A few weeks ago it was the season of looking back, and being a bit slow on the uptake, I’m just about arriving there now.
These last two years have seen quite a turn in my life. Two years ago I had a day job, a fairly ‘normal’ life, and just paddled for fun, and now I’m living half in Denmark and half in Italy, trying to start a kayaking business in gondola infested waters in a sinking city in the middle of an economic crisis.
At the start of last year I had no idea that I would be starting Venice Kayak. I had been sick quite a bit of 2007, and in the end decided to quit my job and go travelling to sort things out. I had met a lot of interesting people at a symposium in Spain, and over the summer I planned to circumnavigate the Mediterranean islands of Sardinia and Sicily during the autumn with one of them. We paddled together in Sweden and in Copenhagen to see if we got along which went fine.
I also started paddling in Venice during summer of 2007. First a week in June to scout a bit before bringing a small group down there in September in cooperation with my local kayak shop Kajakhotellet. During the preparations for all this I became friends with my now business partner in Venice, Marco. I spent most of September in Venice, exploring, after which Wendy and I went to Sardinia to start our journey there.
The journey in Sardinia was a great experience even if it didn’t work out as planned. When we were about halfway we started to get on each other’s nerves and at 2/3 of the circumnavigation we went each our ways. I was a lot of equipment short and didn’t feel prepared to affront the west coast alone, so I stopped in Fertilia near Alghero.
Often you learn more from the things that go wrong than from things that go as planned, and I learned a lot about kayaking, about travelling by kayak and about paddling with others for extended periods. I also got a lot of new friends in Sardinia, for which I am very happy, and got to enjoy the fantastic island of Sardinia.
From Sardinia I went to Palermo in Sicily to visit my in-laws and friends there, and in early December I had a very very cold trip by motorcycle to Denmark, from Palermo via Naples, Rome, Venice, Innsbruck to Jutland where Valentina worked then, and then to Copenhagen.
Back in Denmark at the start of 2008 I had to decide what to do with whatever future I might have left.
The sensible thing would probably have been to find a job of the same kind I had left, in IT and communications. The less sensible thing would be to let my mind wander and slowly focus on what had been good and fun during the previous year, which had been kayaking in Italy. The idea for Venice Kayak gradually emerged from this.
The pilot trip to Venice had been a success, the participants had had a great experience and wanted more, so Kajakhotellet followed up by putting up two weeks in Venice in September 2008. We didn’t have solutions on hand for each and every practical problem involved, finding kayaks and gear in Italy being the major hurdle, but when both weeks were sold out almost immediately, it struck me that there might be a potential for something a bit more ambitious than simply doing a few weeks in the autumn for an exclusively Danish audience.
I started researching the legal implications of setting up such a business, wrote with various parts of the public administration for tourism, transportation, sports and environment in Venice, studied rules and regulations, searched for good deals on kayaks and equipment, and talked to loads of people in Venice about setting up a base there. It was soon a full time effort and I completely forgot about finding a day job. It was my great luck that I have a wife who also believes happiness is best found by pursuing your dreams rather than doing what other people think you ought to do.
In March we both went to Italy, first to visit Valentina’s parents, then to Sardinia so she could meet some of my new friends there and so we could do a few kayaking daytrips together. Valentina went home from there, but I stayed with the double purpose of finishing the circumnavigation of the island and going to Venice to meet people there. In the end I only went to Venice, it seemed like the more urgent thing, and in the end it didn’t leave me time to return to Sardinia. I returned to Denmark again.
Later, in May, we went to Venice together for the Sensa festivities. We drove on my motorbike, and it didn’t take long, which earned me some just criticism. I had already bought the first kayaks, which were delivered to Marco in Venice, and needed to finalise some agreements and deals, especially with the Camping San NicolÃ², which has become our operations base in Venice. After a week Valentina had to return to Denmark again, while I stayed in Venice, did the 34th Vogalonga , my first, and attended the Bibione Kayak symposium north of Venice. For me it was a great opportunity to meet a lot of Italian paddlers, build up my Italian network and publicise my initiative a bit.
After Bibione I drove to Sardinia and finished what I had left unfinished there. It was quite a hassle and not without a lot of expenses and frustrating waits, but I got all my gear back to Fertilia where I had stopped the year before, and after a few days of intense rain I could depart for my first solo kayaking journey ever. The western coast of Sardinia is rougher and more deserted than the eastern coast, and there were some difficult times where I had the limits of my abilities tested, but I did it, and I’m very content with that.
There’s a lot of people around doing spectacular things in kayaks, just think of Freya embarking on a one year expedition around Australia, but I’m not Freya or anybody else. My endeavours and adventures have to be measured to my abilities and limits, to test and extend them, and paddling alone down the western coast of Sardinia was for me an adventure I don’t think I will ever forget. Those eleven days paddling packed a lot for firsts for me, and I grew and learned in the process, and that’s of the greatest things there is.
The rest of June was a flurry of travelling. I drove to Venice, flew to Denmark, drove to Gothenburg in Sweden for a presentation on Venice Kayak, went to Stockholm twice for meetings, and back to Venice by car with Valentina, stopping in Germany for more meetings.
In Venice Valentina and I had some time together. It was her summer holiday, but I still had work to do, so it was a bit of a balancing act. We went on some very nice paddled together, and did a short trip by car to Elba to pick up some kayaks there. The first groups would arrive in August and September, so everything had to be ready, so there was a lot of shopping, testing and practical matters to sort out.
We went back to Denmark again, but after only a week there I returned to Venice again, this time for our first one week group. It was great fun, we had some incredible paddles in the city and outside, our guests enjoyed it immensely, and a few rebooked their return flight so the could squeeze in a few extra paddling trips. Most important of all, all the little practical matters I had fretted over throughout the summer worked almost perfectly.
In late August/early September there’s the annual film festival on the Lido, and if you’re not a part of that, you don’t want to be there. The whole island is boiling and frothing with film stars, wannabees, journalists and whatnot, and besides, I had a kayak coach exam to do in Denmark, so I returned once again north.
My exam went well, I passed both the theoretical and the practical parts without any problems. There’s a lot of political confusion around paddling and coaching awards in Denmark at this time, due to the move from a national system to the European EPP system, so I still haven’t any documentation for the exam, and initially it’ll be equivalent to something like a EPP2/BCU 2* coach, but by passing an EPP4 test I can make it a EPP3 coaching award. I still haven’t quite understood the rationale, but there’s nothing I can do about it, except find a time and a place for a two day EEP4 test.
Back in Venice I had another two one-week groups, and again things went really, really fine. All the time spent planning and organising had been well spent, and everything worked quite satisfactory for me, and from what I have heard, also for our guests. Maybe I didn’t get that message quite through: I’m pretty damn proud of what I managed to put together in Venice 🙂
When the last group went home, I still had a handful of daytrips with people who were in Venice anyway, and seeing us prowl the canals wanted to try it too.
The camp site on the Lido closes at the end of September, so I had to clean up, get everything ready for winter storage and dot the i’s and cross the t’s before I could head back home. I also managed to find time for some lessons in Voga alla Veneta, Venetian rowing, which was great fun. I’m really looking forward to continuing that.
It was mid October before I was back in Denmark, trying to settle in for the winter.
I still had (and have) loads to do. There’s the accounts at the end of year, a million things left over from a busy and disorganised year, and I need to promote Venice Kayak the best I can so people will come this year and next, in spite of the economic downturn.
When I started this adventure less than one year ago there was no talk of a looming economic crisis, rather things were going too well, and suddenly we’re all in trouble up to the ears. Naturally it worries me, because it will be harder to get people to come to Venice, but I have at least the consolation that the monetary input into this business is limited, and even if it should fail it won’t mean a bankruptcy or anything like it.
Nevertheless, I’m immensely happy with what I have started and achieved so far, and I’m very eager to get on with it again.