ROWING A GONDOLA sounds very simple.
You stand facing the front of the boat, one foot parallel to the oarlock that juts from its hull and the other set back a bit for stability. Then you push the shaft of the oar forward, moving the narrow blade back through the water. When your arm is as outstretched as it can get, rotate the shaft, lift the oar out of the water and swing it forward for another stroke.
But as I learned during my first lesson, it is far easier said than done.
I wasn’t technically in a gondola but a four-person sandolo, a similarly flat-bottomed boat that is thicker in the middle and therefore more stable. My instructor, Paolo Marchetti, and I were in Venice’s lagoon, which seemed to extend around us for miles. Through the mist, I could just make out the domes of the Basilica di San Marco. On the other side, perhaps a half mile away, were the pale walls of the cemetery on Isola San Michele. Occasionally, a boat chugged past us.
All was romance and tranquillity—except for me. Every time a wave struck the boat, I crouched down for fear of tipping into the lagoon. The current tugged relentlessly at my oar, causing me to hug it so it wouldn’t be yanked from my grasp.
“You row the oar!” Mr. Marchetti yelled from the other side of the boat.
“What?” I shouted. It had begun to rain, fogging my glasses so I could hardly see.
“You row the oar,” he repeated, with an existential ring. “The oar doesn’t row you.”
The 70-year-old Venice native crossed the boat and adjusted my grip so my hand rested on top of the shaft instead of strangling it lower down. The new position would enable me to roll my oar out of the water without fighting the current, he explained: “Like throttling a Vespa.”
Perhaps nothing symbolizes Venice more than the slender black boats that ply its waterways and the gondoliers who propel them. While a gondola ride does involve being floated through narrow canals, past ancient palazzos and under historic bridges, it is also a thoroughly clichéd activity that inevitably includes a gondolier gabbing on his cellphone and periodic traffic jams with other tourist-laden boats.