Until a short time ago our justifiably famous Valletta Grand Harbour, so often the scene of the madness of war and the courage of men, was almost crowded with hundreds of boats and water taxis, which plied the harbour creeks on both sides of Valletta.
These were largely used to ferry passengers, especially sailors, from their ships to land, and vice versa. These colourful Maltese boats are referred to as Dgħajsa or Luzzu and are also used for fishing, these days often fitted with an inboard engine.
Let us not forget that it was mainly from Malta’s shores that the invasion was launched that brought Italy to its knees in World War II. Indeed, the Second World War, unlike the First, was largely fought out in the Mediterranean basin. The battle for the control of the Mediterranean lasted for almost three years – from Italy’s entry into the war in June 1940 to the final surrender of Axis forces in Tunisia in May 1943. Never has our Grand Harbour been so busy as during that period. Malta had achieved an importance in world affairs, as it had done in 1565, quite out of proportion to its size. And the Grand Harbour was littered with Maltese luzzu boats in those days of war.
But the heydey of the dgħajsa is well and truly over and the number of these boats in Grand Harbour has dwindled considerably. This is due to several factors but certainly, the death blow came with the rundown programme of the British Forces in Malta in the late fifties and the diminishing size of the British Mediterranean Fleet.
The colourful dgħajsa has an equally colourful companion which is of considerably bigger dimensions: the luzzu. Like the Maltese cross, this is one of the symbols of Malta and is featured on the reverse of the older series of Maltese lira coins. The Mediterranean sea, which is ever present has, throughout the ages, made men excellent mariners and this ubiquitous sea has always attracted men to fish.
Like the dgħajsa, the luzzu is also a uniquely Maltese boat. Painted in the traditional colours of red, blue and yellow, it is a sturdy and reliable sea craft and can be put to sea in almost every kind of weather. Primarily, the luzzu is a fishing boat but it has other uses such as ferrying locals and tourists across the Grand Harbour.
Many luzzijiet (plural) have the eye of Osiris painted or carved on the bow, a symbol said to have been brought to Malta by the Phoenicians. This seems to suggest that craft of this type must have been common in the harbour since the time of the Phoenicians and Carthaginians.
It is hard to imagine a more tranquil and soul-satisfying sight than that of a dead-calm sea on a clear summer’s day when the Mediterranean is magnificent and regally serene, blue and seemingly infinite. The sight of a luzzu out at sea on such a day is truly beautiful.
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Every fishing village in Malta and Gozo has its own luzzijiet. This Maltese fishing boat which is said to be of Sicilian origin, resplendent in glowing, vibrant colours, sits easily on the limpid waters of the enclosed harbours of the fishing villages. See a host of them in Marsaxlokk as they bring in their catch. You can also see a similar scene in Marsaskala, Birzebbuga and Wied-iz-Zurrieq. Many fishermen are now constrained to go and fish beyond the local shores to compete with foreign fishermen. The luzzu lies there motionless on its mooring rope, the boat’s reflection on the mirror-like surface is a perfect replica of itself.
It often happens that autumn and winter can be devastating to any craft left at sea. Yet, every year a number of over-optimistic owners leave their boats in the water too long after the calm summer months and a sudden, violent storm, of the familiar autumnal kind that suddenly appear in the space of an hour, lays waste the vessels at its mercy, leaving behind a sad spectacle of half-sunk, capsized and wrecked boats.
The wise fisherman starts thinking about wintering his precious boat early and arranging for its annual maintenance routine. Cracks that are found between the planks are filled in and the repaired area then repainted. The bottom of the hull is sanded down to remove the barnacles and other vegetation that clings to it, causing the boat to lose speed and an anti-fouling paint is applied. Within a couple of weeks, the boat is ready to go back into the water.
Every five years most fishermen give their boats a more thorough check-up. The old paint is completely stripped off to allow the fisherman a closer inspection of his craft, and often he will find that the odd plank here and there needs replacing and the joints between the planks need opening and resealing. Every single joint – and they run into hundreds throughout the boat – is patiently checked and those in need of attention filled.
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