At the passing of the boats… (A pasa i canòt)
It is late July, a typical winter day on the highveld. The sky is of the deepest blue possible, the aloe blooming in burning orange and red colors, and the sun is shining brightly through the crispy, freezing air. Like all good Jo’burgers, we’re cold in our house – they just don’t build ‘em like they do in the northern hemisphere. We drive the 400 or so miles down to the Indian Ocean, to spend a few days with our Italian friends, Pepe and his German wife Christina. Their friends Tony, Tonino and Antonio join us for dinner, together with lots of red wine from the Cape of Good Hope.
I haven’t seen the Triple Tonies for a while, and they have a lot of questions for me. Since I left the railway cruises behind, I switched from heavy metal to light metal, I explain. Airboat Afrika operates everywhere on the continent, from the Nile to the Zambezi. I try to remember the Italian for airboat… Idroscivolante, there we go, a proper tongue twister.
Antonio cannot believe it, and over the 3rd bowl of delicious pasta – waiting for Pepe’s famous rabbit to get ready – he tells me a story of when he was a young boy in the North of Italy.
Throughout the late 1930’s, a powerboat race called “The Pavia-Venice Raid” took place every year on the first Sunday of June. The competition was open to all categories of inboard or outboard driven boats. Starting from Pavia, they traveled twenty miles on the Ticino River, then entering the River Po, and further up past the Margherita Gardens in Piacenza, to the lagoon of Venice, for a total of 280 miles.
For us children of the countryside bordering the River Po, this was a most extraordinary event: imagine a Formula One race happening right outside your windows! All of us ran along the riverbank at once, to watch “The Boats’ Passage”, as we said in dialect.
The passage on our stretch of river took place around noon. At that time, our family gathered for lunch and, according to local traditions, no one was allowed to leave the table until everyone had finished eating. My brother and I barely controlled our excitement; the river was only a hundred yards from our house. We were wound up like springs, ready to dart off, a last nod to the grown-ups, and then to ran away at speeds competing with that of the “Canòt”.
As the boats approached our stretch of the Po, you could feel the unmistakable sound of powerful engines swell considerably. Nobody could resist, even paternal authority became weak, and so we rushed onto the riverbank, still munching on the last morsels of food. Finally, on the grass, people already crowded in equipped with umbrellas, glasses and tables cluttered with all kinds of snacks and refreshments.
First came the small displacement in- and outboarders, just skimming the water’s surface, with stentorian rumblings, leaving a pungent smell of castor oil in the air, considered the best lubricant available back then.
One boat arrived at low speed due to a damaged hull, others had already dropped out, after they had veered into the shallow waters and become stuck on the sandbanks. The Raid Pavia-Venice was a very tough race!
We believed it was the longest and most grueling competition in the world. It’s true that in those days, there was a tendency to exaggerate the glories of Italy in the most authoritarian rhetoric, but that race on the river being one of the longest in the world was not far from the truth. The spectators crowded on the bank enjoyed the passage of those early racers, not without a little morbid curiosity to see the competitors who had already dropped out. But expectations were more focused on the maximum displacement category, among which was the famous airboat.
These were special catamarans, whose power was provided by large propellers spinning in the air, protected by an unusual frame. The vessel had only very little draft in the water, and normally they glided along effortlessly. These marvelous boats were used by Americans to navigate the waters of their vast swamps, inaccessible to other types of boat.
The airboats participating in the Pavia-Venice were powered by Alfa Romeo and Isotta Fraschini engines. We boys sided with one or the other brand with the conviction of true believers. In reality, we had respect for all those magnificent racers, our admiration for them was boundless. Most of us, however, cheered for Alfa Romeo, Isotta Fraschini was a much lesser known brand.
We did not know or could not imagine in those years that a famous Isotta Fraschini car, complete with a driver in his most impressive uniform, was immortalized in the 1950s Hollywood film “Sunset Boulevard”. Gloria Swanson played the part of an aging film star, desperately in pursuit of an unlikely return to her past glories. In search of acceptance and help, she turns to the great film director Cecil B. de Mille, driving up to see him in the MGM studios with her own luxurious Isotta Fraschini (a 1929 Tipo 8A Castagna Transformable). These deluxe limousines, marketed to the new American aristocracy, had risen as a fetish symbol of the Roaring Twenties. There’s a bit of Italian Flair in the heritage of the United States!
But it was not just rooting for the engine-makers that warmed our hearts. The pilots were real celebrities we supported faithfully. The older guys with lots of knowledge knew the names of all the boat crews, in all classes. For us children there were only the big players, like those who rode the big airboats. The most famous of all was Count Theo Rossi Montelera, scion of the famous vermouth Casa Martini & Rossi, still known around the world today. (Shaken, not stirred…)
I can see still my buddies and myself on the riverbank, shouting on top of our lungs, full of enthusiasm and admiration, when, like in a movie, that day emerges in a long fade-in from the mists of my past.
We’re all old now, indeed, very old, and the world progresses without us. We felt so modern then, so up to date, and now it is the time we leave behind.
But that enthusiasm, it seems to me, that spontaneity is absent in today’s young people, and I am fortunate I spent my youth in years so bright. Or perhaps I am mistaken, and this is only the rumbling of an old man who does not want to give in to time’s everlasting flow.
Weight: 1.5 t | 3300 lbs
Length: 7.95 m | 26 ft
Width: 2.80 m | 9′ 2¼”
Skate Width: 0.80 m | 31½”
Speed: 130 km/h | 80 mph
Engine: 9 cyl Alfa Romeo
Live at the Pavia-Venice Raid
Route of the Pavia-Venice Raid
Raid Pavia – Venezia in a larger map