[WATCH] Why don’t the expert Maltese rowers compete in the Olympics?

As seven towns and cities around Malta get into top gear in their final preparations for the 8 September regatta in Grand Harbour, MaltaToday laments the absence of any Maltese rowers in the Rio olympics, despite the island’s strong rowing culture

The rowers are training for the 8 September regatta, the most important annual event for Maltese rowers
The rowers are training for the 8 September regatta, the most important annual event for Maltese rowers
Maltese rowers prepare for the 8 September regatta

The sun is setting behind the Senglea bastions as members of the Cospicua Regatta Club carry yet another boat down the ramp into the calm waters of the waterway between Senglea and Cospicua. 

This boat takes four rowers, it is known as “tal-pass”, and I am told that this very same boat came in first in the 31 March regatta. 

The rowers settle in their positions and with a couple of strong pulls at the oars, the blue-and-white-striped boat is soon away from the jetty and picking up speed quickly as it heads down the creek into the busier waters of Grand Harbour.

The rowers are training for the 8 September regatta, the most important annual event for Maltese rowers that each year sees seven towns and cities around the harbour area and beyond battle it out on the waters along Valletta opposite Senglea, Vittoriosa and Kalkara.

Meanwhile on television, the world watched Britain row to a historic gold medal in the coxed eight and grab a silver in the double sculls at the Olympics.

In Rio, rowing greats like Great Britain, the US, Australia and Germany competed in the heats against relative unknowns like Zimbabwe, Chinese Taipei, Thailand and Mexico.

Malta – despite our great rowing tradition and the passion of the regatta and other rowing clubs – was not represented in the rowing competitions in Rio at all. 

Training in the Harbour

The Cospicua regatta club was not the only one training hard in preparation for the Victory Day regatta; across Grand Harbour, boats from all the other participating clubs could be seen going to and fro as the rowers tried to find the perfect rhythm and balance.

Across the waterway from the Cospicua club, another crew lowered some more boats into the sea; these boats were painted green, and they belonged to the Kalkara regatta club, which was using a boathouse on the Senglea side of Dock 1 temporarily while work was carried out on their premises.

Each club’s boats are painted in the traditional colours of the locality they represent: Birzebbuga – red, white and blue; Cospicua – light blue; Kalkara – green; Marsa – red and blue; Marsamxett (Valletta) – yellow; Senglea – red and yellow; and Vittoriosa – red.

The various clubs frequently send their rowers to compete in competitions abroad, often featuring boats similar to those raced in the regatta.

And the Malta Rowing Association, of which all regatta clubs are members, is working hard to promote traditional Maltese sports while also slowly introducing international disciplines locally.

Racing the sleek boats (sculls) like those seen in the Olympics is inherently different to what Maltese rowers are used to.

Joe Grima, the association’s president, explained there were two major differences.

“Maltese rowers are used to fixed-seat boats, and those are the type of boats used locally in the regatta and other competitions,” he said. “And the association sends a number of rowers abroad every year to participate in fixed-seat rowing competitions.”

The boats used in major international competitions like the Olympics use sliding seats, so Maltese rowers would have to adapt to a new style of boat and technique.

“The second difference is that in traditional Maltese rowing, the athletes use their back and arm muscles mostly, as opposed to sculling, where the legs of the rowers take the brunt of the effort,” Grima said.

This notwithstanding, the association had already facilitated the way for a number of Maltese rowers to participate in sliding-seat rowing competitions abroad, and they had performed well.

Participation in such international meetings was not always easy, as the rowers would need to arrange for leave off their full-time work in order to be able to travel abroad.

Grima said the association was continuing to strengthen its relations with clubs and associations abroad that focused on fixed-seat rowing, while at the same time was exploring ways and means to increase the exposure of sliding-seat rowing in Malta.

For that to happen, Maltese rowers would inevitably have to change some of their training habits, as rowing in the low and sleek sculls would only be possible very early in the morning or late at night, even in the sheltered waters of Grand Harbour, so as to avoid the swell caused by sea traffic.

This will be a slow process, but already some have taken it upon themselves to further promote sliding-seat rowing in Malta.

Scullling: a different game

The Cospicua club itself in 2015 sent two of its young rowers for a week-long training camp in Germany where they were – like the rowers sent abroad by the association – quick to master the intricacies of sculling.

The two rowers, Max Mamo and Romario Brignone were quick to find their pace on the double sculls and went back to Germany earlier this year to compete in a regatta where they too performed exceptionally.

Mamo told MaltaToday that the week’s training, intensive as it was, was very exciting as he and Brignone tried to adapt a lifetime of technique learned rowing the Maltese boats to the vastly different world of sculling.

“We adapted quite quickly to the new boats, especially after mastering the sliding seats used in sculling, and we quickly realised why sculling was so popular,” he said.

“When we went to compete this year, it took us very little time to get reacquainted with the sculls and we were very proud of our performance in the races.”

Max Mamo wants to train on sculls in Malta but questions whether the open waters of Malta would be suitable for such boats
Max Mamo wants to train on sculls in Malta but questions whether the open waters of Malta would be suitable for such boats

Mamo said he wished he could continue training on sculls in Malta but expressed concern as to whether the open waters of Malta would be suitable for such boats.

Omar Vella, of the Senglea Regatta Supporters Club, told MaltaToday that sculling was totally different to what Maltese rowers are used to.

He said that the club sent a number of rowers to compete abroad every year, albeit not in sliding-seat competitions, as they had no training in that discipline.

“We would love to have the opportunity to learn and be able to compete internationally,” Vella said. “The association is already doing a lot to try and get us more exposure abroad; hopefully we will get to a point where we can train and compete in this discipline too.”

MaltaToday learned that it is not just the regatta clubs that would welcome the opportunity to train and compete in sculling competitions.

In fact, the newly-formed University of Malta Rowing Club is currently awaiting delivery of two eight-man sculls from the Oxford College Rowing Club in the UK.

Club president Steve Said told MaltaToday that he believed this sport would – slowly but surely – gain popularity, “even though the weather has to be extremely calm and rowing in these kinds of boats can only be done in Grand Harbour and other inlets that would offer shelter”.

“We plan on introducing Olympic-style rowing so that in the near future, if Maltese athletes are up to par, Malta would be represented internationally in another sporting discipline.

“Our take as to why Maltese athletes do not participate in international rowing competitions like the Olympics is because Malta did not have any boats that are used internationally but rather only train on traditional Maltese boats,” he said.

Said acknowledged that the young club – set up by him and seven other undergrad students – was still getting on its feet, but it planned to immediately introduce new university students to the possibility of joining their club for training on sculls.

He said the club had received a lot of assistance from the Malta Rowing Association, as well as from FISA, the international rowing governing body.

“As of yet, we are still hoping to get more help from the government regarding a clubhouse so that we would be even more independent,” Said said.

The club has already started training on professional rowing machines known as ‘ergs’ (short for ergometer), which can accurately measure work output and performance, allowing rowers to record their speed and distance as if they were on the water. But as the regatta draws closer, they are not the only ones training.

All the regatta clubs pick up their training in August; after months of gym training and conditioning, the rowers spend the last weeks leading up to 8 September on the water.

Cospicua club president Evan Buttigieg said that everyone got more excited as the hype about the regatta starts building and the rowers get on the water for a couple of weeks of intensive training.

“These rowers all have full-time jobs, so we train every evening, seven days a week, in the weeks before the regatta,” he said.

The newly-formed University of Malta Rowing Club is currently awaiting delivery of two eight-man sculls
The newly-formed University of Malta Rowing Club is currently awaiting delivery of two eight-man sculls

Vella agreed, saying that Senglea rowers would also spend most of the time on the water, rather than in the gym, in these last weeks before the regatta.

A member of the Vittoriosa regatta club, answering only to “Fanali”, said the club’s rowers were already looking forward to the regatta.

He said they too spent most of the off-season months in the gym and on physical conditioning.

“But the regatta is all about the rowers and the boats,” he said.

And that, for regatta followers all around Malta, is simple gospel truth.

Because even if many bemoan Malta’s absence in the Olympics, and others speed up preparations to get Maltese rowers there someday soon, thousands will flock to Grand Harbour come 8 September to watch the seven clubs row their hearts out in a bid to win.

This is about their hometown. This is about ingrained rivalry with the neighbouring city. And it is definitely about the shield. 

But most importantly, this is about the rowers and the boats.

Wise words indeed, Fanali, my friend.

The boats of the regatta

The boats are specially-built racing boats with fixed seats, single thole pins, and no outriggers. There are currently five classes of racing boat, built to strictly-enforced specifications: the dghajsa tal-pass with two oars (one standing rower, one seated); the dghajsa tal-pass with four oars (coxless four, two standing, two seated); the dghajsa tal-midalji with four oars (coxless four, two standing, two seated); the kajjik with two oars (one standing, one seated); and the frejgatina with two oars and coxswain (both seated).

Racing and placing in the regatta

Racing takes place over a 1,040m long course between Marsa and Customs House in Valletta. There are 10 races, one for each of the five classes of boat in two categories: A (open) and B (reserves and juniors). Prizes are awarded to the first three boats in each race, and points are accrued towards a victor ludorum trophy known as the Aggregate Shield for Category A and a lesser shield for Category B.