There is no substitute for being in a boat for these events. I’m sorry — but that’s just the way it is. Maybe you have seen or heard about the Palio in Siena — the famous horse race run in a square in the town centre every year. There is a tremendous build up of tension and suspense before the race proper begins. More often than not they have false start after false start until at long last, the horses are teased to breaking point and the tension in the crowded square is almost tangible. It’s exactly the same with this boat race, but only if you are right up there at the starting line with them.
But let’s leave the horses, (but hang on to the tension) and get back in the boat and on track to today’s special event. I don’t intend to give you a lecture in history — suffice to say that since 1955 each year in a four year cycle, a regatta takes place to decide the modern-day supremacy between the four ancient maritime republics (that were) of Pisa, Genoa, Amalfi and Venice.
Each of the four ‘republics’ takes it in turn to host the event, and this year it was the turn of Venice. The location has changed since the last time I saw it here — and luckily the weather was glorious this year as opposed to the torrential rain for the race last time, four years ago. This year the whole caboodle was moved from the Giudecca Canal over to St.Mark’s Basin and the very wide canal leading over to the Venice Lido in front of the island of Sant’Elena. Not popular with everyone, but the new route allowed for small boats to follow the race at close quarters — so certainly a popular move with hard core ‘water borne’ fans of the event.
Thanks to a good dose of confusion, and a smidgen of misinformation, we reached the starting buoys far too early . We were told to move on by the Carabinieri, the local police and the Coast Guard, who all kept up the same gesticulating, whistling, shouting performance with every boat (and there were lots of them) that came within yelling distance. A boat isn’t like a car — you can’t slam on the brakes, and the water doesn’t help. It was churning and making it nigh on impossible to stay put — and so the Carabinieri, the local police and the Coast Guard started all over again, and we all got a cyclical earful.
Meanwhile, the four eight-oared galleons, Venice with its green livery — Pisa in red — Genoa white and Amalfi in blue — sneaked out from somewhere and began to warm up in front of Sant’Elena in the midst of the protective forces who continued their arm flailing and shouting whilst the tension built up amongst the players, all champing at the bit to get the race under way. We spectators in our light boats kept going around in circles in an effort to maintain our position, ready for the starting gun and the ensuing rush to keep pace with the galleons as they launched themselves into battle.
And at last it happened — they were off and a roar of support went up from all quarters — the police continued to shout their curt orders at all the ‘floating’ supporters until the regatta had pushed ahead of our position and we were free to race behind them ourselves. Together we created a ‘tidal’ wave of gigantic proportions and risked life and limb riding the lip of the wave in order to keep abreast of our green heroes. They heaved and pushed and pulled their oars, their galleon skimming the water in a surge towards the finishing line in front of St.Mark’s Square. And their efforts paid off — our green Venetian men won!
I can’t begin to describe the euphoric reception they were given — immediately surrounded by all the police forces — and by an ambulance to take care of one of our team who had collapsed at the end of the race (from the heat and probably too much tension and emotion) — and by some one hundred small boats which rushed in to voice their congratulations (well, their pilots did), waving the distinctive Venetian flag of San Marco (bright red and yellow) in sign of approval.
I assume there was some kind of prize giving once the team set foot on dry land, but for me, all the best had happened there on the water amidst the affection and enthusiasm of the locals. It was time to go home and leave the rest of the party to the ‘landlubbers’