11 April 2023
By Chris Dodd
While on holiday, Chris Dodd chances upon a regatta in the Mediterranean.
Passing street art and statues, I ventured along sunlit pavements to Malta’s Saluting Battery on Freedom Day (March 31) and found a regatta under way on the Grand Harbour far below.
Freedom Day commemorates the departure of the Royal Navy from its strategic Mediterranean base and dockyard in 1979. The regatta runs from Customs House up Dockyard Creek to a finish line where the districts of Senglea and Vittoriosa meet, a distance of 1,130 metres.
There were firecrackers, a gun salute, crowds of onlookers on quays and battlements, sight-seeing cruisers, floating gin palaces by the hundred, and knowledgeable locals in the Battery Gardens to enlighten the ignorant.
Malta’s rowing tradition goes back at least to the seventeenth century and the Knights of St John. The earliest reference to racing is in 1826 when a police notice mentioned races for four-oared fishing boats. Malta’s Freedom Regatta which takes place every March and the country’s National or Independence Day Regatta (which takes place every September and commemorates the end of Malta’s colonial status under the Union flag in 1964) have crews from eight clubs competing against each other in five boat classes.
Uniquely, the boats used in Malta’s two National Regattas mostly combine seated rowing and Venetian-style standing rowing. Four oared “fancy boats” and passenger boats are sharp at both ends with high stem and stern posts, while caiques and coxed pairs have square stems. Oars are attached to olive-wood thole pins. These boats were originally normal working craft which plied the local harbour but over the years they evolved into today’s racing boats.
Top to bottom in the above five pictures are: The Dghajsa Tal-Pass which is crewed by two or by four rowers; the Dghajsa Tal-Medalji, a lighter and faster version which has four rowers; the Kajjik a small boat for two rowers; and the Frejgatina, another small boat but with two seated rowers and a coxswain. Pictures: maltarowing.com
From where I loitered high above the action, I couldn’t discern who was what in this year’s Freedom Regatta, but when the 11-race programme was complete, the Open winners were crews from Senglea.
According to the Times of Malta, Senglea’s way was paved by a win in the first open event, the Dghjjesa Tal-Midalji, when the two leading crews, Vittoriosa and Cospicua, clashed and were disqualified.
In the race for Frejgatina, Cospicua were again disqualified and Senglea dominated over Marsa and Kalkara.
Club final standings:
Open (Professionals): 1. Senglea 74; Cospicua 40; Marsa 28; Vittoriosa 20; Kalkara 4.
Category B (Amateurs): 1. Cospicua 50; Kalkara 48; Senglea 42; Birzebbugia 16; Vittoriosa 16.
Women’s Race: Frejgatini: 1. Vittoriosa; 2. Kalkara; 3. Cospicua.
When I arrived home in England, I was able to supplement my scant knowledge of what was happening at the Freedom Regatta by dipping into a book that I wrote thirty years ago – The Story of World Rowing – which visits the pick of rowing venues round the globe.
If Malta is not on your bucket list of places to visit with Mediterranean climate and diet, enter it on the list. And go in March or September to catch a regatta to savour.
One more curiosity. On the Battery Gardens overlooking the Grand Harbour where the Royal Navy’s fleet once docked and watered, I swear I heard a military band strike up the ‘British Grenadiers’.
Love the chicken shop sponsorship in penultimate pic. Top story. Enjoy your hols!