“Let’s start by saying that I am a huge Boston Whaler fan. I love these boats and their hulls. In Venice, I use mine every day, whether it’s winter, summer, sunny or rainy. Boston Whaler has the best balance in terms of style, length, room and stability; you can’t find better.”
So begins boater Francesco Pannoli, re-counting his epic voyage from Venice, Italy, all the way to Milan—more than 160 miles up the River Po—in a beautifully maintained 1973 13-foot Sport.
“I felt I had to do something memorable with my boat, since it was so cool and vintage,” Francesco explains. “And I knew this model was well-suited for an adventure because it’s comfortable and strong, with a minimal draft, so I could be sure it would handle shallow water. The moment I learned it was possible to boat from Venice to Milan, I knew that was the perfect adventure.”
Such a trip hadn’t always been possible, though. As recently as 2009, Italian officials completed a stretch of inland canals connecting Milan’s Lake Maggiore to the River Po. The canals, originally built in the 12th century by Benedictine and Cistercian monks, had been largely abandoned in the 1930s and ’40s in favor of railroad travel. Now, after decades of neglect, the restored system makes it possible to wind past Pavia, Piacenza, Cremona and Ferrara before reaching Venice.
And to Francesco, the route — traced backwards, starting from his home near Venice — proved irresistible.
So in June 2015, he composed an email that made its way to Boston Whaler’s headquarters in Edgewater, Florida. Interest duly piqued, the Florida team forwarded his email to Alessandro Lorenzon, the regional sales, marketing and customer service manager for Southern Europe. “Alessandro contacted me few days later to set up a meeting and figure out what my plan was,” Francesco recalls. “He was very open to my suggestions; I could sense that my plan was sounding good to him.”
“I immediately liked Francesco’s idea, his drive and commitment, and his spotless vintage Sport,” Alessandro explains. “I saw there the perfect combination of elements and a great chance to help a fellow Whaler owner and lover to make a dream come true.”
With Boston Whaler’s endorsement, Francesco set about finalizing all the details. He quickly gained the backing of Luca Martignon, managing director for Campello Marine, the official Boston Whaler dealer for Venice and the Veneto region. “Luca gave me his total support, giving me a brand-new Mercury® 20-hp engine and organizing my departure from Piazza San Marco.”
Campello Marine also helped arrange for a support staff and photographers to document the journey. Ever the enterprising spirit, Francesco lined up several sponsors, then made jackets, caps and stickers with their logos that he would proudly wear and display during his voyage. He also recruited a good friend, Piero Feiffer, to follow along by car, carrying extra gas and spare parts and staying in contact via radio, just in case something went wrong. (Fortunately — spoiler alert — nothing did.)
October 20, 2015, marked his departure from Venice. “That was an amazing day,” he recalls, describing the route. “When you first leave Venice, you’re in a lagoon…” Anyone who’s ever plotted a romantic Venetian getaway is familiar with the dramatic columns and ornate facades lining the brilliant blue waterway.
“After about two hours by boat, you get into the Po River, which is huge,” Francesco raves. “I really enjoyed the wild nature of it, the incredible environment.”
Some obstacles did arise, however. He and his Whaler were traveling against the current, dodging poles, floating pieces of wood, plants and debris. “I had to be really careful,” Francesco says. “A few times I also hit drying-up areas, where there were maybe 10 centimeters of water. I had to get off the boat straight on the mud and push it.”
But the high points more than made up for any difficulties. For one thing, Francesco says he was delighted by his encounters with locals along the way: “The people I met were just amazing — very open to help and support me.”
“I remember the second day I had a problem because a floodgate was closed and I couldn’t pass,” he recounts. “I headed back a few miles and reached the closest dock. I got off the boat and it seemed no one was there. I found a garage with the shutter almost closed. I popped in and there were locals having a big lunch, right in the garage! They asked me to join them and told me not to worry about the boat. After this beautiful lunch with all this amazing local food, one man put my boat in a trolley and drove me 3 miles away, bypassing the floodgate. They didn’t ask for money; they were happy to help, happy to host and happy to see me go on and achieve my goal.”
The moments between human interactions were invaluable as well, and in fact were part of his motivation for the undertaking. “I wanted to spend a few days in strict contact with me, myself and nature. I really enjoyed the fact that I was completely alone on the boat,” Francesco says. “I could appreciate the silence of nature every time I stopped for a short break. I will never forget the sensation.”
Another high point came as he approached his final destination: “When I got to the center of Milan, there I was in Naviglio River, driving alongside a tram. All the passengers were looking at me very surprised, because nobody goes by boat there. Nobody!”
From start to finish, Francesco considers the adventure a success, and an inspiration for future Whaler trips. “My journey didn’t start the day I left, but rather the day I had the idea,” he says. “Every moment spent in this period was a favorite moment, big time. I enjoyed planning my route, deciding where to stop, fixing up my boat to make it look perfect and really authentic. The preparation was all rewarding.”
These days, Francesco is busy studying for his MBA in France, but he says that eventually he’d like to take his Sport down the Danube River all the way to the Black Sea. That would entail crossing through ten different countries — Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Moldova, Ukraine and Romania — and covering some 1,700 miles.
“I know it’s a huge challenge, much more ambitious than the trip to Milan,” he says with a smile. “But I think it’s fully achievable. I would do it with my Whaler: my perfect traveling companion.”