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Why you may see gondolas on the River Deben in Woodbridge

Learning to row Venetian style, a taster day on the Deben. Photo: Catherine Larner
Learning to row Venetian style, a taster day on the Deben. Photo: Catherine Larner

From its source in the village of Debenham to where it reaches the North Sea at Felixstowe, the River Deben meanders through stunning scenery and historic landmarks, a home to rare bird and wildlife, as well as a multitude of river users. It's a world away from the splendour of Venice's Grand Canal.

But recently, Venetian rowing boats have become an increasingly common sight on the Deben, thanks to Eric and Maxine Reynolds, owners of Woodbridge Boatyard. 'We’ve lived in Venice for about 20 years,' says Maxine, 'but when Eric bought the boatyard, I realised I wouldn’t see much of him there. I love rowing, so I wondered if I could bring my boats to the Deben.'

The iconic gondola, adored by tourists and romantics, is what we associate with the ‘City of Canals’, yet there are around 50 different Venetian boats. They all tend to share the same long, slim silhouette and require rowers to stand, facing forward, using long, flat oars placed in beautifully sculpted wooden cradles called forcole. They say, if you can walk, you can row Venetian style. The stroke is taken as you step forward in the boat, transferring your weight onto your front leg and the oar handle. Anyone of any age can participate.

Great British Life: Learning to row Venetian style, a taster day on the Deben. Photo: Catherine LarnerLearning to row Venetian style, a taster day on the Deben. Photo: Catherine Larner

'Older ladies in Venice often take up rowing,' says Maxine, 'because it’s just like yoga, with the gentle rocking backwards and forwards. It’s not strenuous and you can do it for hours.' Maxine arranged for her pupparino boat, Marco, to be brought to Suffolk three years ago and easily adapted to rowing the Deben's variable conditions. Her activity on the river hasn’t gone unnoticed and, in response to many enquiries, she has run talks and taster sessions for people to give it a go.

Members of the City Barge Boat Club in Oxford, who have been rowing Venetian style for a number of years, brought two of their Venetian boats for people to try. Despite windy conditions on a high tide, they were able to demonstrate that the boats are stable, manoeuvrable and easy to row in what is seen as a very sociable activity. 'It’s a lovely thing for couples to do,' says Maxine. 'My husband loves rowing and sailing but he’s much taller than me so we’re mismatched. I couldn’t participate in any rowing he does in the UK, but we can race in regattas in Venice in these boats.'

Great British Life: Building the sanpierota. Photo: Woodbridge BoatyardBuilding the sanpierota. Photo: Woodbridge Boatyard

Wanting a more versatile and larger boat for longer journeys on the Deben, last year Maxine commissioned the boatyard to build her a new 20ft sanpierota boat, which she describes as 'the white van of the Venetian lagoon' for its versatility. 'I go to the supermarket in it in Italy. It’s how people get about. It’s how you get your children to school and how you take everyone for a picnic on a Sunday.'

Though it has a motor and sails, it is still a flat-bottom boat which she can row, facing forwards, with two oars crossed 'alla Valesana' in a sort of breast stroke action. She calls it ‘knitting needle rowing’. 'It’s perfect for the shallow waters of low tide on the Deben,' she says. 'You can row her in a puddle.' What’s more, the style of rowing allows you to negotiate tight, difficult spaces, as you would in busy, narrow Venetian canals. 'You just change the angle of the oar,' says Maxine. 'With a conventional British sculling boat, narrow channels would be a problem, but not for this.'

The sanpierota was built over about five months between other repair and restoration projects. Naturally, boatbuilder Darren Aldridge was unfamiliar with this type of boat and had to rely on photographs, measurements and videos that Maxine sent from Venice, as there was no authoritative plan to follow. 'We’re used to adapting our techniques and approaches,' says Matt Lis, manager of the boatyard. 'Very often you’ve got to unbuild something before you build it again, so even if it’s not a type of boat we’ve come across we’re always learning.'

Great British Life: Building the sanpierota. Photo: Woodbridge BoatyardBuilding the sanpierota. Photo: Woodbridge Boatyard

Despite a growing interest in the UK and elsewhere, Venetian rowing boats are under threat in their home city. Formerly used for fishing or moving cargo, need for the boats declined with the increase in motor transport after the Second World War. However, interest in rowing as a sport and leisure activity has seen them readopted; there is a spectacular procession of rowing boats of all shapes and sizes through Venice in the annual Vogalonga festival each spring.

But Venice is short of boatbuilders; there are no longer any boatyards in Venice due to the prohibitive cost of land and accommodation. 'You can’t get these boats built in Venice,' Maxine says. 'It’s a big, big problem. The skill that goes into making them is being lost.' So, construction and restoration of these traditional wooden boats has had to happen in destinations far from the canals and lagoons where they are such a familiar feature.

Desperate to preserve Venice's industrial heritage and maritime livelihoods, Maxine is working with people in the city who share her passion for rowing and boatbuilding and has twinned Woodbridge Boatyard with a yard in need of regeneration near the Arsenale. Called San Isepo, the hope is that it will house modern workshops, provide training for local people and opportunities for sustainable tourism.

Great British Life: Lowering the sanpierota into the Deben. Photo: Woodbridge BoatyardLowering the sanpierota into the Deben. Photo: Woodbridge Boatyard

'Venice isn’t just the gorgeous golden palaces and all the wonderful artworks,' she says. 'The city existed because it was built on the water and all its wealth came in on boats. It’s magical to see a flat piece of wood transformed into these boats and I want to give back to the people there who have changed my life.'

sanisepo.it

If you want to learn Venetian rowing in the UK or Venice try citybargeclub.org and rowvenice.org

Great British Life: Maxine Reynolds rowing in Venice. Photo: Maxine ReynoldsMaxine Reynolds rowing in Venice. Photo: Maxine Reynolds



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