Looking out on Grand Canal on any normal day, you see a variety of floating vessels. It is the main exposition for all the different boats in Venice, and it corresponds to the Boulevard, the central avenue of any other, dryer city.
The tourists ride the Vaporetto, they go by Taxi or by Gondola… But there is also quite a lot of necessary service traffic, mostly cargo boats, but also post, police, and other law enforcement.
If you’d like to bring your own boat and go for a nice morning drive on the big canal, you can forget it, unless you live here. And even then there are long lists of boat regulations, speed limits, one-way canals, and traffic rules you need to adhere to.
Driving a boat on Grand Canal is reserved for Venice City residents. And only after 12 o’clock. To use a boat with a motor, you would need a license issued by the same city. The speed limit on Canal Grande is 8 km/h (4 knots), and on the smaller canals 5 km/h (2,5 knots).
But this wasn’t meant to be a guide on how to drive a boat on the Grand Canal. What I wanted to do was just to explain the various types of vessels, you would see when looking down on the water from one of the bridges.
And as a list of the boats can be done in various ways, and as the most common way is to include all the traditional, historical boats of the lagoon… I will do it in a more contemporary, modern way. So, here’s a list and an explanation for the watercrafts you are likely to see on a perfectly normal day in Venice. It is in no way complete, as many of the traditional boats have more or less disappeared from the lagoon. Some old vessels live on in modern versions.
The Gondola is the most famous of them all, the symbol of Venice and the definite King of the Venetian waters. You see them all over with tourists eagerly inhaling the beauty of the city while the Gondoliere explains the sites in broken English. A few hundred years ago, they were even more frequent, as the Gondola in the past was in Venice what a horse-cart was in London… The normal way of transport within the city. At least for anyone with money. Here’s a complete Gondola guide.
The Sandolo is one of many very similar boats in the Lagoon… Boats of which a branch with the passing centuries developed into the Gondola. They were all small, narrow, and long. And propulsion was a single oar on the starboard side towards the stern of the boat.
Nowadays the Sandolo is used to scam tourists into thinking they’re going for a Gondola ride when actually they’re riding another boat. It might be equally pleasant, but it’s not a Gondola.
Batela Buranela / Batela Coa de Gambero
Batela means just boat in Venetian. But the term comes with a baggage of history and tradition. The Batela is a wide wooden boat for transport and work. Normally rowed with two or four opposite oars. In the past, the Batela was the most commonly used of all the boats in Venice. You could see them all over running back and forth with all kinds of merchandise. Now they are mostly substituted with motorized Topi.
Two versions exist, Batela coda di Gambero, and Batela Buranela which is wider and more of a transporter. Rowvenice.org uses the first one for their lessons in Voga Veneta.
This is the typical Venetian transport vessel. You see them all over with the transporting company logo on the side. They bring food and beverages to the hotels and packages and other stuff to offices and private houses. All transporting of things with boats in Venice is regulated and controlled. You are actually not allowed to bring your own refrigerator home, the transporting consortium has the monopoly.
These boats are in many forms and sizes, with a cabin or without. They have a large beam and are incredibly stable. A fact that makes them practical when it comes to loading and unloading directly on the Fondamenta.
These are small, specialized ships. They are made of steel, and recently in fiberglass. They are equipped with a crane to lift in the waste bin, and some of them even have a compactor.
The City of Venice actually makes a great deal of effort to reduce the environmental impact of their fleet. The boats use a particular Bio-Dieses with lower emissions, and a gradual replacement from today’s diesel-driven vessels to electric boats is planned.
Barcheta a massoche
A bigger Gondola that can take up to 14 persons plus the two Gondoliers. It is made in the same manner as a normal Gondola, but it’s wider, more stable, and has a higher gross load capacity. It’s used for the Traghetto… The short ride from one side of Canal Grande to the other.
Police / Ambulance
The Ambulances and the Police-boats are the only boats in Venice that are allowed to exceed the speed limits. When there’s an emergency they can reach incredible speeds leaving other boats behind, all trying to stay afloat in the wakes.
The top speed is up to 35 knots or 40 Miles/h.
The taxis come in wood, in wood/fiberglass, or simply fiberglass. The curious fact about the taxis is that, although they come from various shipyards, and are both old and new, they are all exceptionally similar. The driver’s seat, behind which there’s the cabin. And at the back, there’s an open space for photo sessions and sunbathing. And the shape is almost identical.
But it wasn’t always like that. In the late 1800s, the first motor-taxis had the engine in the bow. Then, when they started using diesel engines, they were so heavy that they had to be put them in the stern. By doing so combined with the total weight of the engine, the wakes suddenly became dangerously large. And the whole controversy of the motor-driven boats in Venice that drained material from the delicate canal-sides, and thus risked a complete collapse o the whole Venice foundation, started.
The Vaporettos is the water-buss, bringing people from east to west, from north to south. Made in metal with the typical entrance and exit midships (…If you could invent a system where people could enter and exit from different gates, but still with only one sailor handling the crowds, you would make a fortune.).They are mostly around 20 meters in length, but the ACTV, the local public transport company, has many different kinds of Vaporettos.
The classical water bus, line 90, is the only one running the Canal Grande. Outside, circumnavigating the City, there are the smaller vessels, we call them Motoscafi… Which is just another name for a motorboat. Then there are bigger ones crossing the lagoon to Lido, Punta Sabbioni, and Burano.
The biggest of ACTV’s ships and the only car-carrier is the big Ferry from Tronchetto to Lido di Venezia. There are a few different models. The biggest one takes 1250 passengers and 71 cars. It’s driven by two Caterpillar diesels each of 740 hp.
Sometimes you see a very small outboard motorboat with a teenager and his friend or girlfriend. The boat has very low boards, and it’s narrow. That’s a Cofano. It’s a vessel for hunting and fishing in the shallow waters of the lagoon, as well as fooling around in the canals, as teenagers do. It’s one of the most common of all the boats in Venice.
It’s not something you would be able to see. Still, it was a sensational boat, full of the most precious materials, gold, jewels, and silk. It was the ceremonial boat that was used at the wedding ceremony between the Republic and the sea, celebrated the day of the Ascension of Jesus. The last original boat was destroyed and stripped of its gold by the French after the fall of the Republic in 1797. A project to reconstruct her was started in 2004. Unfortunately, because of lacking funds, it’s put on ice.
The boats in Venice come in multiple various shapes, and forms, more or less traditional, as well as new and old boats that don’t have anything to do with the history of the lagoon. But Venice is and has always been a maritime hub. It has always attracted watercraft from near and far.
And the craftmanship of the Venetian boat builders was what made Venice Venice. From the small boats, specialized to bring people and goods on the narrow canals, to the huge ships sailing out from the Arsenale to defend the Venetian trading routes.
In June, the Venice Boat-Show, continues to demonstrate the importance of boat building has in the lagoon city..
The boats in Venice come in many shapes.