Venice, part III

Vogalonga 2014 is a bright, sunny morning and promises to reach 29 degrees. We meet in the hotel lobby with those of the team who are staying in the Hotel with us. We are given bags of food by the hotel in lieu of breakfast. I suspect there will not be many people at breakfast as we have almost taken over the hotel. It is horribly early. We have to leave at 6.20 and walk the couple of kilometres to the boatyard where we will pick up our rented dragon boat. I am not feeling on top form. I have been feeling very tired and put it down to the heat but I am feeling particularly lacking in energy this morning. Everyone sets off at a spanking pace and I am soon trailing behind. Again, it is a twisty journey to get there and, as I don’t know where we are going, I need to keep up. Team mates realise I am left behind and wait for me but I can tell there is a lot of nervous energy around our group. When we round the corner to the boat yard, there are already teams waiting to collect their boats but we are so early, we have to wait for staff to arrive and unlock. Once inside, there is a flurry of people rushing to the toilets as they will be scarce along the route. After extra bags have been stowed away, we go outside to put on buoyancy aids and collect our paddles. The paddles are different weights to those we use but we can still use them. Lots of sunblock is applied, crotch straps tightened and then we are off to get on the boat, all clutching bags of food. Somewhat alarmingly, the pontoon is constructed of large, empty water bottles and walking along them seems extremely precarious. I am never the most sure-footed person but this looks precisely the recipe to topple me (as Master Mason calls it). I am not the only one feeling it as we creep along in single file. Then I see that in order to get into our boat, we have to climb across another. Hmmm. I know how incredibly easy it is to capsize a boat which, together with my ungainliness, makes for an uncomfortable few moments as I scramble across, aided by my lovely team members. I am paddling with Ms Marsden who has got in first. At this point we discover the boat is a different size to the one we use as when I sit down, it feels as though Ms Marsden is going to pop out like a cork. We agree to sit separately and on opposite sides to balance the boat.

And then we are off, paddling away across the lagoon and down a canal to take us down the Grand Canal to the start line at St Mark’s. The light at this time of the morning is exquisite and the air is relatively cool. I am told by our helm that I do not need to paddle if I don’t feel up to it. This is one of the things I like about our team. I always feel taken care of and that my health is always taken seriously. But mostly that my team mates care and want the best for me whilst encouraging me to push myself. I can tell that several people thought I would not be on that boat and, over the last day or so, people have been speaking to me telling me I will be on the boat and that they need me there. So, here I am on this glorious morning, paddling out into the lagoon and down a smaller canal into the Grand Canal and to the start at St Mark’s. I think there are over 2000 boats entered into the Vogalonga so it is inevitable there will be some traffic jams.

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Not only are we on time for the start of the event but we are slightly ahead and already moving well by the time we hear the cannon roar to signal the start. Did I mention we have to paddle 30km? In old money, this is 18 miles which is quite a distance and when we first thought of it, we puffed out our cheeks and drew our breath in sharply (not at the same time, obviously) because it seemed quite daunting. But here we are, on the water, paddling away with enough food to feed an army. There is good natured banter on the way round and our progress is pretty good. Before too long we are at the 10km mark and it is time for some people to nip out and have a wee.071 072

Unfortunately, we also run aground at this point and people have to get out, sinking into the soft mud as they help us re-float. Getting back in without capsizing the boat is tricky but it makes me laugh when someone calls the silt ‘Quicksand’ which actually makes people squawk in fear. Eventually we are all back in and it is when paddling across the lagoon that our first incident occurs. Suddenly, what I can only describe as a girlie shriek emits from the middle of the boat. I have been sitting with my eyes shut so it takes me a few seconds to realise what is happening. A fish has landed in the boat, whether by its own devices or whether it has been scooped up by one of the paddles. Two of our regular Raging Dragons paddlers, Redmunds and Mr Ling, both shriek like girls. They may deny it now but there is a lot of panic and squealing from the pair of them, even when it is pointed out it is just a fish. A sizeable one, Ms Key grabs it and throws it back over the side where it swims off, relieved to be away from all the fuss.

Further along, as we begin to hit clumps of boats – and there are all sorts – conversation becomes possible and Mrs Cheong randomly calls out “Sexy!” and “Sexy man!” to different groups. There are people from everywhere, including some other cancer survivor teams. We try saying “Hello” in a variety of languages. Whole boats are singing and slapping their paddles on the top of their boats in time and some people are dancing. 063 087 077Even the dogs are enjoying the day. Mrs Cheong has a special fascination for the gladiator on his paddle board. So I reproduce these photographs strictly for her enjoyment. 090 089

As we queue to get down the Grand Canal, at points we are stopped by Police boats who are trying valiantly to make some order to the vast deluge of boats. Further down, waiting to get into the Grand Canal, there are frogmen in orange wetsuits trying to direct us from the water. We only encounter one boat where the temperament is less than joyful. A woman half shouts at us “This is not a race! Wait your turn!” as we try to find water and not crash into other boats. A few feet along, one of her crew snaps and shouts “Wait your turn, pushing along in your big ship!” and takes his oar which he launches at Mrs Cheong. All I can really do is roll my eyes at these grown ups. Really? Yes, it’s not a race. Is this why you are so upset we are ahead of you? Does trying to whack one of our team really solve anything? Perhaps he was grumpy he didn’t make her ‘sexy’ list. Leaving the grumps behind, we paddle on to the finish line at St Marks where we are thrilled to hear all our names called out over the loudspeaker. Medals are thrown to us in plastic bags and we then begin the long paddle back to the boatyard. Everyone is feeling pretty high on the experience. As we get near the boatyard, an ambulance races past creating a large wake. For one moment, it seems possible we will capsize, so close to the end of our watery journey but the team power up and we paddle through it. When we make the boatyard, it is with sighs of relief and also “are you shitting me?” expressions (particularly from me). This time, tying up the boat we have to cross 2 other boats before we can make the wobbly plastic-bottle pontoon. My trusty team mate Mr Ling is on hand to help me gently and encouragingly to cross the boats and get onto the pontoon. I am sincerely grateful for the kindness he repeatedly shows me, even though I am unsteady and ungainly at times. On the pontoon, other team members are there to take my hand and help me off. As I reach the more solid pontoon, I suddenly cannot breathe. I am not aware of feeling particularly anxious but my breath is hard to come by and it takes some moments before I can get it under control. Mrs Cheong is there, of course, mothering me and helping me to a seat, asking where my puffer is. But I am not asthmatic so there is no puffer to help. The breathlessness subsides and we do a cool down routine before going into our huddle where we try to take in the enormous challenge we have just completed. I think it will take some time for it to sink in.

We wander back to the hotel and shower. Some people are leaving that evening, some early in the morning and some, including us, the next evening. I am starting to be a little concerned about my breathing which makes walking around tricky. There are, obviously, lots of bridges in Venice so the climbing over them is taking its toll on me. But more of that later. Competing in the Vogalonga has been an amazing experience for so many reasons. To have shared it with other cancer survivors and team mates who have all been there to lean on has been incredible. The route itself is beautiful yet challenging and we met some fabulous people on our journey. It will take time to process everything that has happened but it will be an event I will never forget.


Venice, part II

Saturday dawns bright and beautiful. In the restaurant, we meet many of our crew members who have arrived at various points in the evening and it seems as though Wave Walkers have taken over the whole place. Mrs Cheong, of whom you will hear more later, is on toast duty and mothering everyone. We are all a bit bleary-eyed but everyone has plans for their day. We are agreed on meeting at lunchtime for a big team lunch but before that we decide to go to the Rialto market and buy fruit for the next day and to have a mooch around. On the way to the market, we discover that flipflops are no match for marble steps as Ms Gordon falls on her backside not just once but twice, leaving Italians to make a very stereotypical “Ay!” noise as she falls down. Rialto is heaving with tourists but we find our way to the fruit and vegetable market where it becomes difficult to decide what to buy, so much of it looks delicious and under the hot sun, it all smells wonderful. In the end I buy bananas, strawberries, cherries and nectarines. Ms Marsden buys ripe green figs. We sit down at a cafe for a cold drink and look at the many maps we have to try and work out where the lunch is being held. I must admit to being a little grumpy as I don’t feel particularly well but we finally agree that due to the exorbitant cost of getting a water bus, we will walk to the restaurant with lots of stops on the way.012

Ms Gordon has sat nav on her phone which, although the battery is running low, promises to guide us to the restaurant. At this point, we have not had the chase to find out where we are in relation to anything else so have no idea where the restaurant is. The sat nav takes us down tiny alleyways and we seem to be turning left and right every few feet. I decide to buy a hat and so does Mr Mason. We also buy a captain’s had for Captain Deryn. The man in the hat shop is delighted. The heats gets to us a bit and by 1pm, we don’t know where we are or where the restaurant is. We stop off at the end of a wharf for another drink and to use the toilet. My phone, obviously, is not working, even though I was told categorically that it would be. Thanks, Virgin mobile. Other people are able to send texts requesting rescue. By 2pm we are truly desperate and talk of finding any old restaurant to have lunch in in a defiant kind of way. We visualise the rest of the team eating by the side of the canal sheltered by umbrellas, sipping cool drinks and not looking hot, sweaty and slightly crumpled as we look. We walk back towards the Tre Archi bridge when suddenly there is a cry and we can see Captain Deryn running towards us! It is like being rescued from a desert island. We have followed the sat nav which has apparently taken us past the restaurant on the wrong side of the canal and is basically telling us to jump into the sea. This we will not do.

We follow Captain Deryn back to the restaurant where the rest of the team has been waiting for us, sipping wine and looking cool. Several of them are drinking something in a nuclear shade of orange. We see it all the time with people of all ages and sensibilities knocking it back like there’s no tomorrow. I am suspicious. Something that colour cannot possibly be good for you. I do not indulge. It is very good to meet up with everyone and we are all a bit anxious about the 30km paddle we are doing the next day. Anxious in many ways whether we are raring to go or just unsure of our capabilities.  The next day is a huge milestone for us both as individuals and as a team. Created in early 2012, Wave Walkers have come a long way and now we are about to embark on our biggest challenge to date.

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Venice, part I

The time has come for the Vogalonga trip. For those of you who have not picked up on this so far, Vogalonga is a route through the lagoon, round Murano and back into the Grand Canal in Venice which can only be completed by man-powered boats. Well, I should say people-powered but that sounds a bit daft. I am sure you understand. So this is why Mr Mason and I find ourselves leaving the house at 2.30 in the morning to jump in the car, collect Ms Marsden from her home and drive to Gatwick for the ridiculously early flight we have booked ourselves. It is cold, I am in flipflops and it’s not a good start to the day. I have been having some pains in my left chest/lung area – enough to make sleeping and getting a full breath possible – so I am not feeling on top form but we have been planning and training for this for so long, there is no way I am going to miss it. At Gatwick we separate as we are flying with Monarch while Ms Marsden has splashed out on British Airways, complete with a snack breakfast. On Monarch we have 2 attendants with a tea trolley, rather reminiscent of train service. We also bump into fellow paddler Ms Betab in the queue for security and find out she is on the same flight as us, sitting just across the aisle. For the first time in ages, I do not have a screaming baby sitting anywhere near me which is something of a relief.

Arriving at Marco Polo airport, we manage to work out how to get tickets from the machine for the waterbus which will take us to Venice proper. So clever are we that we can even help other people. I don’t loiter deliberately in order to look smart, but both Mr Mason and Ms Betab have to relieve their bladders so I am left looking after the bags and helping people. Once we are through security, we head for a cafe and wait for Ms Marsden who, once she arrives, tells us she didn’t even eat the complimentary breakfast. Oh, the thought of those scrambled eggs and little squashy sausages that you only get on flights going to waste. We point out there are chlldren starving in Africa etc etc but she is unrepentant. Once we get outside, we realise how hot it is. The forecast has shown us good weather for the whole weekend with temperatures around 29 degrees. This will make for hot paddling and I am immediately hot and bothered in a most unattractive way. The waterbus arrives and we all pile on and are made to cram into the fore cabin which is already pretty full. Bags are slung this way and that and we squeeze together in the hope of not being bounced off our seats by a recalcitrant wave. But it is fine and we arrive at Rialto to find the place fairly heaving with people. The hotel we are staying in is one we have stayed in before and somehow, digging into our memory, we manage to find it. As it’s early, we leave our bags there and go back out into the sunshine to find Ms Marsden’s hotel which is down a side alley and looks nothing like a hotel. She is pleased with it, though, and says the rooms are fine and the people running it are helpful so all is well.

I would like to tell you in detail what we did next but I can’t remember so you’ll have to make that bit up. At lunchtime, we find a nice restaurant and sit at tables outside. For some reason, I order a pizza and, thinking it is just the lunchtime menu, expect it to be small. It is huge when it arrives and way more than I can eat. I get a little help from Ms Marsden but in the end we have to admit defeat and even shun the offer of a takeaway container for it. Gradually, we all start to wilt with both heat and tiredness so we take ourselves off to our respective hotels for a snooze. A quiet meal at the hotel in the evening and we are ready for Saturday and whatever that brings!