Log #21c Touring Malta

July 17, 2001 in Log Series 20 - 29, Logs by Series, Series 21 Malta, The Logs

Log #21c Touring Malta

July 17, 2001
Siracusa, Sicily, Italy
Covers the period July 3 to July 11, 2001

July 3, our third anniversary on board Veleda. It was three years ago today we set sail from the Toronto Hydroplane and Sailing Club for our open ended world cruise. We’re not tired of cruising yet, and cannot conceive of when we want to stop, or where we would settle once no longer year round liveaboards. It was also this day, two years ago when we were in Horta, that Charlie, our friend who was single handing Piper from Bermuda to the Azores, died. We are still in contact with several boats that we met on that Atlantic crossing. In fact, we left Gozo to return to Sliema Creek on Malta to rendezvous with Blue Highway who E-mailed us that they were arriving today. We thanked Joe Zammit, who had hosted us so generously on Gozo as mentioned in my last log, and departed Mgarr Marina in mid afternoon for an uneventful motorsail the 14 miles back to Sliema Creek.

We contacted Blue Highway on VHF before we and they arrived, and arranged to meet them in harbour. When we returned to our mooring in Sliema Creek, I dinghied over to their anchorage in the marina basin to invite them for supper, and to encourage them to moor over in Sliema Creek near us. However, they had bad news from the customs people regarding their pet cat. We had checked with customs for them the week before about their cat, to be told that it would not be allowed onshore and that the boat would have to anchor out. OK, no problem as they have had to do that in other locations as well. In fact it was through our providing them this information that they diverted their itinerary to Malta. On arrival, the customs people invoked a couple of other conditions, namely that they MUST anchor in the marina basin, not over where we were, and that they would be allowed to stay for only 48 HOURS! I was embarrassed and unhappy with the customs people for not advising me of these other conditions when I inquired earlier.

Anyways, we had a good evening with Russ and Lynne on board Veleda, and over with them on Blue Highway next evening.

I could not get over the fortifications around Valletta and the surrounding communities. As we are interested in history, particularly naval and WW II history, this area, and all of Malta, exudes historical conflicts, power plays, conquests, sieges, occupations, and compromises. Its strategic location in the middle of the Mediterranean, and its excellent harbours, particularly Grand Harbour and Marsamxett Harbour around Valletta, and Marsaxlokk Bay, allowed for a natural domination of the sea lanes traversing the length of the Med. This is why Malta was so important in WW II, and why it was so fiercely defended by Britain.

It provided the base to interrupt Rommel’s supply lines, giving rise to his final defeat at El Alamein and the conquest of North Africa (Morocco, Libya, Tunisia and Algiers); for the attack on the Italian fleet at Tarranto; for support to Greece and Yugoslavia; and for the invasion of Sicily and of Italy. That’s why, in 1941 and ‘42, the Valletta area was more severely bombed than was London at the height of the Blitz. The people of Malta did not give up. They were essential in dockyard operations, minesweeping and antiaircraft defenses. At one point there were only three weeks supplies remaining, so intense was the German and Italian stranglehold on incoming convoys, but they did not give in. They, the people, and Malta were awarded the George Cross, which adorns their flag today, for the bravery and sacrifice of those two horrendous years.

For the first few days we took the bus around from Sliema to Valletta. They were old 1950’s British buses (They drive on the left in Malta as in Britain), painted yellow, and individually owned and adorned with whatever slogans, symbols, and pictures (mostly religious) the driver likes. No air conditioning, windows and doors open, gears crunchy, suspension rocky, and engines coughing, but they are picturesque statements of Maltese individuality.  However, we soon started taking the dinghy across the harbour to Valletta, as it was faster. Prices for bus travel were moderate at 15 cents Maltese (about 50 cents Canadian) for local rides, or a whole 40 cents Maltese for any place on the island.

In Valletta we went to the War Museum in Fort St. Elmo, as well as a re-enactment of the French “occupation” of 1798 and the British “liberation” in 1800. (Judy says my biases are showing.) However, the British were preferred over the French or the return of the Knights of St. John, and the islands remained under British influence until independence in 1964, providing the only period of self-rule experienced by Malta for over 2000 years. We enjoyed wandering around the mostly unused fort, originally built by the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem in 1552, exploring the recently (1964) abandoned barracks, living quarters, bastions, gun emplacements and observation posts. The main parade ground and surrounding barrack blocks, where the re-enactment is staged, are used by the police academy. That area, and another section of living quarters now occupied by what appear to be squatters, were used in the movie “Midnight Express”.

The War Museum focussed mostly on WW II with a good display of the ships, unit pictures, defenses, and memorabilia from that period. The experiences of several ships were detailed. One detailed the tanker Ohio which limped into Grand Harbour, supported by cables slung between two destroyers, and with a Stuka dive bomber embedded in her upper decks, after a horrendously attacked convoy in which only five out of fourteen ships made it. Another told of the saga of HMS Illustrious, a British aircraft carrier badly damaged, and frequently bombed while being repaired in Grand Harbour. She finally escaped and went to the U.S. for full repairs before returning to the Mediterranean theatre.

An interesting one for Canadians is the story of Lieutenant Commander Wanklyn who was awarded the Victoria Cross. His submarine held a record for sinking the most tonnage (128,353 tons) from Jan 1941 to April 1942, comprised of 2 destroyers, 3 submarines, 3 transports, 10 supply ships, 2 tankers, and a trawler before being sunk in April 1942. His boat was HMS Upholder, after which the modern Upholder class of ultra-quiet, conventional, SSK submarines recently acquired from Britain for the Canadian Navy were named; the Canadian submarines are HMCS Victoria, Windsor, Cornerbrook, and Chicoutimi.

We also went to the Marine Museum in Vittoriosa, a very professional well displayed history of naval developments in Malta from Phoenician traders to the present. The “Malta Experience” gave a good audiovisual  background of Malta’s history and the “Knights of St. John Hospitallers” portrayed the medical services provided by that order in medieval times. The Archeological Museum provided a fascinating glimpse of some of the settlements on Malta predating the Egyptian pyramids (We were to later see several temples and catacombs of this age on Malta and Gozo.), as well as later periods of Carthaginian, Roman and Greek influence. It is hard to say which of their many glorious baroque churches were best.  We visited the ruins of the Tarxien Temples and the Hypogeum, dating back to 3500 BC.

In Rabat we went through St. Paul’s Catacombs and the Grotto of St. Paul. The apostle Paul was shipwrecked on Malta, converting the Roman governor Publius to Christianity, and establishing the religious dedication of the Maltese, en route to his trial and execution in Rome. In Medina, the ancient, rampart-dominated original capital of Malta, we took in several more historical displays and exhibits, complete with modern technology, in the medieval nobles’ houses, cathedral, nunnery, dungeon, and Archbishop’s Palace. Malta and Gozo have so many sites, museums, bays, forts, dockyards, palaces, catacombs, grottos, churches, ancient ruins, modern dry docks, and other traditional tourist attractions that the three weeks we spent there could not do justice to the history and other attractions of these two islands.

In addition to the friendly people of Malta, we met several other cruisers. It was good to meet up with Russ and Lynne on Blue Highway. Then we met Dave, a retired American single handing Lizzie, and Kirk (American) and Kathryn (Aussie) who moored behind us in Sliema Creek on board Polly Brooks. We also had another pleasant surprise when we got an E-mail from Rod Heikell on Seven Tenths saying they had stopped by at Veleda and found no one on board, and that they were in Msida Marina. We had them over for a pleasant meal on Veleda. This was the first we had seen Rod since a enjoyable barbecue at his place two years ago in Dulwich, a London suburb. This is another pleasant aspect of cruising, meeting old friends and acquaintances in different parts of the world.