THE RESTORATION OF THE GOZO BOAT SACRA FAMIGLIA AND THE MARITIME HERITAGE OF THE MALTESE ISLANDS
Malta, Mediterranean cross-roads, sea trade hub of empires, site of St Paul’s shipwreck, base for the crusading Knights of St John and the key to defeating Rommel in North Africa, there are few places with more nautical interest. These holiday islands with limpid blue sea and azure sky offer a wealth of water sports opportunities, architectural, historical and cultural interest, an ideal place for a yachtsman with a non-sailing family, something for everyone.
If without a boat, much can be enjoyed from the many ferries and trip boats or a yacht chartered. For a bus fare equivalent the foot passenger ferry from the walled city of Valetta to Sliema crosses Marsamxett harbour under the hauntingly beautiful colonnaded arches of the Lazaretto, the quarantine facility of the 1600s that charmed Byron on his visit in 1811. Looking back are the towering bastions of the city that withstood the Great Siege of the Turks in 1565.
The Gozo car ferry provides a vantage point for the wide sweep of Mgarr, the main harbour on the island and the Santa Marija Tower on neighbouring Comino, used for the filming of The Count of Monte Cristo. Two smaller ferries go to Comino and trip boats operate from the main harbours. For a more contemporary experience one can do a day trip to Sicily on the hovercraft from Valetta.
Successive foreign influences on Malta led to a great range of traditional wooden boats(1). Since independence in 1964 the variety of craft has declined but many of the colourful artisan fishing boats, the double ended luzzu and transom sterned kajjikk, work out of Marsaxlokk, Sliema, Spinola and Mgarr. Wooden boat building hangs on but closer inspection will often reveal the traditional design as GRP. The wooden boat is often covered to protect its seams from the Mediterranean sun. They are painted in bright primary colours, blue and yellow predominating, with the eye of Osiris either side of the bow. As a boy on the island 50 years ago British Seagull outboards could be seen on almost every fishing boat. Today the increased prosperity of the islands means they have inboard diesels and Seagulls are a rarity.
The once numerous elegant water taxi, the dghajsa, with high stem and stern posts rowed by a man standing facing forward, that served the British fleet in Grand Harbour can still be seen but their numbers are reduced to a few enthusiasts’ labours of love. In Scotland, the World of Boats collection being moved from Exeter to Eyemouth has a magnificently decorated example(2) that was presented to the collection by the Government of Malta.
In 1933 when my grandfather left the islands he was given a cased silver model of another traditional craft a ‘Gozo Boat’(3), a two masted wooden sailing boat setting two lateen sails and a jib on a bowsprit. This was the mainstay of inter island transport, known as a dghajsa tal-latini. The last surviving example, the Sacra Famiglia, is on the hard at Mgarr being restored by Peter and Karmenu Caruana, sons of the builder. The Gozo Channel company and local heritage NGO Wirt Ghawdex are responsible for saving this important piece of Maltese Islands history(4).
The Sacra Famiglia was built in Kalkara Creek off Grand Harbour in 1933, taking 11 months to construct, the same year as my silver model. The Caruana family moved to Mgarr during the war. There is a Scottish connection, the boat was fitted with Glasgow built engines, a Gleniffer diesel, later replaced by two Kelvins. When finished, the boat will be displayed at the ferry terminal. The search is on for a Gleniffer or contemporary Kelvin to form part of the display. I visited in 2005 and 2008 to see the restoration and met Peter Caruana in 2008. Boat building still goes on at Kalkara but the slip on which the Sacra Famiglia was built has been covered over by widening the adjacent road.
For someone coming from a small country like Scotland with its own island communities, Malta faces similar challenges afloat and ashore. With almost the entire population speaking English and The Times of Malta, a quality newspaper printed in English, there is the added interest of being able to follow the issues of the day. Fisheries are one.
Malta strives to maintain sustainable artisan fisheries but the evidence of decline is only too apparent to anyone who has known the island for fifty years. The most delicious locally caught fish lampouki (Coryphaena hipparus the dolphin fish) a migratory fish that appears at the end of August is now portion size. As a boy they were a metre long. These fish aggregate under floating palm fronds and are caught with nets. Others of the mackerel type are attracted by powerful gas mantle lights hung over the stern and scooped up by seine nets(5). The lamps were paraffin fuelled but now burn propane.
Fish farming is replacing wild caught fish and Malta has been in the forefront of developments. As in Scotland it is a controversial industry, particularly it’s penning of wild caught tuna. Not quick enough with the camera, I missed a picture of loveliness in a Valetta crowd wearing a T shirt with the message “No to penning tuna”.
Like the population of the Scottish islands, many Maltese have had to go abroad for education and work. This has spawned a wealth of academic literature which together with memoirs of two world wars means there is no shortage of reading material for the visitor. British ex-pats have been another source, the most notable being Nicholas Montsarrat who lived on Gozo with wife Anne while writing The Kappillan of Malta(6).
Malta’s national war museum(7&8) and maritime museum complement the wealth of reading material. With Malta’s national assembly taking over the Palace armouries, the museum has been moved to Fort St Elmo. At the beginning of the war the air defence of the island was limited to six biplanes including Faith(N5520), Hope and Charity, Gloster Sea Gladiators. Faith was rebuilt as a museum exhibit from the bare fuselage salvaged from a quarry. Sadly after this magnificent restoration the plane was shorn of its wings to get it into Fort St Elmo. It is hoped that one day it will once again be displayed as a fully rigged “string bag”. Little did I realise when seeing it as a boy that it would once again lose its wings.
The epic defence of the islands by Spitfire(9, 10, 11) and heroic resupply by convoys like PEDESTAL(12) when the tanker Ohio limped into Grand Harbour, supported by two destroyers, are portrayed with photographs and artefacts.
During my visit in 2008 I came across the recently published wartime exploits of Commander Edward Woolley GM and bar, RNVR, ‘Mines over Malta’(13) which is the fascinating story of magnetic mine clearance with considerable technical detail. Temporary Lieutenant Maurice Griffiths RNVR(14) was Gazetted for the George medal on 14 January 1941 for his contributions to magnetic mine clearance, the same day as the then Temporary Sub-Lieutenant Woolley. Major Arthur Hogben in his ‘Designed to Kill, Bomb Disposal from World War I to the Falklands’(15) develops the picture of Malta under a hail of Italian as well as German ordnance and describes its disposal with illustrations of mechanisms.
The maritime museum covers seafaring through the ages and has ship models, works of art and finds from submarine archaeological investigation. There are many stone anchors and amphorae from the Roman period. Malta has no Vasa or Kyrenia shipwreck. What is has is an extensive deep water harbour between Europe and Africa. The view from high up on the city walls sets the scene of momentous events in history.
Other potters on the islands produce highly coloured glazed wares for tourists but my preference is for the traditional unglazed domestic earthenware. It makes a wonderful inexpensive souvenir, evocative of the sun and culture of bygone Mediterranean peoples. Being porous they cool the contents by evaporation from the surface of the pot. This year in Cyprus I put it to the test using a mercury thermometer and a water filled thick coarse pot side by side with a water filled plastic jug. The earthenware pot cooled its contents 4.00C below that of the plastic jug. In the absence of refrigeration that would have been most welcome.
Quarrying is another staple industry of the islands, the product of which was moved by sea. Today the largest quarry is on Gozo and the stone is shipped to Malta. Fifty years ago building blocks were dressed individually by stone masons. They are now sawn precisely to size from the bedrock. Large quantities of Italian marble are shipped to the islands, for historic building restoration, finishing private houses and memorials, a trade that has gone on since the days of the Roman Empire.
When visiting Malta the coastwise navigator with curiosity is bound to look up The Acts of the Apostles Chapter 27 account of the shipwreck of St Paul. For me it stacks up. After many days of stormy weather in a ship whose timbers were working, unsure of their position, the luckless centurion was terrified. The internet has many commentaries on the shipwreck and accounts of archaeological expeditions that have searched for the two anchors deployed. Looking across St. Paul’s Bay to St Paul’s Islands, the traditional site of the shipwreck, one can readily imagine the events of that day 2,000 years ago.
The increasing price of jet fuel and cost of desalinating sea water are driving Maltese tourism up market. Package tours offer a way to the islands and on arrival one can be independent, hiring a boat, car or using Malta’s famous buses. The dry climate preserves these classics. Gaily painted they provide very economical, frequent transport and attract enthusiasts.
Aspects of up-market tourism are the marina facilities and support for sub aqua diving. The submarine limestone drop offs and passages on Gozo provide some of the most spectacular dive sites anywhere, with underwater visibility UK divers can only dream about.
Ship building has declined from the days when Malta dockyards provided important support for the British fleet but yachting has facilitated diversification. The former submarine base on Manoel Island has become an important yacht repair yard. Malta joining the European Union and the Commission being unwilling to tolerate state aids to loss making industries has forced the re-structuring of Malta’s ship yards.
Malta is a staging point for wild birds as well as trade. The need to conform to the EU Birds Directive is forcing change on Malta’s hunters who have 30,000 shot guns on an island the size of the Isle of Wight. European money has funded conservation of species such as the yelkouan sheerwater but Malta’s hides and perches remain a killing ground for migratory birds. However there is a slow realisation that wild birds are worth more to the economy live than dead. Migrants in passage are a tourist attraction. Income from visiting ornithologists is increasing and can save birds that will reach Europe.
The latest chapter of Malta’s sea faring history has come as a result of joining the EU. Now a gateway to Europe, Malta is facing a tide of illegal immigrants from North Africa in inflatable boats. Many of these people have made epic journeys across the Sahara in open lorries before trusting their lives to an outboard engine for the 180 mile crossing to Malta. The former British Fleet Air Arm base of Hal Far is now a tented village to accommodate them. Air sea rescue operates from Malta but fatalities are occurring.
With EU membership the Maltese Lira has been replaced by the Euro, making it all the more straightforward to manage a yacht there. The volume of air travel means spares not available locally can be obtained quickly by air mail or air freight. Besides marinas and repair facilities for yachts, Malta has European standard medicine and dentistry, everything for boat and crew. The friendliness, honesty and skills of the Maltese people are the icing on the cake.
1. The Dghajsa and Other Traditional Maltese Boats, Joseph Muscat, 1999, Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti.
2. The World of Boats:
3. On line text of the chapter ‘The Gozo Boat’ from the above:
4. The Last of the Gozo Boat Builders:
5. Malta Fisheries:
6. The Kappillan of Malta, Nicholas Montsarrat:
7. The National War Museum Official Guide, revised 1998.
8. Malta George Cross 1992, The Wartime Experience. An audio visual exhibition.
9. Malta, The Thorn in Rommel’s Side, Laddie Lucas, Stanley Paul, 1992, ISBN 0 09 174411 3.
10. Obituary Wing Commander ‘Laddie’ Lucas, The Times 23 March 1998.
11. The Air Battle for Malta, The Diaries of a Fighter Pilot, Lord James Douglas Hamilton, Mainstream Publishing, Edinburgh, 1981, ISBN 0 906391 20 2.
12. Malta Convoys, David A Thomas, Leo Cooper, 1999.
13. Mines over Malta, Wartime Exploits of Commander Edward D Woolley GM and bar, RNVR, Frederick R Galea, Wise Owl Publications, Rabat, Malta GC, 2008.
14. The Hidden Menace, Maurice Griffiths GM, Conway Maritime Press, 1981, ISBN 0 851177 186 6.
15. Designed to Kill, Major Arthur Hogben, Patrick Stephens, 1987, ISBN 0 85059 865 6.
7 December 2010