The colourfully decorated boats that can be seen floating around the shores of the Maltese islands have become a symbol of local identity and an icon of interest to visitors to the island. The bright shades of red, yellow, blue and green symbolize the land, the sun, the sea and the green fields, representing a fisherman’s home village.
These iconic boats offer a fascinating voyage into the long history of the island, dating back at least three centuries and having already been used during the Knights of St. John’s rule in Malta. The boats were built of timber and designed taking into consideration the unique characteristics of the Mediterranean Sea. Unlike in the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea exhibits waves that are relatively high, yet short, since there is not enough distance for wind to accumulate and create long waves. The lack of raw materials needed to build their own boats did not hinder the Maltese who imported timber from European areas both during the time of the Order of St. John and the British rule.
Although many of these traditional boats have been replaced with modern replicas, the ones that still lie along the coastline have retained their highly decorated and brightly painted characteristics. However, once popular fishing boats, the handful of traditional Maltese wooden boats left today mostly serve as a tourist attraction.
The Firilla (Il-Firilla)
The firilla is one of the earliest types of fishing boats in Malta. Originally used as a passenger boat between Birgu and Senglea, the firilla also became popular amongst local fishermen in the late 19th century. In its early years, the firilla looked much like the dgħajsa and the xprunara; it was an open double ended, carvel built boat with a straight keel. At the turn of the 20th century, stem posts fitted at 90 degrees were introduced to the boat’s design, making it distinguishable from other similar boat types. Barely any firilli boats can be seen around the island these days, demonstrating the rapid decrease in the number of firilli boats available.
The Luzzu (Il-Luzzu)
The Luzzu is essentially a wooden hulled fishing boat, built from strong timber and painted in traditional bright colours. The history of the luzzu dates back to the early 20 century, and it is believed to have evolved from the Italian gozzo boat. During the Phoenician times, the luzzu was quite considerably smaller than it is today and it also used to be equipped with sails. Nowadays, most “luzziijiet” are larger in size and are equipped with an on-board diesel engine. The design and style of these boats, however, is very similar to the ones used in ancient times. Also worth mentioning is the fact that the luzzu is one of the very few traditional Maltese boats which can be taken away from the island, while most other boat types were designed to be used to sail only between the islands’ inside bays and creeks. Many Maltese fishermen argue that the luzzu is better suited for fishing purposes than a fiberglass boat due to its heavier and more stable structure.
The Dgħajsa (Id-dghajsa)
Although sometimes used as a generic term to refer to any type of boat by the Maltese themselves, The dgħajsa or ‘Id-dgħajsa’ (in Maltese) is a traditional Maltese water taxi, dating back to the 17th century. Light in weight, these boats were ideal for ferrying passengers and goods in the Grand Harbour and Marsamxett Harbour. Despite having been in extensive use between the 17th and 20th century, the use of dgħajsas declined rapidly in the late 20th century, and to date, mainly only operate in ferrying tourists around the island’s harbours.
The Xprunara (also Known as the Gozo Boat).
The xprunara is a type of small merchant craft that served as the prototype to all traditional Maltese boats. Its roots date back to the 16th century and it was commonly used to carry passengers and merchandise between Malta and Sicily. During the Hospitaller rule in Malta, brightly coloured xprunaras had a spur at the bow and were commonly named after Christian saints.
The Maltese frejgatina is a small, carvel built fishing boat that was formerly rowed with two oars but nowadays mostly come equipped with an inboard engine. Unlike the luzzu, the frejgatina does not have a tall and tapered outward bow, making it unsuitable for long distance sailing. This type of boat is mainly used by the fishermen as a mere means of transportation from the shore to the fishing boat.