In Malta, to cross Valletta's Grand Harbour, I take one of the traditional Dghajsa boats, whose lines recall that of the Venetian gondola.
We used to take tours into the Number One Dock, but since they built the new footbridge we cannot go under it because of the high prows,” says boatman Walter Ahar. “One tiny touch and they break." Walter is in his early 70s and has spent most of his life at sea, working for various shipping lines. “I went to England when I was 14 and came back in 1984. I love the sea,” he says. “I started rowing these boats when I was about eight with my uncle. There is now a cooperative and we can take a coachload of 60 people off a cruise ship with our ten boats.”
He is a campaigner to preserve this slice of Malta’s history, encouraging young people to learn the skills of handling the boats. “There used to be 3,000 of these boats carrying sailors and there are between 50 and 100 left – the oldest is 130 years old,” he says. “We are trying to bring them back to life again. There are only three men still building and repairing them, but they are very good as their skills go back several generations.”
While the Dghajsas now use outboard motors, they also still have two oars, which Walter uses skilfully to come alongside the dock at Valletta. Out in the harbor, two teenagers are rowing one, tossed by the wake of a gigantic cruise ship leaving port. “They are training for a race, held every March and September,” he says.
“They race from near the container port to the Customs House. The prize is not a great deal – the parishes play bingo to raise some money – and the government gives a shield or a cup. Anyone can take part, and every parish sends someone to compete.”
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