The Gozo Boat

Joseph Muscat


gozoboat1The Gozo boat was also known as tal-latini, dghajsa tat-taghbija or tal-pass, but the earliest references refer to it as tal-madia or tal-moghdija. During the 18th century its name was speronara del Gozo or barca del Gozo. The dghajsa tat-taghbija was simply another name attached to the Gozo boat and people within living memory and in the Cottonera area still recall the days when it was employed as a transport vessel. Up to the 1880s, when the boat retained the sail arrangement of a xprunara and carried a xprun at the bows, it was denoted as such; when it changed into a lateen rig it was called tal-latini. Strictly speaking that was a misnomer as the sails were a settee rig and not a proper lateen rig .

The tal-latini was the boat specifically employed on the Malta-Gozo shuttle service. It had a relatively short life, remaining in service for a century. With the introduction of a regular daily service between the islands employing larger boats the service of the tal-latini became redundant.

gozoboat2The tal-latini boat evolved from the xprunara. Indeed both had the same type of hull construction and sail arrangement up to 1900. The Gozo xprunara hardly differed from the one that roamed all over the Mediterranean. The first one was somewhat smaller, did not carry a stern awning and was provided with fixed washboards. In the 13th century the transport boat between Malta and Gozo was known as madia or as tal-moghdija or tal-pass, that is the passage between the two islands. By the 16th century the Gozo boat acquired a more formal aspect with definite affinities with a brigantine or a fregata. Basically the three vessels were caravel-built, double-ended, open boats utilising oars and lateen sails.

The remains of the last Gozo boat is rotting away at Mgarr, in Gozo. There might be another two or three extensively modified as fishing boats and perhaps these were built at Gela and not in Malta. These are easily distinguished from the others by the slightly slanting forestem and massive timbers employed in their construction. It is believed that the Gozo boat number 42 Stella Maris, which was destroyed by enemy action during World War II, was built in 1938 at Kalkara. The Sacra Famiglia, which is at Mgarr, was launched in 1934, while the Gozo trading boat G48 Santa Rita was the last one to be built probably at Gela in 1963.

The construction of the Gozo boat followed the Maltese type of boat building techniques. No plans were required and the Caruana brothers of Kalkara worked from family moulds with the last Caruana boat builders moving to Mgarr, Gozo in 1940. Occasionally, such boats were laid on green heart keels with most of the framework in oak and planking in red deal. They were strongly built and were expected to last a lifetime.

The boat showed little sheer but rose up harmoniously at the bows and somewhat less at the stern. The short fore and stern posts were fitted at 90 degrees with the keel. There was a time when a high forestem was finished off with an acute angled head. The traditional moveable washboards were retained although they were subsequently modified to a fixed position with the exception of a small part to starboard and near the stern. The sheer strake or tappiera was fitted to the fore and aft stem posts, as in the case of the ferilla, and not to the respective aprons. The fore mustacc was decorated with the ‘eye’ of Horus.

Looking at the plan of the boat one notices a tambouret at the bows with a mast bench next to it. The fore tambouret was used as a partial deck as it was constructed with a slight slant to midship. The stern tambouret had a small hatch, which was occupied by the padrun when handling the rudder in rough weather. The side troughs connected both tambourets and holes on the sheer strake ensured the draining of excess water. A tarpaulin stretched on the coamings (pestieri) of the kraten safeguarded the cargo loaded in the hold referred to locally as irmigg tal-pruwa (forward hold) and irmigg tal-poppa (after hold) of the boat. Two benches strengthened the sides and the middle one was provided with a mast clamp.

The Gozo boat was painted in the traditional colours including shades of green, blue, red and yellow. When a mustacc was painted black it denoted mourning for a dead padrun; this was normally retained for a year. A Gozo boat painted in black was kept for the conveyance of corpses between the two islands. The licence number and the boat’s name were shown on the tappiera while elements of decorations like bass relief rosettes embellished the boat.

gozoboat3The tal-latini boat, as its name implies, was primarily a sailing vessel. The early boats might have been lateen rigged but there were some which were provided with a spritrig.

By the end of the 19th century the Gozo boat was definitely rigged with a settee type of sail on two masts with the fore slightly higher than the main. A jib (polakkun) was hoisted at the foremast secured to a bowsprit normally lashed to the lower part of the foremast. The sheet of the jib was secured to different bitts according to the wind. Apart from the normal great sails, the Gozo boat carried a small storm sail known as a cillikka. The masthead or toqqala was painted white and an antenna was strong enough for a sailor to climb on when required to adjust sections of the rigging. With a good head wind the boat was rigged with goose winged sails rig known elsewhere as musallabah or in Maltese imsallab. The simple lateen rig on the Gozo boat required just one or two adjustable shrouds. Oars were always carried and were used when entering harbour or manoeuvring to a berth. By 1919, engines were installed with success on Gozo boats but sails were retained up to circa 1950. On 31st December 1920 the Customs Department for the first time, registered a Gozo boat, which was fitted with a motor.

gozoboat5When in 1919 the first engines were fitted on a Gozo boat, Government Notice number 446 dated 24th October of that same year was issued to regulate the granting of permits for such boats. Each boat was surveyed once a year by a competent shipwright certifying under oath that it was in good working condition. The minimum freeboard was calculated for each boat when laden with a full cargo, the number of passengers to be carried when in ballast, and when full or when part of the cargo was taken. Boats laden with cattle were deemed to be fully laden, a condition which meant that no passengers were permitted to travel on such boats. They were permitted to carry cargo, passengers and traders between Grand Harbour and Mgarr, Gozo, in daylight hours and in fair weather. When the boat G42 Stella Maris was registered on 13 May 1959, it was to carry passengers provided that no regular sea passenger service was established between the Marfa area and Mgarr, Gozo. Occasionally Gozo boats carried passengers from Mgarr, Gozo, to St. Paul’s Bay. Moreover, any foodstuff carried was to be properly protected from contamination.

A report in 1848 by the Customs Department recorded that there were no regular passage boats from Marfa to Gozo. Whenever passengers required a boat to carry them to Gozo by day the practice adopted then was to light a fire on the beach and its smoke was taken as a signal that a boat was required at Marfa; likewise by night the flame would be taken to mean the same. The first owner of a boat to see the signal from Mgarr, Gozo, would go to Marfa to take on passengers. For up to six passengers the owner charged 2s 1d; when there were more than six, each passenger paid 4d.

There was also a boat service from Grand Harbour to Mellieha, as well as to Marfa and to Gozo. Four rowers manned such excursion boats and a person paid 4s for a trip from Valletta to Gozo in summer; the fare was double in winter.

People at Mellieha still remember passengers arriving at Marfa and setting fire to some straw as a signal to owners of fishing boats at Mgarr, Gozo. The straw was put in a metal basket attached high on top of a pole. Those were days when there was no regular passenger service or when people missed tgozoboat6he last boat to Gozo.

These boats maintained a vital link between Malta and Gozo. There was a regular movement of agricultural products from Gozo to Malta and manufactured goods from Malta to Gozo. Boatloads of fresh vegetables, fruit, eggs and poultry were much in demand in Malta, and Gozo depended on these exports. Watching a Gozo boat being loaded at Lascaris Wharf was an interesting spectacle. Sometimes they took on truckloads of minerals, soft drinks or beer in crates. On one occasion Gozo boat was loaded with a herd of 500 goats. Every boat was marked on each side, midships, indicating the freeboard allowed to load specific weights of cargo. It is an open secret that occasionally such boats went down nearly to the drainholes when fully loaded and yet their skilful masters managed to sail them, safely.

The boat G32 Sacra Famiglia, 47 feet long, 14 feet at the beam and with a hold of 5.5 feet, was marked with a 20-inch freeboard allowing for a cargo of 30 tons. The last Gozo boats built in Malta up to the 1930s were less than 50 feet long. Other similar boats with greater keel lengths and built in 1959, or after, were constructed at Gela in Sicily.

Sailing from Gozo to the Grand Harbour, the Gozo boats kept close to the coast and consequently quite often entered the danger area of the Pembroke rifle range. Practice torpedo drops in certain areas together with the practice bombing of Filfla, Delimara and other areas constituted hazards for the Gozo and fishing boats. Masters of such boats were duly warned in advance but unfortunately some Gozo boats were sometimes forced by the prevailing weather conditions to sail close to the rifle ranges occasionally with fatal consequences.

The Gozo boat service was maintained even at times when difficult sea conditions would have discouraged others. Some Gozo Boat capsized on their way to or from Gozo. One such boat, which was apparently employed for the lampuki season, capsized in 1900 with the loss of one fisherman, and another boat lost her masts in 1911 but managed to enter St George’s Bay. On 7 November 1926 an unoccupied Gozo boat employed in fishing was found adrift but owing to rough sea it could not be approached. Gozo boats were also involved on rare occasions in collisions with tugboats or H.M. Dockyard pinnaces.

gozoboat8With the introduction of a good steamer service between Malta and Gozo the trading boat lost its importance. More people started to travel between the two islands and after 1960 the Gozo boat was no longer suitable to the fast changing social and economic conditions. The last few trading boats were converted to fishing boats or left to rot at Mgarr, Gozo. No Gozo boats are built anymore, they became obsolete. The last one, the Sacra Familija is as mentioned earlier, being restored to its original splendour.



2 responses to “The Gozo Boat

  1. geoff pitman

    December 30, 2013 at 8:41 pm

    I understand that the restorers of this boat were/are looking for Glennifer engine/s. We have a matched pair of them built in 1935. They need to be in a classic boat!

  2. Larry Scicluna

    September 3, 2013 at 6:31 am

    Thanks so much for the article.

    I was telling my kids about how their grandfather worked on a fishing boat in Malta when he was a kid.

    I googled G 32 and this came up.Paul Scicluna was my grandfather.It was awesome to see the boat was restored.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: