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.
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.
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. Even 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.
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.