Fitz women rowing Palio Venice
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Rowing on Venice's Grand Canal

Emily Lees (PhD Immunology 2016) shares her experience of rowing in the first ever all-women's race in Venice's historic galeone competition

Rowers from the women's squad of Fitzwilliam College Boat Club were challenged by Ca' Foscari University of Venice to a race on Venice’s Grand Canal, for the first ever all-women's competition in the historic galeone boats, as part of their campaign to get a women’s race included in the Regatta of the Ancient Italian Maritime Republics during its 64th edition in 2019.

The galeone is a 15-metre long boat, weighing over 750kg, which is almost eight times as heavy as the shells used for rowing on the Cam. The galeone’s seats are fixed, meaning a very different style of rowing than we're used to – the benches we sat on had a sort of shiny area on which you could slide back and forth a little, but there was a lot less leg power than we'd usually use!

Our crew was formed of current Fitzwilliam students (Ashton Brown, Jess Halliday, Alisha Levermore, Hazel Walker, Melody Swiers and myself), alumnae (Helen Fishwick and Andrea Stefkova) and two former members of the CUWBC team (Hannah Evans and Claire Watkins) who along with Ashton, were the first to row in the Women’s Boat Race on the tideway in 2015.

We were treated with exceptional hospitality by our hosts from Ca' Foscari University of Venice – they greeted us on Saturday with local pastries, took us across to their training island and gave us a brief lesson in how to operate the galeone. On Saturday evening the crews went for dinner with the Dean of the University, who was very supportive of their campaign, and even rode in the launch behind the boats during the races!

We raced on Sunday 30 September, down a section of the Grand Canal, from near the Rialto Bridge back to the University, with police boats diverting the other river traffic to give us a clear run. Unfortunately, the Fitzwilliam crew lost both of the races, the second one only by a small margin, having learnt a lot about how to improve our technique during the first race. Full credit must go to the Venetian team who were very quick off the start line and rowed strongly and consistently over the course on both occasions.

This was an incredible opportunity for both crews to make history as the first all-women's crews to row these traditional boats in competition, and we hope it will be a great step in the University's campaign for the inclusion of female boats in the Regatta Storica next year.

We feel very lucky to have been invited back to compete again next September (hopefully in the Regatta Storica) and have been offered an extra day of training to even the playing field! We also plan to invite the Venetian team to try their hand at rowing on the Cam in a return challenge.

The crew also extends their thanks to the Billygoats Society for their support with this trip. 

Photo credits: @SamueleCherubini

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