Is the luzzu on its last trip?
Talks are underway with the EU to stop it funding the destruction of traditional wooden Maltese boats and replacing them with more modern and safer ones, the curator of the Malta Maritime Museum has said.
The EU directive, while having “good intentions”, asks fishermen to surrender their licenses in exchange for compensation in an effort to control fishing.
Its objective is to provide financial measures for the implementation of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) and the sustainable development of fishing and aquaculture areas, helping fishermen to comply with new requirements.
But within the framework of the Association of Maritime Museums of the Mediterranean, efforts have been made to raise awareness of the “bad” financing of the destruction of traditional boats and to explain their importance, said curator Liam Gauci.
He acknowledged that there was a consensus between the EU and the countries concerned to put an end to this practice, while significant local investments continue to be invested in these vessels, in particular thanks to the commitment of two manufacturers full-time boat owners to restore their own collection.
Countries like Greece, for example, are also working to recover and restore traditional hulls through private properties after thousands were destroyed as a result of politics. Meanwhile, in Malta, the largest survivor dgħajsa tal-Latini – measuring 48ft – is now in its first year of boatbuilder restoration to seaworthy condition, and the other is working on the colossal task of salvaging Heritage Malta’s collection of 82 traditional Maltese boats, amassed over the last 30 years.
“A luzzo could be bought for €4,000, but its “massive, intrinsic and uncalculated value” went beyond that”
As custodian of the collection, the museum houses all varieties, Gauci said, noting however that they represent only 5% of its mission.
Work on the century-old boat, bought by the national agency, is a “big headache”, absorbing hundreds of thousands of euros in wood and research, Gauci said, explaining that it aims to save every luzzo on the island required money, manpower and concrete plans and could not rely on volunteers alone.
It was responding to concerns from Malta’s fledgling Traditional Boats Association, which provides for the luzzo will be a thing of the past within three decades.
“We wish they could all be saved, but in the cold light of day it is a very difficult exercise to perform,” said a pragmatic Gauci, questioning what “traditional” really meant and putting the luzzus – which are not even 100 years old – in their larger context.
When restoring these wooden boats, even the environmental aspect had to be considered, he said.
While EU policy, “with all good intentions”, was funding the destruction of traditional fishing boats, its Horizon programme, one of its latest calls for projects aimed specifically at preserving traditional craftsmanship, appeared a contradiction, said the associate professor. of Maritime Archeology at the University of Malta, Timmy Gambin.
Passionate about maritime heritage in general, Gambin said it’s not just about nostalgia.
A luzzo could be had for €4,000, but its “massive, intrinsic and uncalculated value” has gone beyond that, spreading through Malta Tourism Authority posters, postcards, Instagram photos of the iconic eye on these boats and visits to Marsaxlokk.
Taking a proactive approach, Gambin called for financial concessions and incentives, such as tax breaks, for full-time fishermen using these boats to maintain the tradition.
He also suggested the creation of a national census of the number of boats, their use and their condition to determine the situation.
“While the Cultural Heritage Act states that anything over 50 years old is considered cultural heritage, triggering its protection, the rule does not appear to apply to traditional Maltese boats,” Gambin said, pointing out that nothing is wrong. prevented anyone from wantonly destroying them.
Also highlighting the demand for this rare knowledge, he recounted how one of the few remaining boat builders was approached for a job and was only able to take it on in 2024.
Moved to tears by lost skill
An old traditional fishing boat builder says he is moved to tears when he thinks of the “lost” skill.
Giuseppi Baldacchino, now 82, learned the dying craft from his father and would have liked to pass on to the next generation what he says has become an “art form”.
His advanced age no longer allows him to build wooden boats on his own, but he has “all the experience in his head, and above all in his heart” and would be happy to welcome a few apprentices to share it.
“They should be interested, dedicated and passionate,” Baldacchino insisted as prerequisites, saying it required patience and dedication.
He says that fiberglass dealt a big blow to wooden ships: it was in the 1970s that this material took over and when Baldacchino built his last luzzo, although he continued to build cabin cruisers and other types of wooden ships. His garage in Msida is still full of equipment, drawings and models.
The part-time boatbuilder had spent nine years as a nautical school instructor, but recent moves to use his rare skills have not taken off.
“The Italians, and in particular the Sicilians, have carried on this tradition,” Baldacchino stressed, lamenting that it no longer exists here. The Malta Traditional Boat Association noted that many are abandoned, derelict and destroyed, with the cleaning and maintenance division having recently removed around 70 of them from the streets.
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