This page is a re-print of a complete Chapter appearing
in "The Dghajsa and Other Traditional Maltese
Boats", written by Mr Joseph Muscat and published
in 1999 by Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti. Our
sincere thanks to Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti,
the author, the publishers and all those involved in
the original publication for thier kind permission to
allow us to re-print in order to raise funds for the
restoration of the "Sacra Famiglia".
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.
The 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.
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.
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
The 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.
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.
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 the 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.
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.
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.
With 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.
Copyright by kind permission from Joseph Muscat
(the Author) and of Patrimonju Malti (the Publisher).