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I never received a reply from Brussa to my email queries about reserving a boat, so I simply turned

up one morning at the hole-in-the-wall office, located on a canal in Cannaregio by the Jewish Ghetto, and asked about doing the “test.” “Perché no?” the staff members shrugged. Why not? Docked in the canal were a dozen topette. The distinctive boat is basically a bare metal hull with 15-horsepower outboard attached. At 23 feet, it was longer than the tin-hulled dinghies I had used elsewhere. But the test, conducted with a crusty instructor, seemed simple enough: All I had to do was take the boat out onto the canal, turn it around in a tight intersection and bring it back to dock.Seconds later, all hell broke loose. No sooner had I eased into the canal than I was blasted by a deafening horn. A vaporetto, a public ferry, was bearing down on me from the left. An enormous garbage barge blocked my way on the right. Two water taxis sped up behind, their drivers glaring furiously. The whole time, the instructor was waving his hands as if he were about to grab the tiller. “Avanti!” he barked. (Forward!) “Indietro!” (Reverse!) “Fermo!” (Neutral!) I had a sudden memory of a gondola accident in 2013, when a German law professor was crushed to death by a reversing vaporetto on the Grand Canal. That episode provoked the city to introduce a series of traffic measures to ease congestion and improve safety, not that one could tell the difference on the canal.
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