2017-05-10 14:22:03
Pursuits: Learning to Navigate the Venetian Lagoon Like a Pro

“You want to drive your own motorboat in the Lagoon?” The table of Venetians was openly incredulous at the idea. They offered dire predictions: I would surely get lost, fall overboard, become mired in mud — much of the enormous Lagoon is only a foot deep — or collide with any number of speeding watercraft. But I was adamant.

Ever since I first visited Venice 15 years ago, having seen Italians happily bobbing along, I’ve wanted to pilot my own vessel. I had hired speedboats before in Capri, zooming around like Tom Ripley on a spree, but I’d never had any luck finding one in La Serenissima. From what I could gather, there was a byzantine system of licenses that ensured non-Venetians were stuck on crowded ferries, rapacious gondolas or gaudy tour boats. I did find a stray listing in a guidebook for a hire boat company, but when I tracked down the address all I found was a boarded-up doorway. Nobody knew if the ghostly office had ever existed.

But the internet has finally infiltrated Venice, and before my last trip an online search turned up a company called Brussa Is Boat that would rent vessels to independent travelers. It had a bilingual website, didn’t look too expensive — 160 euros a day ($175), plus taxes — and even seemed to have a real address. The boats could be taken solo anywhere in the Lagoon, although there were restrictions on the canals of the historic center. This was fine by me. The most famous Venetian sites are now packed with tourists from cruise ships, their waterways a logjam, the aquatic equivalent of a Shanghai shopping mall. I was ready for a new frontier.

All I had to do, the Brussa website helpfully informed me, was pass a test to prove I could manage a topetta, the flat-bottom boat traditional to the Lagoon. How hard could it be?

The Venetians, though, remained skeptical; “we will read about you in the newspaper next day,” one predicted. But they understood my romantic associations. A half-forgotten world of marshes and salt flats, the 212-square-mile Lagoon contains 100 or so islands that thrived during the Renaissance as farms, military bases and monasteries. But in the 20th century, the islands were mostly abandoned. In 2016, the preservation organization Europa Nostra put the Lagoon at the very top of Europe’s “most endangered” list.

All of which made it an alluring slice of lost Venice, a place where history, and maybe even solitude, might endure.

I never received a reply from Brussa to my email queries about reserving a boat, so I simply turned up one morning at the hole-in-the-wall office, located on a canal in Cannaregio by the Jewish Ghetto, and asked about doing the “test.” “Perché no?” the staff members shrugged. Why not? Docked in the canal were a dozen topette. The distinctive boat is basically a bare metal hull with 15-horsepower outboard attached. At 23 feet, it was longer than the tin-hulled dinghies I had used elsewhere. But the test, conducted with a crusty instructor, seemed simple enough: All I had to do was take the boat out onto the canal, turn it around in a tight intersection and bring it back to dock.

Seconds later, all hell broke loose. No sooner had I eased into the canal than I was blasted by a deafening horn. A vaporetto, a public ferry, was bearing down on me from the left. An enormous garbage barge blocked my way on the right. Two water taxis sped up behind, their drivers glaring furiously. The whole time, the instructor was waving his hands as if he were about to grab the tiller. “Avanti!” he barked. (Forward!) “Indietro!” (Reverse!) “Fermo!” (Neutral!)

I had a sudden memory of a gondola accident in 2013, when a German law professor was crushed to death by a reversing vaporetto on the Grand Canal. That episode provoked the city to introduce a series of traffic measures to ease congestion and improve safety, not that one could tell the difference on the canal.

“You want another try?” the instructor asked.

This time, when I returned to the dock, the long boat slid unpredictably at every touch of the tiller. Trying to correct, the boat swerved more. The instructor raised his eyebrows. I had failed the test.

I felt slightly better when a fisherman from Florida turned up a few minutes later and also flunked. He was left scratching his head as we both stood ruefully on the dock. Having taken boats out all over the gulf, he agreed that mastering the topetta was a lot harder than it looked.

Still, my dream was evaporating before my eyes. I hung around the docks mournfully, racking my brain. Then I had a brainstorm: “Can I take lessons?”

For 60 euros ($66) an hour, it turned out, I could get all the lessons I wanted, but I would need to wait three days for one of the pilots to be free. Though I was supposed to fly back to New York that night, I signed up on the spot.

With time unexpectedly to spare, I decided to make the best of it and make some exploratory forays into the Lagoon, which a few Italian developers and civic groups are trying to revive. I hopped a vaporetto to Harry’s Bar to meet Arrigo Cipriani, the dapper 85-year-old patriarch of the Cipriani empire.

“The Lagoon is where Venice was born,” Mr. Cipriani said, describing how Italians fled Attila the Hun’s hordes in the fifth century and cobbled together a city in the marshes. “Now its revival is the key to Venice’s future.”

A recent success story is on the island of Mazzorbo, where the derelict Venissa winery first worked by monks in the Middle Ages was revived in 2002 by the Bisol family, famed for their prosecco empire on the mainland. They found the last vines in the Lagoon from an ancient grape called Dorona di Venezia, which produces wine with a rich golden hue. “Everything that grows in the Lagoon has a special taste,” Matteo Bisol said when I met him at the winery’s small restaurant. “The squid, the fish, the grapes, the vegetables, they are all dolce amaro, bittersweet. Every Venetian can identify the flavor.” Another new winery on Sant’Erasmo Island, Orto, uses the cool offshore waters to cellar its bottles, which end up covered in algae and seaweed.

Exotic historical sites are also being saved, most famously a Renaissance-era quarantine complex on Lazzaretto Nuovo. “The very word ‘quarantine’ originated here,” said Ugo del Corso, a volunteer who showed me around the fortresslike structure. “It comes from quaranta, 40, the number of days you had to spend here before entering the city.”

The most poetic ruin, Poveglia, was once a graveyard for plague victims and then a rambling hospital, which a group named Poveglia Per Tutti (Poveglia for Everyone) is trying to save. To get there, I had to go with members of a rowing club from Guidecca, hopping from an abandoned dock with the group’s spokesman, a feisty architect named Lorenzo Pesola. The island remains almost entirely overgrown, although rough trails have been cut to expose the decaying structures. It should be saved as a park for Venetians, Mr. Pesola said, as we clambered up crumbling stairs onto a rooftop that he envisions as a sun-dappled restaurant. “There should be a hotel on Poveglia, a boat building facility, a hostel for boy scouts,” he said excitedly, adding that Venetians are coming out in support. Despite the lack of a ferry stop, 7,000 locals made their way to Poveglia last year.

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.

“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.

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.