This Europe: Flotilla of gondolas reclaims Venetian waterways from motorboat menace

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The Independent Online

Solo canoeists, families in old boats, crews of elderly men stylishly manoeuvring gondolas, expert rowing crews to rival those at Cambridge or Oxford and hearty teams of 16 or more paddling kayaks American Indian-style to the beat of a drum gathered in St Mark's Basin, opposite the Ducal Palace.

Solo canoeists, families in old boats, crews of elderly men stylishly manoeuvring gondolas, expert rowing crews to rival those at Cambridge or Oxford and hearty teams of 16 or more paddling kayaks American Indian-style to the beat of a drum gathered in St Mark's Basin, opposite the Ducal Palace. They sang a hymn and then at 9am, with the blast of a cannon, they were off.

The flotilla of 500 gondolas and other assorted boats raced around the lagoon and down the Grand Canal in Venice yesterday, in a glorious free-for-all protest against motorboats.

Anyone with a rowboat can take part in the Vogalonga, or "long row". While a few serious rowers sped away, most paddled off at a leisurely pace.

Now in its 28th year, the Vogalonga highlights the traditions of rowing and the damage motorboats cause to Venice's canalside buildings. The 30-kilometre route is cleared of all motor traffic for the duration of the event.

Leo Schubert, of the University Institute of Architecture of Venice, took part in the race. "I think it's important to make people aware of the protest against the stupid use of motorboats in the lagoon and city. There is a huge problem of erosion because of the waves," he said.

At high speeds, according to Mr Schubert, the motorboats make waves of between 30 and 40 centimetres, which are more of a threat to the buildings than the rising waters of Venice.

The city's 200 vaporetti, or water taxis – whose high prices only tourists can afford – are a particular problem. Residents and environmentalists complain that the authorities seem unwilling to regulate the number or the speed of the boats.

While the event has become increasingly international and sporting, the atmosphere was still relaxed. Crowds of tourists and locals lined the canal to cheer the 15,000 rowers.

Although some pairs of oars were given out as prizes, everyone taking part was given a medal and certificate. There was no official winner.

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