Keen to avoid the crowds, Graham Hoyland chartered a yacht to Venice's 'Festa della Sensa'

Thousands of tourists trample around Venice, the Queen of the Adriatic, every day, and take in the same views from the same places. The real Venice, though, is to be found among the minor back-street canals where daily life is played out in delicious medieval morsels. But what if you don't fancy observing Venetian life in the expensive company of a gondolier?

The answer came to me through recent stories about the flooding of St Mark's Square and the images of tourists balancing along duckboards. Instead of avoiding the water, I would see Venice from the water. So I contacted Inter Yacht Charters for a suitable vessel. They suggested a bareboat sailing yacht based at a marina on the island of Certosa next to Venice itself.

Bareboat is when you hire a boat without a crew. The only stipulation is that you have to demonstrate your competence as a skipper, and if you've done a flotilla holiday this could be an ideal progression.

My companion and I arrived late one evening in May and my confidence began to wobble as we trailed our luggage past St Mark's, along the waterfront, over innumerable bridges and past the park where the biennial art exhibition is held. It was dark, and where was our bed for the night? Our vessel was located on the Isola della Certosa, but I couldn't even find the island on the map.

But all was well. We called the Vento di Venezia hotel on the island and they sent over a boatman to pick us up. A kindly manageress took pity on us, fed us and showed us to the boat, where we tumbled into bed inside what appeared to be a wardrobe.

In the morning we took stock. Our marina was next to a busy shipping channel between Certosa and the main island. Huge cruise ships shouldered past tiny scuttling Venetian ferries, which themselves were about 10 times bigger than our boat.

We had a wedding to get to, so the mooring ropes were cast off and we set off across the channel under engine power. I handed over control of the tiller while I studied the map. Soon there was a shriek of horror and I looked up to see at least three vessels bearing down on us from different directions. There was no question of what to do; I went below and crossed my fingers while my companion coped.

The wedding we were going to was the annual Festa della Sensa, where the city of Venice marries the sea. In the past the Doge placated the power of the Adriatic by taking a ceremonial barge out to the mouth of the lagoon and flinging the Pope's gold ring into the sea.

We got there just as the Mayor of Venice arrived from St Mark's Square aboard his fancy gold barge surrounded by dozens of racing gondolas. It was a local affair, with no tourists in sight apart from us. We all bobbed around in the chop from the big ships passing by and waited. I edged the boat closer to see what was happening. Men saluted. Gondoliers held their oars up vertically. The Mayor flung up his hand, there was a golden glint in the sunlight and he uttered in Latin: "We wed thee, sea, in the sign of the true and everlasting Lord.".

After this we sailed south into the Venetian Lagoon, which is a huge crescent of water 50km long, separated from the Adriatic by sandbanks with three entrances, creating a shallow, marshy environment fed by rivers but flushed by seawater. Here there are rich pastures for crabs, octopus, mullet and sea bass. Venice sulks on the horizon like an ignored princess, but all around is emptiness and the calls of snipe, herons, and ducks.

The average depth of the water is barely half a metre, which is a bit of a problem if you are sailing a boat that needs nearly two metres to float in. There are invisible dredged channels, marked only with timber posts sticking out of the water, but stray to the wrong side of these and you soon find yourself gliding to a stop in the glutinous mud. Then you have somehow to extricate yourself.

The first time this happened we just boiled the kettle and made a cup of tea, the inevitable preamble to an Englishman solving a problem. After some thought I then put the inflatable dinghy in the water and rowed off with an anchor tied to a long rope. I dropped the anchor into the water, then returned and winched hard on the rope. The anchor pulled out of the mud. The yacht stayed where it was.

We were eventually rescued by one of the vaporetti, the local ferries, this one captained by a young woman wearing a short skirt. She flung her vessel into a tight circle, threw us a rope and dragged us off the mud bank backwards.

After mooring, we pushed into the tourist throng and walked into Harry's Bar. It looked a bit like a railway waiting room in Lancashire, and the price of a Bellini was eye-watering. We left hurriedly and tried one of the swanky hotels along the waterfront. This was more like it. We drank Martinis on the terrace, then climbed to the roof, where there was a stupendous view of sea, medieval terracotta roofs and a maze of canals.

We were privileged to explore that liquid labyrinth. As our yacht was locally registered, we could use our tender, the inflatable dinghy, to pass through these canals. It was equipped with an outboard motor that looked like a chicken's leg. I looked at it with suspicion. In all my years of sailing these devices have always let me down in the worst places. This was to be no exception.

After crossing the busy channel to the main island we puttered through the silent waterways of the Arsenale, the vast naval dockyard that is the venue for the Biennale contemporary arts festival. We saw a submarine, and a military guard waved us away. Then we wove our way through and around Venice, seeing secret places only known to the locals. We chugged underneath washing lines, and surprised the ducks. We saw the back doors of glorious palaces, and had lunch next to an ironmongers.

It all came to an embarrassing end next to Peggy Guggenheim's art gallery on the Grand Canal. This single-story palazzo houses a superb modern art collection of Chagalls, Dalis and Braques. But it was here that our motor spluttered and died. Investigation revealed a fuel tank half-full of water, which I drained off. Repeated pulling on the cord got it going again, but soon we were bumping alongside Peggy's Palace with a dead motor.

"Would you like some help?" We turned and met the concerned faces of Gino and Carola, an uncle and niece who live in the palace next door. They were bobbing up and down in their speedboat. Gino had spent his life as a ferry boat captain, and Carola is a Californian therapist. To my eternal gratitude they took us under tow, and returned us to our yacht. And so we met not only the real Venice, but were rescued – once again – by real Venetians.

Traveller's Guide

Getting there

BMI (08706 070 555; flies to Venice Marco Polo Airport from Heathrow. easyJet (0905 821 0905; flies from Belfast, Bristol, East Midlands and Gatwick. British Airways (0844 493 0787; flies from Gatwick.

Boating there

A week's hire of a bareboat sailing yacht with Inter Yacht Charter costs from £990 (020-8099 5941;