and personnel.

Which brings us to the human powered point of Venetian history. The main machines that were used in this commerce, and especially military were rowed boats: human powered boats. From the Triremes used by the Greeks, thru Romans, and all thru to the middle ages, Mediterranean ships were Human Powered Boats. It has been said that they could do ten knots or better. Maybe they did that; maybe they did a lot faster. Fact remains that some real HPB records were set by Mediterranean galleys of some sort.

So as the middle ages came to a close, Venice began to fall out of the European limelight. One main reason was that there began to be ships built that could outdo the galleys; they could carry more, and were faster, and more importantly, there was a new trading pond: the Atlantic.

The chapter closed for Venice almost in an instance in 1797. There was a tussle with a ship in Napoleon's navy, and he laid waist to the city. Venice was under French control, then Austrian, finally Italian.

In Venice, there has been preserved the rich tradition of the oared galley. The city itself, in fact, has been preserved as it was in the 15th and 16th century. There is probably a festival or race of some kind it seems almost every couple of weeks. Many of these festivals, the Marriage to the sea" for instance, go back as far as the 1400s!

The Occasion

The Vogalonga was created in 1973 as a protest against the use of motorboats in the city. Since then, it has grown into the biggest rowing (as well as kayak, canoe, etc.) race in the world. To give you an idea of how big it was this year, there were nearly 1200 boats in it. The number of participants were over nearly 4200!! There had to be over five, maybe ten thousand people watching. These are not slow boats either; the course is over 30 km long, and the safety patrol only stayed out for five or so hours all the finishers had to finish by then (after that, the water taxis, and "Vaporetto" or water busses would take to the canals again).

The racers came in all shapes and sizes. Some of the boats looked of dubious seaworthiness, again, all were at least pretty fast. My estimate of the breakdown was 25% rowing shell either 4 or 8 seat, often high gunwale, few doubles. These came mainly from rowing clubs all over Europe. A good number of them were steered by a cox'n who had the steering tiller ropes under his or her armpits. Most of the rowboats fell into distinct classes. 45% were Venetian style rowboats (where the rower stood, and faced forward). These came in all shapes and sizes from mostly two position to believe it or not 50!! Here, there were classes here too, but there was a little more variation. The rest was a mix of kayaks, canoes, and ship's launches. Other notables besides the 50 seat Venetian rowboats were 5 to 7 "dragon boats". These were big war-canoes with about 20 to 50 paddlers. These boats even included a drummer! Also of note were 4 or 5 rotomolded plastic Polynesian style single seat amarans with a canoe type paddle, and humongous athletes pushing them. They were 7 to  9 meters long and boy were they fast. The mix for this year's Vogalonga was 65 % male, 35 % female.

The Boat

It would have been tough to have entered an event of such magnitude as the Vogalonga without a light, agile, fast responsive, sturdy, sporty, low-drag, far-gliding boat. The Talassociclo was just that. It was crisp! The unit I ended up riding had the customary carbon fiber strips lminated on the foredecks as a show of good luck. And how is this for good luck? The Talassociclo won the 1999 IHPSC criterium in Interlachen, and got third in the sprints. And that was against a field of 38 boats!! It is built near the city of Udine by Giuseppe Carignani and Franco Mazzante in a region of northeastern Italy called Friuli. That's pronounced "FreeOOlee" Their website is:

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The Event

For me, the event started a week or two earlier where I was the guest of Christian Meyer, and Andreaus Schlief. The International Waterbike Regatta afforded me a chance to examine world famous HPBs like AF Chapman, Close to Perfection, Clemintine, and McBath to name a few. I arrived in Italy a few days early to help tune the boat up, and we "canal tested" it the night before the race. It's nice to know that we're in a foot powered boat that can exceed the "no wake" speed limit of Venice. The Talassociclo has a canal practicality to it! There were a few other kayaks and canoes sprinting around; hey, they must be in the race too! Talassociclo spends the eve of the race in the hotel lobby and courtyard.

The morning of the race was a little chilly, but we knew it would get pretty warm soon. I turned down an offer for some sun block. Big mistake. After all the spare paddles, water, tools, and gear were stowed, I started to make my way through the canals to the start of the race. All the motorboats are off the canals, so its interestingly quiet. I'd never been on Venetian waters this way before, but I'd given myself a half an hour to get to the starting line. I hope it was enough time! You see, we were holed up in the northeast corner of the city near the Grand Canal entrance, train station and parking garages. As I made my way to the starting line, I saw a kayak. Then two. Here's a bunch more.

Pretty soon, I was surrounded by boats, the people with numbers pinned on, heading toward the starting line. Oh, here's the Grand Canal! As I look to the left , I can see that it's speckled with boats. I go right and make my way on. Here we are now, under the Academia Bridge. Boy it looks big from underneath! And here's the Bay. . .Wow, Look at all those boats! It's a lot more crowded than in those pictures I saw. There's hundreds! There's a lot of time left, so I'll bring it around. Boy, a few of these guys need to learn a little more about boat handling! The race is about to start, so I'll get her going with the crowd. Uhhp there's one that capsized. A fiberglass double. Buoyant though and the chaser boat is getting blown around trying to maneuver close. Their gear is floating around. It's really getting a little claustrophobic here. There are lots of boats everywhere close around. It seems that some of us (including me) are a little past the real starting line between the point and the Piazza San Marco, but everyone else is moving. BOOM! There it is; there's the start! We all pour it on a little bit. Starting euphoria. All of us are checking out each other's velocity. Whoaa. Look out! That was a close one. Whew. Watch those oars! I hope the cox'n sees me! I'll take a groove right here. Whoaa! Lookout OWH. I've just been crashed into from behind. The old oar-pit trick! Over and over again in this race, a fast moving rowboat comes barreling up from behind, hull just a meter to the side, but with a three meter oar sweep! I hear the cox'n say WHOOOOah hold-on , or OARS IN (in many different languages)! And we both come to a gliding halt as they try and untangle the oars, and keep the balance! Thank goodness Talassociclo has a sprint a couple of times as fast as we're cruising along here, it gives me a chance over and over to get myself out of trouble.

A map of the Vogalonga race course

Above is a map of the course. Each number on the route is a kilometer.

Another Vogolonga favorite is for the 5 or 10 position Venetian rowboats to "come up on you". It must be interesting for them to see where they're going, and it must really fire them up to bear down on you from their three story viewpoint. Most of the time they're populated with old Venetian salts. The fact is that they choose a track exactly behind you then when they're close to the danger point they all sound off, probably something derogatory, then they give you a couple of nanoseconds to swerve out of the way. After being absolutely frightened the first couple of times (having been warned of these tailgaters earlier doesn't make this any easier to deal with), I'm looking over my shoulder ready to give it the gas and swerve if shell gets too close ("all shell breaking loose"), or more likely for the encounter a Venetian "semi-truck". They do this the whole race. Out in the open water where there's lots of room? You're still not safe. It's especially bad at the beginning. Sometimes positioning behind another big one helps.

Good pace now as we make our turn gradually to the north. There are three to five "lanes" forming from the shore out, and the crowd of boats is very fast moving and very dense. Still watching for those boats. Take it easy now, there's a long way to go. Although lots of overtakes are taking place, we seem to be going in formation. The lagoon water is grey-green and a little choppy. It's bright and sunny out. The stationary waves from all the wakes hangs with us the shoreline moves steadily by. The swishing thumping sound from rowboats and canoes is all around. I begin to appreciate the bright colors some of these people are wearing. Here's a two seater rowed by women in white knee length dresses, white hats, and red sashes. There is a 10 seat ships launch with 6 rowers, a guy on the big under-the-arm tiller bar. They're wearing extremely bright orange shiny silk costumes, big puffy turbine-like hats, also orange, and there's a flag flopping off the stern a quarter size of the boat itself. The flag is red yellow, and orange. For a high freeboarded, heavy round-lined launch, it's moving along at a really good pace.

The regatta at this point is still characterized by pushiness. It's like a combination of a claustrophobic shoe-tripping start of a 10k running race and the battle of Lepanto! Oars and all! We're all making very good time now as we pass some huge tankers parked by the Arsenal. Now out to the open water, and the width of the lanes is spreading out a little. Medium-sized headwind is keeping us all cool. I can hear those dragon boats "pound... pound... pound..." Seems to be getting closer, so I'll add on a little steam. Getting a little windy out here, knees and legs still feel pretty good. Heading past some mud flats and grassy marshes. This is what Venice must have looked like before settlement. There's a few buildings to the right, sandbars and grasses to the left, and I can see the rectangular bell tower at Torcello. And the really tilted one at Burano. They are far away though. Here now some seawall to the right. It's been 5 km now, and there's still a crowd of boats. Lots of encounters with the tailgaters . Some of the single sea kayaks are drafting off of the 10 seat life boats. I try it too. Wow, if you can stay close enough, it's easier. I try and catch up to a faster boat farther ahead: pumping, sweating, nobody else is drafting on this one, and it's fast. Made it. Here come a couple of kayaks who also want to draft . I'll keep close; best position. They have to stay just behind or aside me. I give up drafting after awhile; I should run my own race, not be a parasite and tether on to the crewboat and hitch a ride. By the way, some of these ships' launches that we're drafting behind are fast. Some have crews of as few as six. They sure break the wind too.

I look way up front and can see boats in front of the seawall, or silhouetted against the mud flat horizon a kilometer or two ahead. Do I see a leader? No, I see hundreds and hundreds of tiny standing human figures, most in multiples. I can barely make out their steady movement against the trees and grassy backdrop. The seawall and grass and marsh are occasionally broken up by open water. Oh, Overtaking us, here comes a big one. It must be ten meters long, and powered by 20 to thirty oarsman. There's a dignitary guy of some sort with a purple sash sitting at the bow comfortably with his wife. The two face aft. Must be the mayor, or "doge"or something. The hull of their boat is bronze stained wood. Nice boat. Although the boat overtakes us gradually, It could have gone a lot lot faster if they wanted it to.

The race is approaching the half way point, and there's still a dense crowd of boats. It's not dangerous like at the beginning, though. Coming into the Burano/Torcello area. I can see the 11th century abbey at Torcello a lot closer now. The steeple tilts (as all the ones in Venice do) but not as much as some (like the one to the port side of the channel at Burano). I read that in 1600 there were maybe three hundred towers in Venice. Now there are 270. The rest had collapsed. Even the big famous tall one at Campo St. Marco (where the starting line was). It eased its way straight into the ground just after the turn of the last century. It was captured on film, and luckily, no one was hurt. So much for Pisa.

As I enter the Burano/Torcello channel, I wander a little to the starboard, and gosh, I feel a throb on the propeller. I'm running aground!. I take it easy, kick the propeller shallow, and go sharp to port for the channel. It's interesting to know just how shallow this lagoon is in places. Probably a good third to half of this 500 square kilometer area is less than a meter deep. The ships and boats go thru dredged channels.

As we hug the Burano shore and begin to turn south, I look starboard across the wide channel, and see the wetland and trees of the Torcello shoreline. Torcello is where the Roman refugees first settled the area. What was the center of attention till about 1200's is now overgrown with grass and trees. The canals silted up and there was a malaria outbreak. Now, a small quiet village surrounds the oldest (11th century) abbey in Venice. Lots of onlookers line on the bridges and shores of Burano. On the canal going south, almost half the boat handlers are picnicking, resting, or relieving themselves. There are boats parked along both sides of the channel. I know that in the Vogolonga, they don't count winners here, but at this point, since I am passing so many boats, I decide to try and do this run fast and pour it on a little. I'm heading out to the open lagoon for the run back towards Venice. The boats are a little more spread out now. There is a lot of width to the field of racers. The wind is comming from behind us and I try and use the whole range of the channel to play the waves as best as I can. I'm slowly being overtaken to the right by one of those long fast rotomolded polynesian style amarans (OC-1). I can stay up with him, maybe even out speed him, but after a couple of hours, the semi-trained body is getting a little sore. I've been sitting this way and that to try and find a non-sore spot, but all the sitting surfaces on me are used a few times over. So, I fantasize of how much faster a more in-shape guy riding this boat would do and let the amaran go. There have been a few other boats I've been "challenging" though, and I'm doing pretty well against them. The single seat kayaks that were drafting the big launches near the beginning are pretty much history except for a few here and there. The dragon boats can still be heard, but they're a lot fainter now. Can you imagine any one out of a hundred people saying "I gotta go to the bathroom!!" Makes this single seat low-power job look pretty good! We're approaching Murano now. I'm mainly in it with the four seaters now. Some are slower, most are faster. Any encounter I have with an eight will see them whipping by. The waves are getting pretty big at this point. It makes for some pretty good surfing, and requires some strategy. Can feel and see some of the sunburn on my legs and shoulders. Examples of the dubious seaworthieness of some of these boats include low-gunwaled long (4 or 8 seat) shells that have no business out here in a bay like this. Some actually have cellophane taped over the forward quarter. his will no doubt keep out some light spray, but I'd hate to imagine them going into a head-on wave! Also, I encounter low freeboarded canoes, no doubt, some are overloaded. Lots of people to bail them out, I guess.

I, of course, have the same advantages as a decked over kayak. And if one hull would happen to swamp, I have another. I'm still appehensious out here. I have a life jacket also, but there's no mention by anybody that they're required.

Lots of people are observing us from the bridges and canal shores of Murano. The main bridge seems to be a lot longer than even the Academia in Venice.

The Swiss make watches; the Venitians blow glass. Murano is the island is where almost all the glass is made. In the 14th or so century it was moved to prevent fire and kept out here to protect trade secrecy. In the 15th and 16th century, divulging Ventitan glass blowing secrets could bring on a death sentence. Now, there is still a massive amount glasswork being done, but many shops open up to let the public watch. It's fascinating.

We snake through the Murano canal, then traverse out to the open lagoon again as the City of Venice gets larger and larger. I nip off a couple of competitors by surfing, navigating, and using the recumbent arm/leg pedal technique. As some of the four and eight seat rowboats overtake me or get overtaken the occupants stare, complement, and give the thumbs up. I could tell some of them wanted to be in my shoes trying out the Talassociclo. The fact that I'm still overtaking others this late in the race shows that the pace is good and the boat is fast.

I am guiding into the island now where the racers, still plentiful, hit the Venetian shoreline from due north, and hug it heading west. It seems like a long trek before the turn into the canal (especially with the setting in of sunborn and tightness), and I follow the curve of the island for a kilometer. Here it is. Wow, there are a lot of spectators on the corner, and they're clapping and making noise. We round the turn and enter the city again. As the canal curves , I can see a bottleneck.. It turns out to be the worst boat crowd of the race. There are eight seat rowing shells strewn every which way. Some of them seem to reach from one shore of the canal to the other. And the crowd: Wow. It sounds like a stadium or something. Spectators are lined up along the shores sometimes 5 or so back. There are spectators in tied up boats, sticking out of out of buildings, on balconies, roofs. . .It's like theyre in bleachers or something. When they see me go by, they increase the noise, like it's a goal or touchdown or slam dunk or something. The attention is great.

The city of Venice has never seen a hi-performance pedal powered boat before.

There's Giuseppe and his family. We shout, wave, and show victory signs and I manage to unlash a spare paddle and give a salute. Many of the boats are giving salutes as they go past the crowd. This is where they pull in oars or paddles, and thrust them straight up all in sinc with one another.

I do cunning boat handling as I get through the bottleneck in the ghetto. I recognize most of the boats that outpaced me, like some the big ships launches that were leading those kayaks in draft. There seems to be an absence of the kayaks now. I get past the amaran that I encountered in the lagoon. And now, two more of his wingmen, as well as a hundred or so other boats. I'm moving along now. As I approach the break-in at the Grand Canal, I already miss the dense crowd that reacted so favorably to Talassocicolo in the Ghetto bottleneck. I sort of regret "spinning and rolling" thru the Ghetto canal, and take it slow to an idle as I go down the Grand Canal. I savor the cheering crowds although they are not as dense. If I had it to do over again I would have idled thru the Ghetto too, perhaps a couple of more salutes. Whoop, there goes the most recent amaran that I snuck past.

I'm still at a cruise. A wave to the crowd here and there as they single me out. Wow, this is once in a lifetime. What's that? A food barge throwing out refreshments. I catch an apple and a soda; Mmmmmm food! I manage to pluck another apple out of the canal. An occasional four or eight seat shell comes whipping by from behind. There are no more 'oar pit ' tricks now (maybe a couple just into the Ghetto). There's still room, but it is the end of the race and there are still quite a few boats all around.. Here's the Rialto Bridge. It's the one with all the shop booths on it: the one in all the movies. It's been there since the 14th century. There's a huge cheering crowd on it and around it. Knees are getting a little dry and tight, and the sunburn is hitting hard.

Now, round the bend of the grand Canal past all the palaces and buildings. Venice was a "boom town" in 15 and 16th century, and it is pretty much preserved that way today: middle age splendor. Coming up on the Academia Bridge now where it is backlog crowded with fans, We made this stretch in what seems to be no time. Boating through Venice sure is faster than walking!

Here I can see the finish line. They're handing out "diplomas" and metals for every finisher. They're doing it from the shore, and from a barge anchored in the middle of the Grand Canal. I opt for the barge since there is a pile of boats ( mostly unmanoeverable multiples) four deep at the shore. This is not as easy as it looks, though. The boat handling is very difficult. There are long anchor lines to get tangled in, a current blowing out of the canal, and a strong wind blowing in. What's worse is all those boats I passed in the Ghetto probably bursted loose as a cluster, and were just behind me. The diploma handlers on the barge are overworked and understaffed. So there's a big bunch of boats in a line on either side of the barge heading into it downstream letting the current pile them up. And what's worse, some of them are paddling! Here's a dragon boat, angled in caddycorner, and the drummer is still pounding, most of the crew is still listening, then she gets frustrated, and poundpoundpound. Tripletime. Oh my goodness. So here's this 15 or 30 meter boat driving on the line sideways. Sheesh! Anyway the dragon boat calms down, but that's not the least of my worries. One of the big ships launches suddenly lunges forward (with the current mind you) and heads it's 1000kilo mass into the sensitive steering system where my "feathers are the thinnest" Being already pushed against the boat ahead of me I lunge around in my seat and shout an order for them to back up. They slowly comply.

Its getting a little crazy in this line, so before I get sandwiched in, I decide to come in from the windward downcurrent side of the barge. This requires a paddle to turn the boat, and to keep the heading. I edge up to the barge from the fairly unpopulated end and get the attention of the overworked personnel. They throw it to me, it bounces, I catch the tail end. Good, cause there's nothing but water underneath. Have the paddle , am trying to safely stow the packet, catch the now loose-blowing water bottle, and not get blown into the barge. There. That's it.

I pedal around a little at the finish, but the bay is getting very choppy. Water splashes up to the heels, and the bows go under. I decide to head for calmer waters.

As I'm cruising up and down between the finish line and the Academia Bridge, I encounter a fellow in a sleek professional racing kayak. He looks like superman, and was seen earlier following a motorized boat as a film crew videoed him. He must be some kind of champion or something. Maybe he was the first one in. We give each other respectful nods as we check each other out. There is a festive atmosphere, and a distinct comradery of finishers as the boats pile through the finish line.

Finishers coming in now are mostly one and two seat kayaks and canoes of various shapes and sizes with a variety of multiple station rowboats mixed in. Sunburn is really bad now. Going up and down the Grand Canal once more, I check out the Ghetto where the bottleneck was to look for Giuseppe. It's pretty mellow there; back to business as usual. One more trip to the academia, and things have calmed down a bit. I now have some blisters on my shins from sunburn and decide to head back. The Vaporettos start moving again on a limited basis. It seems that the canoes, kayaks and rowboats got off the canals as fast as they got on. By late afternoon, there's still occasional evidence of the Vogalonga: a two seat rower here, a parked gondola there (not the usual black lacquer job, but a stained wood sleek low racer).

I take the Talassocicolo back to the staging area where the rest of Team Friuli begins to assemble. I've been at it for five hours; as I get off for the first time, I can barely walk; it takes me a minute or two to re-acclimate to the shore. Now I can walk, but I sit funny for  the next couple of hours. I'll bet some of those poor rowers' wrists are a lot worse-off than my flanks and knees though. The next day as I hike through the other side of Venice, I encounter some rowers, one of whom shows me his huge open blisters on the inside of his hands.    .    .ouch!

Family and friends, members of Team Friuli take turns pedaling and taking pictures with Talassociclo. My turn? I just finished over 40 km; I think I'll rest a little more, thank you very much.

As the boat gets loaded up, and as we say goodbye to each other, I think of what a cool time it was just to run the course, and take in the sights. I think of what an absolute honor it was to be a part of Team Friuli and ride such a cool fast boat.

Out of all the boats, I think we outfinished three to five of the dragon boats (keep in mind that they had they all easily had the power, but not the experience or teamwork), 90%-95% of the kayaks, a fair number of the rowing shells, a good number of the varying types of high-freeboard multiples.

As we spend our last night or two in Venice, I already begin to realize that this has been a once in a lifetime experience.

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