Italy "Beppina, keep going" was the last thing Giuseppina Carrara heard as her flat, pink two-woman gondola glided under the famed Rialto Bridge in the final lap of the women's competition in the historic Venice regatta.

Shortly afterward she fainted, leaving her partner, Margherita Citon, 49, to single-handedly complete the race and give the pair a second-place finish. The crowd roared its approval. For a Venetian, winning a "Storica" -- as the gondola races held the first Sunday of every September are called -- is tantamount to an Olympic gold medal.

While Italians terra firma spend hours discussing the latest model Fiat or Alfa Romeo, the hot topic of conversation for Venetians is the shape of a balotina or a mascarete, two types of gondolas.

"For us, boats are practically living creatures", said a grizzled Venetian perched atop one of the bridge's stone balustrades to watch oarsmen dressed in medieval costumes row their gaily painted gondolas up the crowd-lined Grand Canal.

The regata , which dates back to 1274, is the major local festival for Venetians, including those who live at Mestre on the mainland across from the island city and who voted by only a small margin last June to maintain the two centers' single municipal government.

Most Venetians are spectators, possibly because preparation for participation in the race is arduous, involving four hours of rowing daily starting the preceding February and hearty, high-protein eating to counteract what otherwise would amount to a daily five-pound weight loss.

Wine is out, as it dulls the reflexes. Rumor has it that in the last few weeks before the race some oarsmen send their wives or sweethearts out of town to avoid sapping their strength with sex.

THE IMPORTANCE of boats is unquestionable in a city like Venice, where the "streets" are almost 500 miles of canals.

Except for Piazzale Roma and a few other isolated areas, motorized wheeled vehicles simply do not exist here. The functions of all local traffic -- taxis, streetcars, fire engines, delivery trucks and ambulances -- are performed by boats of various shapes and sizes.

Since the Grand Canal twists and winds its way across the city, walking through the narrow calle and over the footbridges that span the city's minor canals is often the quickest way to get from one part of Venice to another.

Nevertheless, the vaporetti that chug up and down the Grand Canal are always jammed, in this season mostly by tourists. This type of overcrowding, as well as a growing city cleanup problem, has helped set off a debate about what kind of tourist trade is best.

Some of the city's leading businessmen, such as Arrigo Cipriani of Harry's Bar, feel too many of Venice's tourists are "commuters" who come for the day and cost the city more than it earns from their brief presence.

Although most hotels on Venice and the Lido are currently fully booked, Cipriani and some other restaurant and hotel owners believe that overcrowding and littering by "commuter" tourists is making the city less attractive to visitors who would come for several days. But the remedies they propose are vague.

Since the canals and the boats that use them are Venice's main attraction, it is no surprise that the city's major concern is with water. Indeed, the origins of the magistrato della acque , the city's top authority for water problems, can be traced back to early medieval times when the Venetian doges were advised on such matters by the "sages of the water."

EVER SINCE this fairy-tale city was founded 1,500 years ago on an estuary with 120 small islands, the big question in Venice has been the relationship of land to water.

In the present century the city's precarious situation worsened because of the dredging of deep navigation canals for tankers, the pumping of underground artesian wells and the extensive reclamation of the swampy lands on one side of the lagoons.

Not surprisingly, then, modern wise men have been cracking their brains for a way to curb the high waters that every winter repeatedly flood the city. In 1978, for example, San Mareo Square was flooded 240 times, a tenfold increase over the flood rate of 1919.

One piece of good news, recently reconfirmed by a new scientific study, is that thanks to a decision several years ago to cap the wells, Venice has stopped sinking.

But this does not solve the problem of the high tides, and a debate currently is raging over what measures should be adopted. Late last fall a government commission wound up months of study by rejecting all five entries in an international competition for regulating above-normal tides in the 20-square-mile lagoon.

All of the projects called for the construction of movable dikes to temporarily isolate the lagoon whenever the tides became threatening.

The rejection was because of the projects' $400 million cost and concern that the dikes would cause the already polluted lagoon waters to stagnate and interfere with, marine traffic.

In addition, the Public Works Ministry decided that the stabilization of Venetian soil permits a more flexible and gradual policy. Nevertheless, some Venetians are worried that the action that followed the disastrous flood of November 1966 might be repeated.