Phil and Roxy Johnson enjoy a memorable cruise to Venice, exploring the ‘city of love’ by boat

I’ll be the first to admit that I wanted to ‘skip’ Venice. In the myriad of Mediterranean sailing destinations I discussed with my wife and co-captain, Roxy, I thought we shouldn’t take time away from the endlessly beautiful archipelago of Croatia to sail to the northernmost end of the Adriatic to visit Venice. Why would we? Just to end up getting our keel stuck in a Venetian lagoon mudflat, or push through mobs of tourists all trying to snap the same picture of a gondolier under the Rialto bridge? But after searching in vain for a reasonably priced marina near a major international airport so we could leave our boat to attend a summer wedding back in the US, our plans coalesced around sailing to Venice… and I’m so glad it did.

Since late 2018, Roxy and I have been working remotely while living aboard our 47ft monohull yacht, Sonder. She’s taken us from the Caribbean to the USA, across the North Atlantic, and throughout the Mediterranean visiting a succession of once-in-a-lifetime destinations, though possibly none quite as unique as Venice.

Lying at the northern tip of the Adriatic, Venice can be reached via a long daysail from the Istrian coast of Croatia or, as we did, an overnight passage from further south along the Dalmatian coast. As of January, Croatia is now part of the same Schengen EU immigration zone, so departing sailors no longer need to stamp out when sailing to Italy. However, last summer that was not the case, so our passage began with an abnormally lengthy two-hour Croatian exit formality at a concrete quayside in Marina Kremik before motoring out into a becalmed slate-blue Adriatic.

With a somewhat limp mainsail hoisted tight to catch the first hint of wind, we motored north-west to immediately exit Croatian waters (as per the Croatian law in 2022) before adjusting our course northerly towards the vast Venetian Lagoon. It was now past 2100hrs and the daytime humidity had given way to a light evening fog which diffused the lights of hundreds of nearby squid fishing boats. To starboard, the Bora wind-scoured mountains of Croatia’s coastline created a wall of darkness, juxtaposed on the opposite side by the light pollution of the lower lying mainland of Italy.

A gentle evening south-easterly breeze finally set in and, with Roxy on the jib sheet, we unfurled our big 130% genoa, killed the engine, and trimmed our mainsail for a broad reach. Sonder glided along at a quiet, respectable 5 knots. At around 0300, I was on watch as we passed a distant oil drilling platform. Their hulks of machinery and lights looked like a floating city all of its own. My thoughts began to drift towards our destination.

Sonder is a solidly-built 1986 Pedrick Cheoy Lee. Photo: Phil Johnson

Built for mariners

We’d both visited Venice as tourists in the past, and while I remember being impressed by the many historic sites around the city, I don’t recall anything very special about the arrival by train. In fact, if you fly to Venice or come via the causeway by car, bus, or train (as most do) you’re actually entering the city through the back door. Venice was built by merchant mariners as a maritime city to face the sea – everything from the layout of the canal-streets, to the defences and facades of the buildings all orient toward the water. So, as we gradually sailed closer through the dark night, I realised that we’d be entering the city the same way sailors have for over a millennium.

Overnight the south-easterly continued to build until we had a steady 18 knots on our starboard aft-quarter which pushed the shallow green waters of the northern Adriatic into messy piles of wave chop. As dawn began to break, the lagoon’s wooded barrier island of Lido lay ahead, shielding any view of Venice and its lagoon from the sea. Were it not for the red and green channel markers that stand on weathered wooden pylons driven into the muddy bottom, it would be very difficult to actually sight this natural entrance into the lagoon.

Sonder facing the Piazetta San Marco and the Doge’s Palace. Photo: Phil Johnson

To control increasingly severe flooding, Venice has been building a rising storm gate system, aptly named Moses, that effectively closes off all entrances of the lagoon to the Adriatic Sea. Cruising friends of ours told us of arriving on a flood tide only to find the barrier had been raised, shutting the city off from the Mediterranean entirely. They tacked back and forth across the channel – on a lee shore – for hours waiting for the tide to fall before the gate finally was opened. This time, we were lucky to find the gates fully open. After dropping our sails – as sailing through the channel is not permitted – we motored past the concrete gate control tower and into the shelter of the Venice lagoon.

Almost immediately, we felt transported to another world. Dense stands of laurel trees stood dotted with nesting white egrets among ruins of overgrown brick naval fortifications. Grey herons fished among tidal grasses lining the shallow edge of channel banks. The air was thick and heavy with the humidity you’d expect from southern Europe’s largest wetland, and already warming in the dawn light. We rounded a bend in the channel and there, rising out of the milky teal lagoon, its outline fluttering slightly through the heat, was Venice in all its indisputable glory.

At this early hour there were very few other boats out on the water, or the accompanying boat wake which famously erodes the foundations of the city with incessant lapping. The waters of the lagoon were uncharacteristically still and calm, showing off reflections of the impressive Venetian campaniles towering above. With our jaws still on the floor of the cockpit, we missed the turn towards our marina entirely. Instead, we slowly kept motoring Sonder further in, towards the main thoroughfare – the junction at the heart of Venice where the grand canal, San Marco square, and the Doge’s Palace meet. All the while pinching ourselves at the uniquness of the moment: did we really just sail our floating home from America onto the doorstep of one of Europe’s most historic cities?

A life afloat

Visiting cruisers don’t need to stay in a marina when sailing to Venice. There are some shallow water anchorages outside of the main navigation channels, as well as further east in the lagoon near the island of Burano. But considering Sonder’s draught of over 6ft and the fact we needed to leave her for our flight back to the US, we chose to tie up at the well appointed, and quite reasonably priced Marina Certosa, located on an island by the same name, immediately adjacent to Venice.

Isola Certosa is the site of a former military barracks, now in ruins and returned to wooded forest land, that has been turned into a multi-use space with a marina, restaurant, park, lodging, and art gallery. The marina makes use of the old fortified canals that now house modern finger docks serviced with manicured paths lined with oleander trees. If your vessel is blessed with an air-conditioning unit as Sonder is, then it’s a comfortable and calm escape from the noisy hive of Venice. Walks through the woods surrounding the marina will treat you to the sight of flamingos in the lagoon, and the sounds of millions of summer cicadas.

While we may have air-con, we don’t have a washing machine, so one of our first missions ashore was to find a place to do our laundry. An exciting first day in the romantic city of Venice! The marina’s facilities were still being developed so we set off on the vaporetto (Venice’s canal public transit system). Several stops later we alighted in San Marco square where we spent the next hour threading our way through hordes of tour groups while lugging bags of dirty washing in the hot midday sun. The hilarity of our circumstances was not lost on us!

It’s fun to navigate Venice’s labyrinthine canal system by dinghy. Photo: Phil Johnson

Eventually, we found the small, Venetian-owned ‘lavanderia’ we were searching for in a narrow back alley. On leaving we suddenly noticed how convenient the access to this back alley was – if coming by canal. Baulking at the thought of fighting the crowds again the following day, we cheekily decided then and there that we’d return with our own dinghy to pick up our laundry, via the canal system. How hard could it be?

Knowing the Venetian rules of the ‘road’ is essential for navigating the canals. While Venice has banned recreational boats from the Grand Canal, you can take your dinghy in the smaller canals. A no-wake speed limit of 5km/h is in place for the smaller canals in order to protect the city’s eroding foundations. Many canals are labelled for one-way traffic only (though the gondoliers seem to freely ignore this rule). The fact that many canals can dead end, or empty into the forbidden Grand Canal, makes navigation through Venice a bit complicated and nerve-racking at first. We spent time strategizing our route each time before setting off. Additionally you must take care to pass oncoming boats port-to-port, unless it’s a gondolier, in which case you pass on their starboard oar side – or risk being shouted at.

Sonder motors in to Venice, the St Mark’s Square campanile prominent in the background. Photo: Phil Johnson

So early the following morning, we left Marina Certosa in our Highfield RIB tender, crossing the open lagoon, which was already roiling with speeding water taxis and rumbling vaporettos. We retraced the same route towards San Marco square that we’d taken at dawn in glorious calm conditions with Sonder. This time, however, the water was rough with confused wake sloshing about from the constant water traffic. Roxy was getting soaked on the bow hanging on for dear life while navigating, as I tried to keep control and dodge the vaporettos. Eventually we arrived at our planned entrance into the canal system that would lead us to the lavanderia. We motored forwards, eager to escape the wake, but nervous about what seemed like it should be a forbidden activity… could we really just drive our own dinghy into the Venice canals?

Standing on the marble footbridge overhead were dozens of tourists eagerly taking photos in our general direction. It was hard to tell whether they were capturing the iconic scene of a dozen black, lacquered gondolas or the single out-of-place rubber dinghy entering the labyrinthine inner-city canal system.

Local perspective

After a few grazes against the canal wall, we quickly started to get the hang of it. While I waited canal-side for Roxy to grab our laundry, I talked with a Venetian teenager who brought his barge alongside to deliver baked goods through the back door of an adjacent hotel. This common Venetian barge boat is called a mototopo (literally translates to motorised mouse). With similar proportions to a short English narrowboat, they require skilful helming to get around the right-angled corners of the canals. Throughout Venice, everything in the city gets picked up and delivered by these boats: from garbage to scaffolding to loaves of bread.

Feeling emboldened by the experience, we began using our dinghy for every errand into Venice – memorable grocery runs, visits to a coffee shop, even a nice dinner out. One evening we hopped in the dinghy and zipped all the way to the north end of Venice in the quiet, residential neighbourhood of Cannaregio. There, we tied our dinghy up alongside the stone canal wall where dozens of young Venetians sat perched after spilling out of a small wine bar next door. Soon we had two glasses of Italian white bio-wine and a board of local cichetti (Venetian tapas) as we sat canal-side by our dinghy with the locals. In that moment, we wondered how we could ever experience Venice in any other way again. We soaked it all up, melding into the lively tableau around us while the setting sun cast coral hues off the tiled roofs.

Away from the obligatory tourist sights and photo ops, this city bustles with an authenticity we knew nothing about. It’s a city uniquely shaped by life on and in the water. Once you’ve witnessed Venice as you approach from the Adriatic, puzzled your way out of dead-end canals in your own boat, drunk wine and chatted with the locals at the water’s edge, and drifted among the layered ruins of the world’s most powerful maritime empire, you can never quite see it the same way again. It has become one of the greatest destinations we have ever sailed to.

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