MALTA DIARY: Bridge or tunnel – never-ending saga between Malta and Gozo
Man has landed on the moon, is making preparations to land on Mars, has orbited the planet Earth a thousand times and probed the Pacific depths with a measure of great accuracy. The islands of Malta and Gozo are separated by just a few kilometres of Mediterranean Sea but for over 50 years ongoing heated debates have yet to decide whether the two islands should be linked by a bridge or a tunnel – and everybody is becoming bored stiff.
These heated arguments began when I was a young man and an aspiring journalist. Since then I have grown old and my hair has turned grey but a solution is no nearer to being concluded.
If I had it my way, I would do neither. The Gozo Channel ferry covers the distance between Cirkewwa in Malta and Mgarr in Gozo in 20 minutes, in good weather a picturesque day experience in sunshine, sailing on blue seas. As a boy so many years ago, it was a more embellished and thrilling experience as dolphins and flying fish zig-zagged under the ferry’s bows – alas all gone today, scared off by hundreds of speedboats and cabin cruisers furrowing the sea.
Then again, I live in Malta and not Gozo – although I do have Gozitan relatives – and that makes a world of difference. Gozo has an ageing population as the younger generations have steadily and persistently gone off to Australia or the USA to begin a new life, while a substantial number have to work in Malta for a living – easier said than done.
Employment opportunities in Gozo are limited to either a limited number of civil servants, teachers and bank employees, tourist facilities including hotels, bars and restaurants, the Gozo General Hospital and health, the Gozo ferry service, farmers, fishermen, shop-keepers and assistants, the self-employed and a limited number of small-scale industries.
The more ambitious have perforce to commute to Malta daily and that means catching the early morning ferry at an unearthly hour and making the weary journey back home in the late afternoon, after muscling through Malta traffic, catching the boat and making the way home in Gozo. It is exhausting and sapping and leaves little room for a social life on an early-to-bed, early-to-rise philosophy. Summer crossings may be bearable, but some winter days can be dark, ominous and tempestuous.
With this backdrop, many Gozitans understandably seek a quick-fix remedy of bridge or tunnel, yet even their camp is divided with traditionalists claiming that either one or the other would ruin Gozo’s character and easier and quieter pace of life – a stance that causes chagrin among the commercial sector.
The Maltese warily eye the expense from public expenditure involved in constructing one or the other although whatever final result toll fees will be involved at a reduced rate for Gozo commuters – in line with their current ferry discount and of course understandably enough. Understandably too, many of those working in Malta either move there permanently or have to take hired accommodation – at an expense – and university students suffer particularly in having to attend Malta University at Tal-Qroqq in Malta.
Those are the brief pros and cons, but not the subject of this piece because for many centuries the sea link has been the vital one. Tiny islands in the Mediterranean have bred mariners since time immemorial, then the sole vital link between the outside world. Trade, communications and fisheries depended on them, so there was always a link between the two islands.
Late in the 20th Century a helicopter service was run but did not enjoy a long life span because of high operational expenses.
However, the first kind of marine passenger service is estimated to have commenced in 1241 when lateen-sail boats began an irregular commuter service. The nearest likely landing point in Gozo was Mgarr, a shallow and unprotected bay in which a jetty was constructed and is still there today just below the famed Gleneagles Bar.
As traffic increased, Mgarr Harbour developed and had its first breakwater built in 1841 and subsequently strengthened over the years. The new protection gave rise to the first proper and regular ferry service which commenced on 13th June 1885 – 131 years ago this week! This was an official mail service operated by the shipping agents O.G. Gollcher & Sons Ltd (of Swedish origin), an agency that still exists to this day, still bearing the family name but now very much Maltese.
The vessel was the Gleneagles (and hence the Gleneagles Bar) and the fee for passengers included one old British penny to be given to the church at Mgarr in gratitude for a safe arrival!
Down through the years there followed a string of romantically-named vessels running regular services with names like The Princess Melita, The Lady Strickland, The King of England, The Royal Lady, The Calypso, The Bancinu, The Maid of Pinto, The Hanini and The Queen of Peace, among a number of others.
These were successively operated by leading commercial families and concerns, including Joseph Gasan (who was also a pioneer in initiating public road transport in Malta), the Dacoutros wine vinters (in conjunction with Gasan and Grech), the Magro and Zammit families and E. Zammit & Sons (known as “Karistu”).
Finally, in the 1970s the Government stepped in, nationalised the service and created the Gozo Channel Company, now known as Fleet Gozo Channel Co Ltd.
Today there are sophisticated and well-run modern terminals at both ends, a regular schedule service (switched to shuttle on heavy-traffic days, particularly during the summer months) occasionally interrupted by high north or south westerly winds and rough seas but generally a comfortable and relaxing passage.
One highly interesting fact – the internationally famed Jacques Cousteau bought his very first exploration boat from Malta, the MV Calypso which plied the Malta – Gozo Channel and which he had converted but retained the name, in the 1950s and hence commenced a lengthy marine research career which was to bring him fame and wide international acclaim. Interesting too that his later replacement boats he also retained the name and hence Calypso II, III etc.
The worst tragedy occurred 68 years ago on 30th October 1948. In those days the service solely consisted of the early morning voyage from Gozo to Malta and an afternoon return. High south-westerly winds caused the ferry MV Bancinu to cancel the return voyage back to Gozo but a number of people insisted they had to return there and then. They hired a traditional luzzu boat to ply the journey, normally a very reliable type of fishing and cargo boat. A total of 27 people boarded the boat.
As it neared Gozo, the high winds and whipping sea waves became even more ferocious and the boat owner wanted to enter the small bay at Hondoq ir-Rummien but the passengers would have none of it and insisted the boat continues to Mgarr, a short distance away,
The luzzu continued its voyage but suddenly capsized and sank. There were only four survivors and 23 people perished. To this day the event is annually commemorated with prayers and laying of wreaths at sea in the vicinity where the ill-fated boat foundered.