Log #21d Malta to Sicily

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

Log #21d Malta to Sicily

July 21, 2001
Roccella Ionica, Italy
Covers the period July 9 to 11, 2001

A couple of nights before we planned to leave, a local boater informed us that the owner of the mooring we were on was to return next day. No problem, and we relocated to a trot (a line of buoys to which the boats moor bow and stern) between two WW II navy buoys in front of Polly Brooks. We hoped we would have a chance to meet the owner of the one we had been using, and give him a bottle of wine or something for the privilege of using his buoy for three weeks. However, he did not show up before we left on July 11.

I had an interesting time exploring the abandoned Fort Manoel one morning while Judy was over at the library in Valletta. I dinghied to the front entrance overlooking the harbour, where the Royal Malta Yacht Club uses the entrance gates and guard rooms as a very nice restaurant. That is the only part of the fort still in use. However, I continued past the entrance over to the dry moat and  followed it in behind the fort. I wished I had brought along a flashlight to explore some of the openings into the bowels of the fort, but was too cautious to explore beyond the first bend of each tunnel. After having wandered right around the entire fort in the dry scrub brush moat, the high ramparts towering on both sides, and  a few dump sites of junk and concrete slabs, I returned to a path leading up to a flight of broken stone steps leading onto a plateau behind the fort. This overgrown acreage overlooked the Manoel Yacht Yard on one side, and a set of docks I thought belonged to Msida Marina on the other. There were abandoned and semi-used buildings on both sides of the pear-shaped island (ie Lazzaretto  Creek and Sliema Creek sides) along the shoreline behind the fort. However the surface I was on was not a natural hill, but a gigantic roof, overgrown with small shrubs and trees, with remnants of a parking lot, old roadway, junk, and small round mug-like cannisters littering several sections. These canisters I had seen in a museum as they are the mortars used for some of the firework displays. This elevated area must be a favorite location for setting off fireworks in the middle of Marsamxett Harbour, readily visible to the communities of Valletta, Floriana, Sliema, and Gzira.

I don’t know what was housed under this gigantic canopy, as there were over a dozen forced-air shafts dotting the surface. I doubt it was for civilian catacombs or air raid shelters; more likely large storage or repair areas, or possibly fuel tanks or magazines as this fort, the island, and the creeks either side were mooring and dock areas for smaller warships such as submarines, minesweepers, trawlers, and possibly destroyers. Grand Harbour on the other side of Valletta was for the capital ships, the aircraft carriers, battleships, and cruisers, as well as for the large cargo vessels and tankers, as the major docks, dry docks and repair areas were on that side.

Grand Harbour is still one of the leading industrial and repair harbours of the Mediterranean, with over ten dry docks, some of which are capable of accommodating the largest of supertankers, and several floating dry docks. Malta is trying to attract military repair contracts to bolster its economy, after the decline experienced after the British forces pulled out completely in 1979. Britain was pumping £35,000,000 annually into Malta for use of the bases up until then. Malta went through a “neutralist” period under the Labour Party after independence, flirting with Libya and other non-European countries, to its financial detriment. Now under the Nationalist government Malta is seeking military and industrial  contracts from all nations to bolster its economy and maintain its infrastructure. While we were there, the La Salle, a USN ship, was in for a major refit, and we saw an Italian helicopter aircraft carrier and a fleet of small German patrol boats with their supply/command ship in Grand Harbour for a port visit.

Back to Fort Manoel; I then found a fixed “drawbridge” spanning the dry moat, the only land entrance to the fort other than the restaurant at the front. Of course I crossed it, opened the unlocked gate and went in. No one was around to ask, so I just continued on into the middle of this large abandoned fortress, walking along the cobblestone passageway, past vacant warehouses with their forlorn empty windows and concrete sealed entrances, into a main intersection of empty barrack blocks. Several of them were open, and I wandered inside, up and down these two and three story structures, pipes hanging out, holes in the floors of the toilet and washroom areas, large rooms which would have housed bunks for the troops, recreation areas, empty windows overlooking the parade square and across the harbour to Valletta. Dust and masonry debris everywhere. Very dry. No graffiti, or signs of squatters. The structures were still quite solid and sound. Warehouses and repair shops were at the far end of these barracks.

There were the remains of an ornate Corinthian columned façade or altar area with some fancy scroll work, crests and Latin inscriptions at the end of one block, possibly a chapel or headquarters entrance off the main parade square. Flanking the open dusty dry concrete parade square were two other blocks with smaller rooms, balconies, kitchenettes and individual washrooms, tiled and with holes for their plumbing fixtures, These were probably officer or married quarters overlooking the bastions and gun emplacements facing across the parade square or the harbour entrance and across the water. The thought kept going through my mind that a developer could make this into a first class condominium development with its location and million dollar views across the harbour to Valletta. To dismantle this fort block by block to reclaim the land would be impossible or too costly an enterprise. This is a problem facing Malta as there are so many such forts in varying states of abandonment and disrepair. Their glory days are over.

We enjoyed reading a few books on Malta before, while there, and subsequent to our visit. “The Kappillan of Malta” by Nicholas Monsarrat was a good novel set in WW II from a Maltese perspective with flashbacks to other eras of Malta’s history. “The Cross and the Ensign, A Naval History of Malta 1798 – 1979” by Peter Elliot covered the RN’s involvement with Malta from Nelson’s blockade, siege and conquest from Bonaparte and the French to independence and final withdrawal of Britain in 1979 and the current policies of Malta. Another one was “The Struggle for the Mediterranean” by Joseph Attard, outlining all the Mediterranean campaigns throughout WW II. It is most interesting to read novels and documentaries about places to which we have sailed.

But we must move on. We’re two months behind our intended schedule, not that such is a driving force, but if we want to do Croatia during the summer we need to get there. Our last night in Sliema Creek was spent on Polly Brooks with Kirk and Kathryn watching a CD movie “Matrix”. One of the upgrades I want to get on my laptop is a DVD capability so I can watch some movies while Judy is devouring her novels. The morning of the 11th we went over in Sprite to check out with customs and the police, said our goodbyes to Seven Tenths and to Polly Brooks, and were on our way by 0945 to Sicily.

It was a clear day with force 4 winds from the northwest, which allowed us a good sail as we were going northeasterly (033 magnetic). It was interesting to see the supertankers as they plied their routes westwards. We saw four of them within an hour. Then further north we saw some eastbound ships. I don’t think there is a Traffic Separation Zone in this part of the Med, but they were obviously keeping to their port side as they transited the 50 mile wide Malta Channel between Malta and Sicily. At 2045 we anchored in Porto Palo (36 40.4N, 015 07.3E), a large well sheltered bay and fishing port on the south east point of Sicily, for the night, before heading up to Siracusa next day. More about Siracusa and our visit to Mount Etna in my next log.