Row Venice boat

Learn to Row Venice and See the City from your Antique Boat

Posted on Posted in Activities/Experiences, Italy, Venice

How on earth did I end up here in the middle of the Venice lagoon with Row Venice? The last few minutes were a blank as I remember being at the end of the calm canal told that I needed to row past the two pole markers in the lagoon. In the middle of those poles was what was essentially the high speed highway of boats and taxis making the rounds from the airport, train station and elsewhere going to Venice. I was basically playing frogger as I’ve done on many bike tours but this time on a large row boat in the open water. What had I signed up for?

Venice Lagoon private water taxi
The fast lanes of traffic on the lagoon but our boat and gondolas get priority which was nice to hear

Ok, so it wasn’t as dramatic as that (in my mind it was though as I was a bit scared leaving the calm canal). I signed up for a rowing lesson from Row Venice thinking it was a basic paddling in the canals but they go all out to give you the experience and now that I’m back on land, I can say it was pretty awesome. It’s the feeling of being scared in line for the roller coaster only to get off and scream “I want to do that again!”. The most important thing was I didn’t fall into the water (don’t laugh, I was really concerned by this given that I fall just walking most days so I checked out the FAQ and to date no one has fallen into the water).

Gondolas in Venice
Venice is known for gondola rides but how many learn to row the boat?

My Row Venice Lesson

Arriving for my 1.5 hour lesson at the outskirts of the island (the website gives good directions but I relied on my Google map walking version). From the San Marco flat, it took about 35 minutes to walk to (quicker if using vapporetto but I didn’t have a pass as I’ve been walking everywhere).

Venice bridge neighborhood
Strolling the back streets and bridges on the way to Row Venice marina

There were four people waiting at the marina gate – a couple from California, a foreign journalist and me. We would split into two boats – the couple went with Nancy (a sommelier by trade) and the journalist with me. We met our instructor, a French woman (all instructors are women) named Caroline. Caroline looked like she belonged in a fashion magazine, not rowing a boat, but here she was an artist who left France to move to Italy not knowing the language and has made it her home.

Row Venice Caroline
Row Venice with Caroline finishing up a lesson on the canal

Learning Technique on Land

Before boarding the boat, she explained the different types of boats – we had an older more sturdy, spacious and flat boat (famous in all the paintings) called a batelina coda di gambero. These boats are quite rare with only six left and Row Venice owning three of them.  Caroline then showed us how to row by saying “pretend you are pushing furniture” as she pushed on the wall – you use your legs for power and stability and your arms and elbows too. This was similar in rowing.

Row Venice food position
Proper foot positioning will help both balance and rowing
Row Venice Caroline
Caroline showing us how best to think about rowing motions

My Gondola Questions

I asked “why there are no female gondoliers” and Caroline said there is one (UK Telegraph Female Gondolier) who is the daughter of a gondolier. Controversy over women though as a German/American woman tried for her license and was denied only to get a job with a hotel as their gondolier. With approximately 2,000 gondoliers in the city you’d think there would be more diversity in the ranks – it’s ok for women to row for sport but not to steer a gondola?  This is an insular profession (actually it’s a CITY JOB – ah, union work explains a lot) of male Italians and now one woman.

Polish Gondolier Cubi in Venice
Just as Caroline tells us about the Polish gondolier, Cubi, stationed in the Jewish Ghetto he passes by us

Of interest, is the lone non-Italian to be rowing the canals, Cubi, and he is from Poland and stationed in the Jewish Ghetto (there are two gondoliers there). After my two days at the Fenice flat watching the gondoliers go by, I was surprised by the gondoliers but will save that for another post.

Venice gondolas boats canal
Watching the many gondolas and boats go by in Venice

Time to Row Venice in the Canals

The journalist, Michele, was interested in interviewing Caroline and the other instructor as well as taking video and photos during the lesson. Problem was she wanted to take the video/photos and I would be the subject (I wasn’t quite in my “be on tv” outfit or look of course). I had wanted to split the lesson (and pretty much did) as I sat down to take photos of my own.

Row Venice boat
Our battelina boat for the lesson

Rowing the oar also required a bit on concentration as I got distracted by this, that and the other wishing I could take a photo or video and in that moment the oar would slip or my stroke would go off and I had to reset.  So no over thinking it (tough for me to do), no distractions (again, this is Venice, distractions everywhere) and just enjoy the ride (yep, going to try).

Row Venice oar
Nothing to lock the oar in place as you need to move it in/out of boat depending on traffic
Row Venice oar
Need to keep the black “row” side up and then in the water

At the beginning, Caroline would steer in the back of the boat as I rowed down the canal with Michele taking photos/video. Caroline was SUPER PATIENT with me, telling me how to make corrections with my grip, motions and position. While the canal is normally calm, today we had a lot of boat traffic – taxis, construction and delivery boats so I was alternating rowing and repositioning the oar or bringing it into the boat totally to clear the traffic and parked boats. It was a bit of dodge ems -a the trial by fire, It was at the end of the calm canal that I was told to row to the middle of the lagoon. I kinda freaked out as the water was wavy due to the many boats going by – we were told to bend our knees to handle the rocking boat. This is where I zoned out and just wanted to get past the two poles to the calm part.

Philatravelgirl Row Venice Lagoon
Now I can smile and take a break out in the Venice lagoon

The Venice Lagoon

And then we were there and the water was calm and about four feet deep as Caroline showed us with her oar and then I tried to confirm that falling into the water would not be too bad (actually it might feel nice on this hot day). I don’t remember rowing across the lagoon. My worst case scenario was still in my head because Caroline told me to get on the back of the boat and stand up!!! I’m 5’9” with balance issues and she said stand up there to steer. Luckily she held onto me for a few minutes for me to activate my core strength (thanks Lithe Method workouts) and balance.

Row Venice Lagoon
Standing up with a great view of the lagoon as I learn to steer the boat

It was a pretty cool view of the lagoon from up there and luckily she tied the oar so I couldn’t lose it. With a few minutes of my time in the sun (literally as I left my sunscreen back at the flat), I jumped down (well crawled actually) back to the seat and let Michele have her go. I wanted to enjoy the lagoon and not do all the work. Michele and I were taking photos for each other along the way. She rowed us back across the lagoon to the canal and then we switched again for me to row the canals back so she could take more photos/video for her story segment.

Row Venice Caroline
Steering the boat Caroline was fantastic instructor

My Row Venice Lesson is Over – Final Thoughts

As I rowed the canal back I finally felt one with the oar and boat only for our lesson to be over. It was a fun adventure in Venice which challenged me to overcome a few fears and I can happily say that Row Venice’s FAQ “Has anyone fallen in” is still a resounding “no”.

Venice home on canal
Gliding past typical Venice buildings on the canal

You can book your lesson on the Row Venice website. The cost is €80 per person for a 1.5 hour lesson (offered in seven languages) and provides a one year membership to the non-profit organization with future discounts. They offer many times but due to the limited boats/staff, the spaces fill up quickly. It’s definitely a memorable experience that I will think about when I leave the city and the train goes across the lagoon – I was there! In the middle of the Venice lagoon in the boat I rowed! Awesome!  I rowed Venice!

Row Venice Caroline
Saying “Ciao” to Caroline as she goes to meet the next couple to Row Venice



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