In Venetian lagoon, Venetian traditions

Vela Al Terzo could be translated with “sail at a third”… at a third of what? Well, let me try to tell you more about this living heritage!

If you come to Venice, you may notice some traditional wooden boats with colorful sails, silently moving around the lagoon. You will then find the same colorful sails in other cities facing the coast of the Adriatic Sea, not just in the Venetian lagoon. Cervia, Cattolica, Cesenatico south of Venice, but also Rovinj in Croatia: all towns sharing the special tradition of the “vela al terzo” and keeping it alive.

Gustav Bauernfeind (1848-1904), Canal Scene in Chioggia with Bragozzo, Bauernfeind-Museum, Sulz am Neckar, Germany

Vela Al Terzo: what are the main characteristics of this unique sail?

Vela Al Terzo refers to the fact that the sail is pulled all the way up the mast and its spar, the long wooden post on the upper part of the sail, remains for two thirds below the mast and one third above. 

The colors of the Vela Al Terzo and its maritime “heraldry”

However, if this explains the technical term, the first characteristic that will simply leave you in full wonder is the kaleidoscopic of the sails’ colors. Each sail is differently painted. Traditional colors in the northern Adriatic Sea area are yellow ochre, brown, black and red. While moving towards the southern part of the Adriatic Sea colors of the sails change and blue, green and white appear more frequently, even in sails differently designed.

Regata del Presidente, Sept. 13th, 2020

While the background often displays some geometrical patterns, the “vela al terzo” sails are often characterized by some decorative elements which have brought scholars to adopt the terminology of a “maritime heraldry”, even if there is no nobility involved. So you may find a shoe, a glass of wine, seahorses, octopus, crosses, stars, as well as ladders, eels, lions, the sun and much more.

A boom, a spar and a special form

The “vela at terzo” is also characterized by the presence of a boom, a prominent horizontal spar extending from the base of the mast; the base of the sail therefore attaches to the boom.

Indeed, the sail itself has a shape of a truncated triangle, whose origins are still debated.

The historical development of the Vela Al Terzo

There is no written history of sails, but some researchers have tried to define the evolution of the “vela al terzo”’s unique tradition of the Adriatic Sea. Also known as the trabacolo’s sail (see my post on this special boat here:, the vela al terzo is the result of the encountering of two ancient traditions.

The Square sail of the Po Valley

Along the Po Valley, rivers and lakes used to be essential for the communications and the trading of goods. Nowadays rivers are not so much considered — because of the extensive use of the railway network or trucks —, but rivers and lakes once connected Venice and its lagoon all the way to Milan or Turin. Along these waterways you would find boats using the “square sail”. Tall and quite narrow, the square sail was designed to try to catch the wind as high as possible. The wind would strike the sail on its aft side, from the stern. 

The Latin Sail of the Mediterranean tradition

In the early middle ages, in the Mediterranean Sea, sailboats would use a different sail, called the “Latin sail”. Similar to the vela al terzo, but with a major difference. No boom below.

On one side you had a sail struck by the wind from the back only, on the other side you had another sail whose limit was the impossibility to move the Center of effort (COE) towards the stern of the boat. In other words the point at which all the forces acting on the sails are concentrated in the latin sail could not be moved backwards. 

Vela Al Terzo, regatta in the southern lagoon, May 26th, 2019

The Venetian lagoon as a niche

But what about if you are in a lagoon, a borderline geographical niche, where you need the COE to be drawn backwards so as to control the angle of the sail to the wind? Somewhere where you need the sailboat to have more power while sailing towards the wind? 

Regata del Presidente, Sept. 13th, 2020

In the middle of the 17th century this special sail, the vela al terzo, appeared and as long as motorboats would not show up, it could be admired all over the Adriatic Sea.

A major reason for the development of this sail is of course the environment of the lagoon which influenced the construction of traditional boats, too. Shallow waters and tides explain why lagoon boats have a flat bottom, no keel (and are easy to be driven leeway), use huge see-saw rudders, which can be pulled up when the water is too shallow… 

Fishermen in the Venetian lagoon

Fishermen loved this sail because after placing the fishing nets in the shallow water in the lagoon, they would use the leeway movement to drag them. But not just. Emblems were chosen to identify the family. From afar, they would become visible when getting back home. These sails would also work to give signals, asking for help when needed. A social recognition sign, often with a magical, protective power to hopefully keep dangers away.

Vela Al Terzo, regatta in the southern lagoon, May 26th, 2019

Not to mention it was a work of art. It all started with the women sewing the sail. They lay the sail on a meadow and started dying it using a sponge imbued with natural earth colors, which would also work as anti-mold. After dying the sail, you dragged it in the salt water so the salt fixed the colors.

A humble boat with a humble sail, but worth a scientific research

Count Alessandro Pericle Ninni, a naturalist scientist, and Angelo Marella, a man with the passion of making wonderful miniature boat models, started in 1880 a research on these sails “vela al terzo” in Venice and Chioggia. They catalogued and watercolored over 1000 of them. They went on for ten years and this amazing collection (together with the boat models) was first part of the Correr Museum in Venice to be eventually donated to the Museum of Natural Science in Venice at its foundation in 1923.

From the research led by Count Alessandro Pericle Ninni and Angelo Marella, Museum of Natural History, Venice

The Vela Al Terzo nowadays

After the foundation of the first sailing clubs in the early 1980s, and in particular of the Associazione Vela al Terzo, the creation of a school to teach young generations (and not just) how to sail, the Championship arranged every year in the lagoon, both south and north, over 360 sails numbers… the yearly arranged Sailing from Venice to Rovinj along the coast and finally the major project The Red Regatta by Melissa McGill, well, this tradition is alive and kicking. 

Melissa McGill, Red Regatta, Venice 2019

Melissa McGill, Red Regatta, Venice 2019

Why does this tradition deserve to be popular?

The thing is that it is not just a sail. Sustainability is more and more considered a priority and wooden sailboats are the future. Sailboats with vela al terzo are respectful towards the lagoon. In a lagoon, it is easier to protect traditions, especially because of its borderline nature. These sailboats are comfortable, you can eat, sleep inside them but especially they also educate you. Oh yes, they teach you the right speed with which you really discover the uniqueness of the lagoon.

Regata del Presidente, Sept. 13th, 2020

Significantly, last weekend a polluting cruise ship docked in Chioggia, the town south of the lagoon. Chioggia used to be the queen of the Adriatic Sea with its bragozzi sailboats and colorful vela al terzo sails, but its tradition is now almost lost. Just next door the cruise ship, for the first time, a regatta of sailboats within the Marciliana Palio Festival with the vela al terzo took place: because there are alternatives.

by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy

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Showing 2 comments
  • Jennie Bailey

    Absolutely fascinating- thank you

    • Luisella Romeo, blogseevenice

      Thank you for reading and thank you for leaving a comment! Happy you’ve liked this article about a less known tradition which Venice shares with the northern Adriatic Sea! I love sailing in the lagoon with these boats and colorful sails, I hope one feels the passion 🙂