Walking along the Arno, you’re almost as likely to hear the rhythmic beatings of a dragon boat drummer as a motorino’s horn. The sport of dragon boat racing, introduced to the west less than two decades ago, is thriving at Società Canottieri Comunali Firenze, as are the Olympic sports of kayak, canoe, rowing and canoe polo. Founded in 1934 on city property across the Ponte Verrazzano by city employee Antonio Vegni, the club was conceived as a way for municipal workers to enjoy the river. What began with only a few members has grown into an efficiently organized river sports complex with over 100 boats an 600 members, ages 9 to 70. Sometimes confused with the private club Canottieri Firenze, located just off the Ponte Vecchio, the Canottieri Comunali is a city organization, which was opened to all Florentines in the 1970s.
The club’s goal, according to Sandro Stoppiano, sports director from 2000-04, is to provide a healthy environment and a place where young people can be introduced to river sports. ‘The club is strong within the fabric of Florence’, Stoppiano says. ‘Competition is good, and we are proud of our many championships, but we are also proud that this is a healthy setting, where you can come and make good friends’. Roberto Marcianò, a member since 1981 agrees, ‘We have a good mix of people here. From Olympic athletes to people just out for a paddle, everyone comes to enjoy the river and each other’.
Although technically falling within the city’s jurisdiction, the Canottieri Comunali is self-sufficient, surviving on yearly membership fees of 370 Euro, which include use of the riverside palestra and boats, as well as courses. Currently, the yearly operating budget of approximately 200,000 Euro barely covers expenses. At present, the club has no outside funding or sponsorships, although Stoppiano says the board would gladly discuss either option with interested parties. To date, the club has not attracted outside financial support because, Stoppiano explains, ‘Rowing is not as visible as other sports in Florence’.
The club is actively seeking to change that perception. On Sunday, December 3, 2006, its members voted to fund a public-relations professional to promote the Canottieri Comuali’s visibility within the Florentine community. Stoppiano and Marciano are both quick to point out that while a larger budget would be welcome, money would mean nothing to the club without the continued, passionate dedication of its members. Despite its limited budget, however, the quasi-private club is currently ranked fourth among the 250 clubs in the country, coming in behind only the large public navy, police and Forestale kayaking teams, a rare feat.
The Canottieri Comunali name has long been synonymous with championship. Since 1965, club members have brought home over 180 trophies that adorn the office below Lungarno Francesco Ferrucci. These awards include Italian and world championships in all disciplines. Municipal and national team member Stefani Cicali, 19, hopes to add an Olympic championship to the cache. Cicali is slated to represent Italy in Beijing in 2008 in kayak. Further testament to the club’s winning tradition, the canoe polo team reached the first division after only four years, and this year is ranked second in Italy.
Although dragon boating is one of the newest sports to arrive in Florence, the Canottieri Comunali has already been recognized as an Italian and world force, winning the over-40 Men’s Masters Division World Championship in 2002, and Italian Championships in the Men’s and Mixed Masters Divisions in 2006. The popularity of the sport has attracted more women and girls to the club—now about 70. Stoppiano is quick to point out that the women’s dragon boat team needs members, and he invites those interested to attend a 6:15 pm Thursday night practice.
A dragon boat typically holds 22 team members. Ten sets of teammates use paddles similar to those used in canoeing. With uniform strokes, keeping time to the cadence of a drum beaten onboard by a teammate, the competitors rely mainly on upper-body strength. The last member of the team stands at the back of the boat, steering with a long pole.
Though an ancient tradition in China, the International Dragon Boat Federation was founded in 1991. It now hosts world and club world championships every other year. The 2007 Club World Championship will be held in St. Petersburg Russia in July, where the Canottieri Comunali’s masters men’s and mixed teams will compete. Previous sites have included Shanghai, Poland, Berlin, and South Africa. The 2008 World Championship will be held in Sydney. And it’s clear the club will be ready.
They are a proud and stalwart bunch at the Canottieri Comunali—and rightfully so. Like its dragon boats, the Comunali team marches to the beat of its own drummer, powered by the strength of its members.
Canottieri Comunali Firenze
Lungarno Ferrucci, 2
Open year round, 8am–9pm. Winter hours are 8am–8:30pm, daily.