Despite a couple of wet and miserable days we awoke today to a drier, brighter day than expected. A good job too as this afternoon was to be my first experience of racing in the dragon boats and a warm, sunny day will always be more preferable to a rainy one – although you get wet whichever, so rain wouldn’t stop us!
Usually there are only enough paddlers for one boat to go out, but today the team were joined by the Purple Warriors. This is a group of either serving or retired members of HM Forces who have some form of disability or impairment as a result of their service, but don’t let that mislead you, they are formidable!
Fortunately they decided to mixed the teams up, so it wasn’t all them against us. It doesn’t matter if you are paddling with people you’ve never met, we are all in the same boat both literally and figuratively, the aim is the same and the camaraderie is part of what makes dragon boating such a fantastic sport to be a part of.
We were only on the water for an hour or so, but we managed to get three races in and each was great fun and close finishes, not being competitive I wont mention that our boat won two of the three…
As I’ve probably mentioned before, the great thing about this sport is not only is it a great form of exercise, but the people are there lovely, to which end when we get back on dry land the usual routine is to get the boat out of the water and safely stored away, a cool down and stretch and a chance to ‘Hug a Hurricane’ – a group hug. Then we are back to the clubhouse for food and a drink, this time, thanks to the Purple Warriors, it was a barbecue. Sitting with friends and family, in the warmth of the sun with a cold drink and a plate of food, what better way to spend a Saturday afternoon….
During training I’d heard people mention the Vogalonga group and it meant nothing to me, to be honest it took a while before I was clear on what all these different groups were and where I fitted in. I knew the team we trained with were the Hurricanes, and to do so we had to be members. Then there were the breast cancer survivor group, eventually a name was decided upon for that, we were the Paragons. So who were the Vogalonga group??
Turns out ‘Vogalonga’ were a group of ladies who had already committed to go to Venice to take part in a 32km rowing regatta, called the Vogalonga. This regatta has been taking place every year since 1975, it’s a non-competitive race which takes place as a protest against the growing number of powerboats which are active in the area and which are causing damage this amazing city.
It never occurred to me that this would affect me in any way, other than there was another group of ladies who were also new to dragon boating, until one day I was asked if I wanted to join them. Of course not, I can’t do that. I’ve got work, I couldn’t afford to go, I haven’t been paddling long enough, I couldn’t go somewhere like that without my boys, oh, and I Hate flying.
Returning from the morning’s training I met my husband down at our allotment and told him about this invitation. I’ll admit I was laughing about the preposterous idea of me going to Venice, but he wasn’t. I was instead met with the response I really wasn’t expecting – go, why are you even thinking out it, just go, you’ll love it! Oh sod, back to my promise, my promise to try not to say no to new opportunities, I said yes.
Within a couple of weeks we had booked our accommodation and flights, our team leader had arranged hiring a boat and helm in Venice and we were committed, or perhaps we should have been committed! We all upped our game, instead of just practising on a Saturday morning we tried to also fit in extra sessions during the week, some even bought their own paddles. But then another realisation, in the hour or so we were out on the water we would cover anything up to seven kilometres…… the Vogalonga is thirty two kilometres!! That’s not on a relatively flat lake but on canals with lots of other boats and in open sea with the waves and wash of motorised boats. Panic, well maybe a little.
Despite the nerves I made it onto the flight, got chatting to the poor soul next to me, jealously coveted her glass of Prosecco and before we knew it we were landing – Hello Venice!!
We were lucky to get a few days of sightseeing, eating and perhaps the odd glass or two of wine. It really is quite a beautiful place to explore, especially after you’ve got the hang of jumping on and off the vaporetto!
We made the most of the time, visiting the usual tourist traps, including the islands of Murano, Burano, St Marks Square and the Biennale Arte, an art exhibition this year titled May You Live in Interesting Times – that we do!
I try not to be too much of a tourist, but I’m afraid you cannot help but snap away with the camera, it is too beautiful to not try to capture in a photo, or two….. or more.
Soaking up the atmosphere was the best part of it though, just being there with the warmth of the sun, a gentle breeze and the smell of summer jasmine. Picking up fresh focaccia and a simple cherry tomato pizza from a small supermarket and taking it to eat in the park with a bottle of water. Finding a little jetty at the end of a narrow alleyway, away from the crowds, and sitting in the sun, watching the boats go by….
It was an early start for the race and despite our nerves walking to the centre to the get the boat we were looking ‘bad ass’, we were strong, we were confident, we were hoping we hadn’t bitten off more than we could handled! Then when we got to the centre all we wanted was to find the person who decided that one toilet cubicle was sufficient for a shed load of women about to embark of a 32 km boat race!!
After a rather shambolic start we were finally loaded into the boat and we were off. The waves of open water were new to us, the soaking as water came into the boat was not! The huge number of boats surrounding us was amazing, but totally fabulous. We called over to ask where fellow paddlers and rowers were from and cheered them, they asked where we were from and were met with a role call of countries.
Everyone was just on a high being out on the water, surrounded by so many other like minded people. I thought after a while I’d be tired, bored and wishing it was all over, but not a bit of it. We were enjoying the sights, the crowds, the music…. well okay it was singing, but not entirely in tune and I’m not sure everyone knew the words, or maybe they knew them, but were singing different songs, then before we knew it we were pulling over at an island (sand bank with a lonely bush – soon to be a very well appreciated bush by those who needed a little privacy!) and a spot of leg stretching, selfie taking and ermm, refreshments…
The second half was long and tiring, but it was still fun. We sang everything from ‘Row, row, row your boat’ to ‘I will survive’ to a strange, made up song about dragon boating for which I never did quite get the words for – but the words I could pick out I sung really loudly, that makes up for it, right??
Then there was the traffic jam, yep, it even happens in boats. Of course there are no traffic lights on the canal, oh no, traffic control came in the form of a man in an orange wet suit who suddenly popped up in between the various rowing boats, Dragon boats, kayaks, etc etc. all vying to get under the same small bridge and all trying not to get caught in the oars of the rowing boats which all take up a ridiculous amount of room.
We may have been stuck in the jam of boats for ages, waiting to get through, but it didn’t matter. The buzz was amazing, the people dining in restaurants at the side of the canal were cheering as, as were those on the bridges, there was an elderly lady leaning out of an upstairs window ringing a cow bell at us. Everyone was happy and smiling, both in and out of the boats.
Finally we were through and approaching the finishing point, as we approached it our names were called out over the PA system, how they managed that given the huge number of boats we were surrounded by I will probably never know, but it send up another huge cheer from the ladies in our boat. Our medals and T-shirts were unceremoniously thrown into the boat and then all we needed to do was turn around and head back again, back to the sports centre to return our boat and our helm!
I will admit to a disco kip before heading out again for dinner that evening – six hours on the water does rather take it out of you….
Would I do it again? Definitely!! Did I treat myself to a bottle of bubbles on the way home, certainly did!