The Sisterhood

Charity and sisterhood

Vogalonga Venice

Venice…the city of romance…the city of love…the city…which gets utterly gridlocked once a year when the Vogalonga comes to town!

Amy Sharpe recounts the tale of completing her third Vogoloooonga!

Venice 2009…blazing hot sunshine, gondoliers gliding through the canals, £6.50 for a cup of coffee..oh yes – the euro really knows how to punish the £ when you are in Venice!

Having spent the previous day in pre race ‘relaxation’ mode on a beach on Venice Lido topping up the British tans, we were all a little disappointed to wake up on the morning of the race to see that the sun had failed to make an appearance and the storm clouds had taken over…it was freeeezing!

So with waterproofs on, legs hidden under leggings, The Sisterhood braved the inclement elements and set off into the start. The howling wind and cloudy sky meant that the conditions weren’t as favorable as had been in previous years, and so our lunch stop was reduced to a 10 minute huddle in the cold!

As gondoliers struggled with the elements and crashed into each other, several ‘locals’ took an early bath when the wind caught their boat and slung it against the large wooden stakes marking out the channel! Fortunately such was the skill of our steerswoman Emma, that we avoided any catastrophes and whizzed by all sorts of ‘bumps’ that went on along the course!

Miraculously as we entered the Grand canal the sun came out, the crowds cheered and once back on dry land and a few Prosecco’s later and the chilly conditions from earlier in the race were soon forgotten!

The 2009 crew were: Fiona Burke, Louisa Yates, Nikki Ledger, Leo Malim, Susan Glenny, Donna Sefton, Jamie Walker, Mille Gallagher, Camilla Lavagna Slater, Emma Sayle, Bella Malim, Laura Flegg, Amy Sharpe, Kazia Jones and Suzanne Judd.

Louisa Yates recounts the glory of the 2008 race…It was a very different Sisterhood crew that took to the water in Venice for Vogolonga 2008. The 2007 team were a highly trained, disciplined and totally focused crew; the 2008 team….well we’d had a couple of gentle paddles up and down the Thames. We started the race wondering if we’d actually make it round without serious injury or giving up halfway. We quickly settled into a rhythm and set our sights on a boat of gondoliers in pink shirts ahead of us – we weren’t going to be beaten by them.

Three and a half hours into the race when we were entering a more built up area a whisper went down the boat that this was Venice, we were nearly there. Our excitement was swiftly squashed by the ones who’d been there before – it was Murano not Venice… but the end was in sight.

The entry into Venice was pretty inspiring and gave us a new boost of energy, although that may have something to do with the fact that we now couldn’t go very fast without crashing into boats trying to get through the bridges, giving our aching muscles a bit of a break. Crowds lined the banks of the canals and the bridges and gave us (I like to think) extra special cheers thanks to our combination of superb good looks and our fantastic singing (Jungle Book’s “I’m the King of the Swingers” always goes down well with the crowds). We also managed to provoke some very Italian shouting and gesturing by ‘assertively’ making our way through the crowds of boats.

Medals collected we headed for home. We were feeling pretty pleased with ourselves for having made it round as an inexperienced crew without any major mishap but we spoke to soon. On our way back to the boathouse we kindly stopped to pick up two of our supporters for a lift. The combination of the extra weight, a missing part of the front of the boat (whoops) and some very choppy water had the effect of causing the front of the boat to sink.. eliciting squeals from the girls at the front who were knee deep in water and calls from the back of the boat (who weren’t knee deep in water) to stop panicking and carry on paddling.

Well done to the crew who made it round superbly paced by Amy and Chewy who set a manageable speed for Claire, Sue, Louisa, Bella, Maly, Donna, Laeony, Emma, Laura and Gaby to follow. Thanks to Em for guiding us round in a boat that didn’t really want to co-operate.

Jo Rogers retells the tale of the 2007 race below:


May 25th: The Sisterhood and their now considerable entourage of dedicated supporters  leave  for  Venice, to take part in the 33rd vogalonga race.

The Vogalonga is a giant annual May Bank Holiday  spectacle, a colourful pageant in which thousands of vessels of every kind race 32 km around Venice’s lagoons and canals. With tiny kayaks jostling for space with dragon boats, outriggers, fours, eights, sculls, skiffs and traditional venetian rowing boats, and with the ornate bridges and balconies teaming with spectators, it is the Italian equivalent to Spain’s running With the bulls.

This was to be not only our first race but our first long distance paddle.

And for Em, it was to be baptism by fire at the helm. The comparatively empty Thames would be no match for this frenetic adventure we were about to embark on.  From Quintin Boat Club with its odd scull or barge to a narrow canal teeming with gondoliers, water buses, passenger ships and high speed water taxis, Em would have her mettle tested to the max.  We were told we would have to listen, and for once, obey.

May 26th: We logo up the boat and paddles at the marina.  Funny how these events are so significant.  As we unveil the Scion and Collins Stewart logos, we feel that this moment should be honoured with an official launch-a bottle of champagne smashed across the prow perhaps,  to signify how far we have come since the days of mothballed tracksuits and wintery training sessions up at Chiswick. Now, with our proud new Nookie kit, and our gleaming boat we set out in the bright Italian sunshine to paddle the 6km across the lagoon into Venice to moor the boat overnight and make our final preparations for the race. The excitement is palpable.

May 27th – Race Day

The day dawns overcast and refreshing. It’s full Sisterhood kit and Nookie splash jackets. One of our kind supporters has arranged a water taxis to speed our journey across the lagoon.  We miraculously find the boat in one of the tiny labyrinthine canals we have moored it in and load up. If it had been London, parking in a back street like that we would have been clamped, ticketed and towed by now. With 10 minutes to go we ease out into the Grand Canal, stop under the Rialto Bridge for photos and then paddle gently to the start.

And what a start it is. As the Grand Canal expands into the lagoon in front of St Mark’s Square and the Doges Palace, the water explodes with colour. Crews of all ages and nationalities and boats of all shapes and sizes throng noisily next to a huge pirate ship.  Around us the majestic Venetian architecture provides a surreal backdrop.  And as we all hold our paddles up into the sky for the traditional raising of the oars ceremony a cannon is fired. We are off.

The Vogalonga race course is a 30 km figure of eight which loops round the island of Burano and re-enters Venice at the mouth of the Grand Canal, with three long stretches across the lagoon. Needless to say there’s a lot of traffic at the start and end, with lots of shouting and clashing of blades as everyone jostles for space. But its all in the spirit of fun and goodwill; and the sisterhood certainly hold firm their position and curiously attract a lot of attention from local males.  Actually the local males get quite a lot in return.

So as the traffic eases out and each boat gets into its stride, we lengthen out our stroke and settle in, crossing the first big stretch alongside the Thames Dragon boat crew which features quite a few of our supporters, so eager are they to remain loyally at our side. The buzz is propelling us along as we overtake some of our competitors and head towards the funnel that is the entrance to Burano. Here it’s more noise and traffic, and Em is tested to her limit as we overtake, undertake and then simply threaten to mow down some rowers sitting steadfastly in our path.  Power 20s get us easily past some messy looking dragon boats. We feel like a formula one team in our kit as we gain on a Henley team in royal blue. They look kind of cross. And a bit scared.

Our planned leisurely lunch at Burano is hastily sacrificed: the Sisterhood has the bit between its teeth, and astonished to discover we are half way after only 1 hour 20 mins of paddling, we elect a quick toilet stop at most. We intend to motor this course and to see what we can do.

10 minutes later we set off again, our pack lunches hoovered up, and our bottoms cannibalised by mosquitos in a local graveyard.  We push hard out of the narrower Burano waterway and into the comparative freedom of the big long middle stretch of the race. The singing starts as we settle into a strong pace. There are some good voices in the boat. Bohemian rhapsody attracts some cheers. Rule britannia soon dispatches them. We are collectively negligible about lyrics.

We stealthily take up the pace as we approach the final bottle neck through the small island of Murano before the last stretch across to the mainland. Its carnage as we clash blades but swerve expertly round our competitors. We only have to do two emergency stops, which we are now pretty adept at. And then it’s into the final stretch, a good long 8km to the mouth of the canal at the north west tip of venice.

No singing this time. Em makes some calls to focus us. Its good to recognise that it is these long and seemingly endless stretches, with little to push off, are good preparation for the channel. There will be no noisy throngs of boats there, just waves and tankers. Perhaps this is what we are all thinking as we dig in and hold our pace. The longer weekend sessions that we have done are essential preparation. And we can feel it. We are strong and focussed, and surprisingly fast as we round the bend into the Grand Canal di Cannaregio at last.

Too fast! With cries of “piano! Piano!” the locals calm us down into a light pace. With traffic thick up ahead into the grand canal, em has to concede that even her ballsiest steering is not going to get us anywhere fast so we settle in to enjoy the clamour around us and the cheering from the bank. Under the guglie bridge and left into the Grand Canal, past the Ca D’oro, under the Ponte Rialto, the Ponte Academia, and into the finish line by the church of  Santa Maria della Salute. People lining the banks and pontoons join in our celebrations.

Now the partying begins…

Huge thanks to all of our supporters, to those who paddled too with the Thames lot, to the mums for their packed lunches and champagne breakfasts, to Tony for the water taxis and restaurant booking, to Tim for being our official photographer, Jonny Sayle our unofficial one and borat mascot, and to Keni and Susie who paddled with us and lent us their considerable expertise and most of all to Robin for driving our boat all the way there and introducing us to the idea in the first place.

And most thanks to Cam whose training got us there, to Debra for her brilliant planning and execution of the whole weekend, to Em for helming us like a pro and her fab organisation, Cherry and Ames for setting a violent pace throughout, and to all the Sisters who were there in person and those who couldn’t come but were there in spirit!  A top weekend, and a strong step in the direction of the English channel.

A supporter suggested we should have our own cannon to send us off to France. We don’t need it. These days, the Sisters have their own impressive 32 gun salute…

Team Venice 2007:

Amy Sharpe, Amanda Cherry, Lisa Marriage, Caroline Searle, Jo Rogers, A-L Felstead, Laurella Fox-Pitt, Nats Sisson, Annie Coleman, Sarah, Lucy Egerton, Debra Searle and Emma Sayle

Official Website: