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Kayaking Venice: How I Fell In Love With A Paddling Tradition That Dates Back 1500 Years

When I first considered kayaking in Venice it seemed like it just might be the ideal way to explore this great water city. Based on the historical reputation of the quality of water in Venice, I had concerns. I also had considerations about things like powerboat traffic, the taxis in particular, and potential confrontations with gondoliers bent on protecting their turf. To my surprise as we began to plan this journey at finding out that there is a large and vibrant kayaking community in Venice and the surrounding islands. This group of paddlers was really our portal to discovering the captivating beauty of Venice from the water by providing us with local knowledge and even more importantly, introductions to members of the larger Venetian rowing community. The spheres of the kayakers and rowers overlap and intertwine with the latter representing a 1500 year old tradition of self-propelled craft in the Venice laguna.  Formal introductions were also made to board members of the Compagnia della Vela, one of the oldest sailing clubs in Italy, located on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore directly across the basin of the Canal Grande from Piazza San Marco. We were invited to become associated members which allowed us to use the sailing dinghy ramp at the club to land our kayaks and gave our guests access to the state of the art, Italian-designed, waterfront rooms that the Compagnia has built for the use of visiting sailing students and racers. It is truly one the best and most unique accommodations in all of Venice.

Venice is tidal, and two tides a day flow in and out of the city bringing fresh water from the Adriatic. During acqua alta (high water) some canals overflow their banks, forcing tourists and locals alike make their way on makeshift elevated walkways of planks or simply remove their shoes and socks, hike up trouser legs and wade across the watery incursions. In recent years, municipally supported installation of septic tanks in homes and businesses has done much to improve the baseline of water quality in the city.

Having paddled all over the world I’ve experienced firsthand the widespread antipathy between powered and self-propelled craft, so as we explored the canals by kayak, I was delighted to discover that Venice is truly unlike any place I’ve ever paddled. Nosing our way through narrow back canals of the Dorsoduro sistiere (district) we came around a blind corner and into the path of the Venetian equivalent of a garbage truck that was lumbering along with just barely enough room to pass between the walls of canal houses. The driver, while surprised, didn’t respond the way other working power boaters around the world might, with exasperation and curses. Instead he asked where we were going and then carefully backed up his barge to let us cross to the continuation of our canal. This sort of situation was repeated over and over and was clearly an indication of the cultural respect that is given to self - propelled craft of all sorts in Venice. Every year the city hosts one of the largest paddling events in the world, the Vogalonga

Paddling in Venice is steeped in tradition that is most evident in the skill of gondoliers as they maneuver their elegant and ponderously heavy craft through the city’s narrow canals.  The gondoliers proved to be very friendly and provided us with a wealth of information about the city. They suggested good places for us to exit and pull our kayaks out of the water, so it wouldn’t interfere with the landing of their guests. The gondolieri also offered us their recommendations for the best cicchetti bars that didn’t charge tourist prices and were frequented by locals.

The exploration of Venice by kayak and guiding successive tours there has been one of the most interesting and compelling experiences of my career. I consider it one of the one world’s great paddling trips. There are really no equivalents to Venice in terms of a unique marine environment, architecture, culture and a connection to a paddling lineage that stretches back over a millennium and a half. Join me for a paddling journey through Venice like no other that will captivate your senses and leave you changed forever.

Grant Thompson
Founder and Owner of Tofino Expeditions

Ready to experience Venice by kayak? Book your Venice kayaking trip here or call (800) 677-0877

Client Review

"Thanks for a fun and enriching experience in Venice and the laguna. We learned the history and importance of Venice. Our group formed a bond the first evening at dinner and we had a great time together, all of us sharing our thoughts and observations as we traveled. We discovered that the canals are not foul or smelly, but vibrant and busy, and still romantic and magical after 1300 years. The trip made us aware of the tremendous cultural life Venice offers, a plethora of art that was hard to leave behind. By kayak and on foot we felt part of the city during our stay there. We experienced Venice the way its citizens have done since its founding, by boat. The lunches and dinners when we lingered over our meal and conversation sharing our experiences and feeling very Italian. The joy Marco shared with us about the Venice he loves. You both surprised us every day. Barbara and I appreciated your sensitivity to safety and our general welfare.
The combination of a trip led by world class kayakers who also have a deep love and knowledge of the history of Venice made this a wonderful experience. You made us feel a connection with the people, the place and the intellectual life of Venice. Traveling in the laguna made us aware of the role it still plays in providing sustenance to the city in its fish markets and island gardens.
I remember the evenings in Chioggia and Venice in the piazzi after dinner sipping wine or grappa when we would sit together and reflect on our day. The expanse of the laguna and the peacefulness of the canals. We traveled these places in our kayaks."

Joel Konikow, Mercer Island, WA
Kayaking Venice and the Laguna, June 2015

Kayakers meet a Venetian rower returning from a 15 km workout on the Laguna

Outside the rooms at Compagnia della Vela on San Giorgio Maggiore
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