Life on the Lagoon The Women of Venice Discover Boating

Boating has been a pastime for men for hundreds of years in Venice. But during the pandemic, the lagoon surrounding the city has grown quiet. Many women who might have been discouraged in the past are now learning to pilot boats.
By Dario Antonelli, Jan Petter and Giacomo Sini (Photos)
Boating instructor Marta Canino steers her way through the canals of Venice with her student Sara.

Boating instructor Marta Canino steers her way through the canals of Venice with her student Sara.

Global Societies

For our Global Societies project, reporters around the world will be writing about societal problems, sustainability and development in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe. The series will include features, analyses, photo essays, videos and podcasts looking behind the curtain of globalization. The project is generously funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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The old fisherman throttles the motor, then, net in hand, he begins staring at the other boat as it passes by. He's not the first one that morning, but the two women on the boat are unmoved. "Is the motor pointed toward the jetty?” asks boating instructor Marta Canino, who, ignoring the man, continues to issue orders. "Ciò si!" Sara, her student for today, shouts back – all is well.

Eventually, the old man revs up his engine again and slowly heads off with a crooked smile. "Good,” Sara says with relief after a moment’s pause, looking pensively across the water. "The way he looked at us is the reason I am taking the class. The gawking by the men takes away any self-confidence here.”

The 40-year-old Venetian has lived in the lagoon all her life. Venice is her birthplace and she has known the canals since childhood. Before the pandemic, she guided tourists through the narrow streets here every day, explaining her city’s proud history to visitors and often pointing out the many small boats in the murky turquoise water. But she had never stood at the helm of a boat there – at least not until recently.

Women in Venice have taken advantage of the absence of cruise ships and the quiet caused by the pandemic to learn how to pilot boats in Venice.

Women in Venice have taken advantage of the absence of cruise ships and the quiet caused by the pandemic to learn how to pilot boats in Venice.

She's not the only woman currently gaining her first boating experience. Piloting boats, after all, remains largely a man’s job in Venice. It wasn’t until 2010 that the fisrt woman passed the official exam to become a gondoliera. And even with normal motorboats, which play a much bigger role in the everyday life of the locals, it is primarily men who can be seen at the helm. Fathers usually teach their sons how to pilot the boats.

At a time when even reactionary Saudi Arabia has begun allowing women to drive cars, it is a shockingly antiquated approach. But in contrast to the Arab country, the gender order on the canals has never been set in stone and there have, of course, always been exceptions. Until recently, though, there was no one here specifically teaching women how to pilot boats, and encouraging them to do so. Machismo doesn’t need any laws, says Marta Canino – facial expressions and words can have the same affect.

She has stepped up to change that. The 35-year-old is no stranger to the city’s canals. In recent years, she and the No Grande Navi alliance have been campaigning to ban cruise ships from Venice’s most famous waterways. The consequences of mass tourism are well-known: Beyond the masses of tourists, the ships have frequently damaged the wooden piles the city is built on.

Four years ago, 25,0000 inhabitants took part in a non-binding referendum in which they voted against the steel behemoths. But it was only the pandemic that really brought quiet back to the city.

And for Canino, who was just finishing maternity leave when the pandemic struck, it was clear that she had no future working in restaurants. She began looking for a new job and found one working as a boating instructor. Since last July, she has been showing other women how to navigate the city’s waters. And not long ago, she was chosen as president of Fie a Manetta – which she claims to be the first boat club for women in Venice. The club helps set women up with affordable insurance and gives them the opportunity to network. The club’s name also serves as its motto: Women to the fore.

Men have also joined the boating club: "We help each other out."

Men have also joined the boating club: "We help each other out."

Italian photographer Giacomo Sini has followed the project closely. He usually works in crisis areas or other places that are difficult to access. During the pandemic, though, he began documenting the situation in his home country – and found unexpected parallels. "Venice is also a crisis area without the tourists,” he says. "Without the visitors, the city is suddenly alone with its troubles. The women of the boating club have also showed me that there is resistance. They are taking advantage of the standstill to rediscover their city.”

In his photos, Sini shows a Venice that seems almost like a private place with the lack of mass tourism and noise. Marta Canino’s club has attracted further members in the past few weeks. Recently, young men who also want to learn how to pilot a boat have joined the club. It’s an inclusive and colorful group. But there are still challenges.

For example, the maps the women work with are often outdated. People who don’t know their way around have trouble finding the way. And this further solidifies gender roles. "Sometimes they show canals that were filled in a long time ago,” reports student driver Sara. "The lagoon changes fast. We have to adapt.”

In the accompanying photo gallery, you can see how the women of Venice are teaching each other to pilot boats and their experiences without tourists in the normally crowded city.

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The Women of Venice Discover Boating

This piece is part of the Global Societies series. The project runs for three years and is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Global Societies series involves journalists reporting from Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe about injustices in a globalized world, societal challenges and sustainable development. The features, analyses, photo essays, videos and podcasts, which originally appeared in DER SPIEGEL’s Foreign Desk section, will also appear in the Global Societies section of SPIEGEL International. The project is initially planned to run for three years and receives financial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.