MalDia 03 (03-09-14) brawnThe first Henley Royal Regatta in England was held in 1839 and boasts to be one of the oldest in the world. However, compared to Malta’s 8th September Regatta it is still a baby. Additionally, it is far removed from the tea-and-crumpets docility of Henley because it is very much rough-and-ready and fiercely and furiously contested because pique and pride always top the agenda in Malta. It is a sea rather than a river event.

When the Knights of St John and the Maltese survived the siege and vanquished Ottoman Empire designs in early September 1565, Knight Grandmaster Jean Parisot de la Valette cleverly adapted the feast of “The Madonna as Child” on 8th September (known in Malta as “Il-Bambina”) and declared the day to be a National Holiday of celebration and dubbed it as “La Vittoria” (Victory Day). To commemorate the occasion he decreed that annually on the day the Maltese were to hold a Regatta in the Grand Harbour – and that was that.

As luck would have it, there were other events later on in history that seemed to conform to the notion of “victory” in early September. Napoleon

MalDia 01 (03-09-14) the foursBonaparte’s invading French troops were expelled with British help early in the 9th month and in 1943, the Italian Mediterranean Fleet surrendered in Maltese waters, bringing an end to the Italian bombardment of Malta.

Besides being one of Malta’s five National Holidays, the festa is celebrated on the day in four localities in the Maltese Islands. One is at Senglea, one of the Three Cities that bore the brunt of the Ottoman invasion and today enjoys a Basilica Status and – like Rome – is enabled to sport red and yellow regalia. The other areas are Naxxar, Mellieha and Xaghra in Gozo (in Maltese “X” is pronounced as “sh” and the “gh” is silent).

Naturally enough the Three Cities, together with Marsa have always been the main Regatta protagonists in view of their prominent role in the Great Siege. The three are Cospicua (in recognition of its conspicuous role in the Siege and in Maltese known as “Bormla”), Vittoriosa (in Maltese “Birgu”, a corruption of the Italian “Borgo”) and Senglea (“L-Isla” in Maltese and named after its founder the Knight Grandmaster L’Isle Adam). They compete between them for an enormous shield and against fierce rivals Marsa and representations from Birzebbugia and Marsamxett (Valletta).

The winning locality is based on an accumulation of points in various heats that include the fours, doubles and singles. Boats used are the traditional Maltese “dghajsa” based on the Venetian gondola and the rowers normally push forward and backwards rather than just row backwards. Each stage winner is awarded a “Paglio” based on the Florentine horse race paglios.

Competition is fierce and tough, based on brawn, stamina, tactics and brain. The Mediterranean temperament is always bubbling just below the surface and fisticuffs between competitors and rival spectators are not infrequent. Some years ago, the Regatta was unexpectedly won by Marsamxett (Valletta) and their supporters ran rife in the neighbouring suburb of Floriana which does NOT even compete in the Regatta but is Valletta’s fierce rival on the football field!

The event attracts thousands of spectators mainly from the Cottonera region but is a natural curiosity for tourists watching the bitter rivalry with amusement. All the oarsmen are amateurs and train for the event throughout the year to build up the stamina and staying power needed. The Harbour bastions are festooned in an array of colours representing the three main competing cities.

The “dghajsa” multi-coloured wooden craft is a work of art but nowadays is largely ornamental in contrast to the hundreds of dghajsas that criss-crossed the Grand Harbour in between the two World Wars and shortly after with Maltese boatmen earning their living ferrying British sailors to and from their ships and often having to contend with drunken sailors. Needless to say the boatmen were all tough guys with brawn taking precedence over brain.