The Po and its craft

Written by  Mario Morsiani
At Occhiobello, the river's last traditional boatbuilder.
Once upon a time the Po was the most important communications link between the Adriatic and the north west of the country. Since ancient times, people and every kind of goods travelled up the river to the heart of Lombardy. With the passing of time the river traffic became heavier, travelling to the Ticino, Mincio, Adda and the network of canals built between the Middle Ages and modern times. The river carried ever more and larger vessels in both directions, captained by expert boatmen.

Travelling downstream was often difficult. Steering with both rudder and oars, it was sometimes necessary to lower chains to the bottom from the stern to slow the boat when the current was too strong. On other occasions, to correct the course, a small anchor was thrown repeatedly from the right or left of the hull to adjust the direction of the bows so as not to run aground.

Travelling up-river against the current presented other problems. The boats were hauled by horses, donkeys, oxen or even men using a towpath along the river bank. Holding the boat on course with the rudder, the boatmen used the oars when the train ran into difficulties. They also used a long oar tipped with iron which was planted on the bottom, resting the end against the shoulder and pushing hard from the bows along the entire length of the boat to the stern.
With a wind from the east, which blew steadily at certain times of day, the sails - generally lugsails - were hoisted. Two-masted boats often added a jib.
There were boats of many types: they differed in the shape of bows and stern, freeboard, size, tonnage and loading capacity. It is not easy to reconstruct them, since there is little documentary evidence. All the river boats had similar features: the high, strongly raked bows rose gracefully even when the boat was heavily laden. The flat bottom made it possible to navigate even in the often deceptive shallows.

The boats were built in yards along the banks of the river. The best-known is probably Mastro Subba's yard at Occhiobello. Other important boatbuilders included the brothers Dante and Otello Chezzi of Boretto (Reggio Emilia), who also built large ships from the early nineteenth century, Arturo Gino Gazzoli at Mirasole in San Benedetto Po, Nadalìn Bignardi at Occhiobello and Orione Ranzani, known as "Bagarìn", at Santa Maria Maddalena. An old fisherman in Gaiba told me that everyone made their own boats. Above all the hunting boats with punt guns fixed to the bows for duck and wild geese.

Today, among the many pleasure craft which ply the river, you can still see some traditionally-styled wooden boats. These may be "male" or "female" depending on the form and lines of the bow and stern, high and curving upwards in the "male" and lower and leaner in the "female".
Both models are long and narrow, around seven metres long and one metre ten centres wide, slightly narrower at the stern to help them move against the current. These were the last boasts built by joiners and carpenters in the past. The boatyards have almost disappeared. Only one survives at Occhiobello.

Lucio Pavasini is still building wooden boats using traditional methods today. Even the terminology is the same, with definitions in the dialect of Ferrara, with just the odd hint of the Polesine dialect here and there.
To row the boat, the lone oarsman stands and holds the long oars crossed at his chest; when there are two oarsmen, each takes only a single oar, one aft to starboard, the other forward to port, using the third rowlock.
They use a sheet to control the sail and a single oar to steer, which is enough to keep the boat on course, the more so since, heeling over to one side in the wind, the angle between the side and bottom of the boat forms a sort of keel which prevents leeward drift.

Even traditional boats cannot escape the fact that this is a motorised age. Almost all the craft now have outboard motors. The length and narrow lines of these boats means that they can move swiftly even with low-powered engines. Purists may object, preferring oars and sails, but today the outboard motor is accepted by almost everyone.