Learning to Navigate the Venetian Lagoon Like a Pro


By Monday morning, I was primed for my boating lesson. This time, the experience could not have been more different. I was booked to go with Pietro, the 20-ish son of the owner, and he was relaxed to the point of somnolence. “Take everything slowly,” was his advice as we got into the topetta. “Don’t let anyone rush you.” When I eased into the chaos of water-taxis, ferries and barges in the canal, Pietro only shrugged, giving a gentle directive: “Go a little left,” “more to the right.” Soon we found a quiet canal where I could practice docking and reversing, learning how to glide in neutral toward a gentle stop at the jetty.

It was time to enter the Lagoon.

As soon as we did, the world opened up, all blue sky and mirror-flat water the color of burnished steel. After days on the ferries, I knew to follow the long strings of wooden briccole, the log pylons that indicate navigable channels. (Fun boating fact: the city has few funds to maintain the briccole, so many have disappeared or float rotten beneath the water line, creating a unique maritime hazard.) The speed-limit signs began to increase: 7 kilometers an hour (4.3 miles an hour) gave way to 11, then 20. I opened up the throttle. This was it! Even though the topetta could manage only 16 k.p.h., I felt like Luke Skywalker taking the controls of an X-wing, slicing through the water, totally free. I was not quite alone, but nearly so: Pietro just leaned casually against the gunwale and kept checking his smartphone, occasionally looking up to make sure I wasn’t heading off into the Adriatic.

I docked at Cimitero, the ancient island cemetery, to prowl the mausoleums; circumnavigated Sant’Erasmo; then called in at San Francesco del Deserto, a monastery still inhabited by monks. But as liberating as the boat was, I was very glad Pietro was along. I still couldn’t really tell the islands apart, so the chances of my finding my way alone seemed remote. And the Venetian navigational rules seemed fluid, to say the least. I couldn’t read half the boating signs, which were weathered or missing. When boats came speeding at me in several directions, I had no idea who had the right of way. It felt as if almost anything could happen. On one occasion, the outboard went into paralysis. Pietro stepped to the stern and put the engine in rapid reverse. Seaweed had wrapped itself around the propeller.

Photo

A shrine of the Madonna in the Venetian Lagoon near the island of Murano.

Credit
Susan Wright for The New York Times

“How did it go?” one pilot asked Pietro when I made it back to Brussa.

“Perfetto,” Pietro said.

Suddenly everyone was my best friend. Even the instructor who had failed me broke into a sunny, tobacco-stained smile.

“So can I take the boat out by myself now?” I asked.

“Perché no?” Why not?

This was all I really needed to hear. I walked into a nearby bar, stood at the counter and pondered delaying my flight back to New York. But the Venetians had been right all along: It would take quite a few more lessons before I would feel comfortable about heading out solo. Which is maybe as it should be. Venice still has some secrets it won’t easily yield.

If You Go

The historical center of Venice divides the Lagoon more or less in half. The northern side is what most travelers see when they transfer from the airport by water, or when they take tours to Murano, the glassblowing island, and Burano, famous for its brightly colored fishermen’s houses. Ferries to the other northern islands (Mazzorbo, Sant’Erasmo, Torcello, Cimitiero, San Fransesco del Deserto) leave from the stations at Fondamenta Nuove. Make sure to check the timetables carefully, some run only on weekends; on weekdays, Mazzorbo can be reached via a short bridge from Burano, which has regular service) Visits to Lazzaretto Nuovo, also in the north, are on weekends or by appointment (lazzarettonuovo.com/visit-the-island).

In the south, private ferries run from near Piazza San Marco to San Clemente, where a former monastery has been converted into the San Clemente Palace Kempinski hotel (reservations required for its restaurants: 39-041-4750-111; kempinski.com/en/venice/san-clemente-palace-kempinski/hotel-location/).Piazza San Marco

News of fund-raising visits to Poveglia can be found on the Facebook page of the group Poveglia Per Tutti, Poveglia for Everyone (facebook.com/povegliapertutti).

For private boating: Brussa is Boat (Cannaregio, 331; 39-041-715-787; brussaisboat.it/en/). Rates start at 160 euros a day ($175) without a pilot; lessons are 60 euros ($66) an hour; trips with an experienced pilot by arrangement.

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