The first thing you “don’t” notice is the spelling. At first glance, most folks think it is Carolina, like the North or South State in America. Well it’s not, in fact it’s far from it. In fact, its origin is exactly 6,154 miles from where I sit as I pen this. The famous Venetian boat originally hailed from the City of Caorle, just outside of Venezia. It was originally used as a people and goods transport boat to The Islands of Venezia before the bridge was built. Over the years with the advent of power boats, The Caorlina became used primarily as a six-man racing boat used in the many regattas throughout the year in Venezia. So how in the world did six young Americans become so schooled on this unique Venetian rowing craft.
Well it all started back in 1983 when I was in Venezia to learn more about the building and rowing of Gondolas to bring back the knowledge for my new Gondola business in Long Beach, Ca. I was hanging out with a bunch of Venetians, having wine and salami on a Gondola floating in the Grand Canal watching the famous race “The Regata Storica.” At that point I had no idea that they raced gondolas and other Venetian rowing craft through the lagoon and Grand Canal. It was absolutely awesome, entrancing and surprisingly exciting to see the speed of these boats being rowed. The competition was heated with crashes and passing not unlike a Nascar race with oars. There were 2-man, 4 man and 6-man boats. The Gondolino, a sports car like Gondola with two guys rowing that was the main event. The winner of that class was like wining the 100 meter dash in the Olympics. Fastest Men in the World as far as any Venetians were concerned. If Usain Bolt could row, this would be his event.
But that’s not the event that captured my imagination. It was the Caorlina division! Six strong guys pushing a 1,000 plus pound boat down the grand canal at 8+ knots, pushing water from the bow like a cruising oil tanker and a wake like a Grand Banks Trawler. The oars were bending like bamboo poles yet most people couldn’t even attempt to bend them. A 32 ft rowing machine run with a 6 Man power engine run strictly on high octane Venetian Pasta!
I told my Venetian friends that I wanted to compete in this race…..Next year! They chuckled as they spoke in local dialect so as not to embarrass me. When they came up for air and had a big chug of local Vino Rosso, they explained to me that these guys train their whole life to compete in this race and basically have to be Venetian born! They did explain that there was another regatta called the Vogalonga, a 30-kilometer marathon, that allowed international competitors.
I was in! I immediately went to the Museo Naval and talked them out a set of “Caorlina” plans to take home. Upon return, I met with a Naval Architect, showed him the plans and explained that I wanted to use the boat in my business to carry groups. After doing the stability modeling he explained that this boat would only carry up to 8 passengers. That didn’t make sense cause my other Gondolas could carry 6 already. I needed something that could carry more like 12-14 to make this project work. I was building this to have a practice boat for the next years Vogalonga but it needed to fit into the business also. So, the Caorlina design was altered to go from 5’9” wide to 7’ wide. We did the coastguard stability check, normally done with water barrels, we did ours with people, but only had 13 people on hand. That included one guy that had a very large Mastiff tied up to the gangway. The Coastguard told us to throw the Dog on board and we passed for 14 passengers. We finished it in November and it was booked solid all of December, 1984.
For the first 4 months of 1985, six of us trained on this new “big” Caorlina to prepare for the Vogalonga at the end of May. We jury-rigged some oar-locks and found lifeboat oars to mimic the large Venetian oars. The boat and the oars were heavier than the original design, but we put in our mileage, even rowing back from Catalina for our final row before heading to Venezia.
We boarded the plane in our “American Uniforms,” and settled in for a long flight.
The whole team averaged 6 ft plus and not 2 hours into the flight, we were approached by an exceptionally tall Italian gentleman that asked if we were a traveling U.S. basketball team. We laughed and said no, we were actually heading to Venezia to row in the Vogalonga! His face showed complete disbelief. He asked what kind of boat we were rowing. Here is where the lesson began! We said a six man “Carolina.” ( We spelled and pronounced it wrong.” It was as if he had never even heard of one, and it turns out he lives just outside of Venezia. After going back and forth way too many times with copious amounts of Rosso, he says “Oh, you mean a “Caaaaoooooorleeeeena.” He proceeded to teach and test us on the proper pronunciation of “Caorlina” for the next six hours to Milano! Heck, every Italian on board was joining in the tutelage. If you meet up with any of those six original Vogalonga team members. You will definitely hear the proper pronunciation of “Caaaaooooorleeeeena” and the boats entire history! So now you know why we have two of these types of Venetian boats, why and where they come from and the proper pronunciation of one of the legendary Venetian boats other than the Gondola. In another story I will share the story of that first Vogalonga, the “basketball” game that ensued and our surprise coach, a Regata Storica Grand Champion, Bepi Fongher!