The canal that rings the old city center in Utrecht is relatively wide, as is most of the Oudegracht. These are the canals you see the most of if you take one of the boat tours around the city. Those tour boats are relatively long and wide, so they have to be able to move freely without the risk of getting stuck in a turn or taking out a wharf.
With that in mind, you’d think that a bunch of row boats wouldn’t have any trouble making their way through these same canals. After all, row boats aren’t that big. Yet there were a few close calls on Saturday during the Grachtenrace ronDom. You see, while the boats themselves aren’t particularly large, the oars certainly are! They’ve got a pretty impressive wingspan. It wasn’t too much of a problem in the wider canal areas, especially as they had staggered start times. There was no risk of oars clashing as occurred in the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race the other week.
However, even the wider canals have narrow bridge passes. The bridge in my first photo wasn’t a problem, as it is a single, wide arch. However, many of the bridges in Utrecht are actually made up of two or three arches, significantly narrowing the space through which a boat can pass. As the boats quickly approached each bridge, they had to line up properly and quickly pull the oars in tight against the body of the boat as they passed underneath, while still trying to get as much speed as possible out of the last few oar strokes before going under.In this next photo, I was standing on the bridge, directly over the arch they were passing through. You can see some of the oars being pulled in, but a couple were also making a last stroke to keep up the momentum. (I love all the swirling water in this photo.)When they got to the Oudegracht, some of the bridge arches were a bit bigger. In that case, they would often just pull in the oars on one side, depending on which side was closest to the wall or wharf.Still, as you can see here, if they didn’t pull in the oars on at least one side, they’d be likely to hit something, even if they went through the center of the arch.
To give you a bit more perspective, particularly once the race reached the Oudegracht, here’s a photo of one of the tour boats I mentioned earlier (going under the bridge), along with a row boat fast approaching.Just because there was a race going on didn’t mean that all boat traffic on the canals stopped. Quite the opposite! Along with the tour boats and the other leisure boats as you see docked there on the right, there were also people in canoes, city maintenance boats, and even people out on peddle boats. Things got particularly interesting when the peddle boats and row boats came up against each other on one of the narrowest parts of the Oudegracht. As I saw the people in the peddle boat in this next picture casually enjoying the scenery, I found myself feeling like someone on the beach in the movie “Jaws” ready to start yelling, “Behind you! Move faster! It’s going to get you!”In fact, it ended up being a close call and there might have been a little bit of contact between the oars and the peddle boat before it was all over.
It wasn’t just the many boats and bridges that the racers had to contend with, either. We decided to watch the race as it went through the Oudegracht from the Donkere Gard section, which is where the canal gets quite narrow. There is some construction/renovation being done to one of the buildings, with scaffolding set up on the canal side. As the boats went through and the oars came up, it was clear just how little space was left. At one point, it even looked like the oars on one of the boats was going to hit the scaffolding!Fortunately, at least during the parts of the race I saw, everyone seemed to manage ok, avoiding all the obstacles and manoeuvring quickly through the canals. Congrats to all who took part and thanks for providing some fun Saturday entertainment amid Utrecht’s beautiful canal scenery!