07-Mar-2004 -- Today the Scirocco (SE-wind) is blowing with force Beaufort 5, and that means always: hazy visibility. Nevertheless, it is time to add a new country on the list, which is Malta.
A long time I did not visit a new country, as the last years I followed mostly always the same boring tracks. I started to feel myself already similar to a subway engine driver in London. But now we have to discover the Mediterranean under the point of the confluence view. I have been previously certainly many times on all these confluences, but I did not know about the project :-(
36N 14E is located west of the island of Gozo (Ghawdex). Gozo's principal town is Victoria (Rabat), with a large cathedral. Somebody told me that on the islands of Malta stand altogether 365 cathedrals, one for every Saint of the Day for the entire year. Another prominent cathedral we can see at the village of Gharb. Gozo is almost entirely surrounded by perpendicular cliffs. The island attains an elevation of 196 m.
The island of Malta itself was not so well visible from the confluence. However, it is the largest of the Maltese Islands. Malta as well consists for the most part of perpendicular cliffs, surmounted by steep slopes. The remaining coasts are much indented by bays and creeks with the most important being the harbours of Valletta.
The Maltese Islands, whose name comes from the Latin word "melita" ("as sweet as honey"), are strategically located in the central Mediterranean Sea and stand on the ridge, which separates the West basin from the East basin of the Mediterranean. The islands are chiefly formed of sandstone, and most of the soil has been brought from Sicily. As before told, the larger islands are Malta and Gozo (Ghawdex), and there are several smaller islets, as for example the rock of Filfla in the SW of Malta, which is certainly worth not to remain forgotten.
Archaeological remains of structures on Malta are assessed among the oldest in the Mediterranean region. Neolithic temples, dated between 4000 and 3000 B.C. have been found and there is evidence of bronze-age occupation. Malta was colonized by the Phoenicians in about 900 B.C., then in turn by the Greeks, Carthaginians and Romans. The Arabs took control of the islands in 870 AD and introduced Arabic. Malta was joined politically to Sicily and ruled by a succession of feudal lords, between the ninth and early sixteenth century. In 1530, Emperor Charles V of Spain handed the islands over to the Knights of Saint John who fortified the islands, built the capital Valletta, and ruled over the islands until they were dispersed by Napoleon in 1798. The Maltese rebelled against the French and the islands were blockaded by the British until they were seized in 1800. The Maltese people requested the protection of the British Crown in 1802 on condition that their rights and privileges were preserved. Malta's status as a British colony was recognized in the Treaty of Paris in 1814.
Malta was again besieged during WWII, between June 1940 until the end of the war, gaining the George Cross in the process, which still today is a part of the Maltese flag. In 1964 Malta became an independent Republic within the Commonwealth of Nations. Malta has a population of about 380,000 and is one of the most densely populated countries in the World. The population are of mixed Italian, Arab, Turkish, Greek and British ethnic origin. The official language is Maltese, a mixture of elements of the languages of the before named ethnic groups.
The Mediterranean climate provides hot, dry summers and mild wet winters, with absence of snow, frost and fog. The long summer drought excludes many European plants. Many plants have thickened stems, waxy coatings and small prickly leaves to discourage browsing animals. Succulent (i.e. water storing) plants thrive in this climate.
Fishing is an important industry with about 400 full-time and 1600 part-time fishermen. Tourism is the primary industry with well over 1 million tourists visiting the islands annually. At Malta Drydocks in Valletta shipbuilding and repair is carried out. The most important port of Malta today is no longer Valletta, but Marsaxlokk on the southern tip of Malta.
When I visited Malta the first time in 1976, Marsaxlokk was still a sleepy and romantic fishermen’s village. I had just completed successfully senior high school and my father, happy to finally got rid of me, gave me a free train ticket valid for all European railways for 4 weeks and unlimited mileage, his rucksack made of canvas he still was using himself already during the war in Russia and Northern Africa, - and a 100 $ pocket money as appreciation... - not much compared with the exorbitant amounts of money children are receiving nowadays – and even without graduating successfully from schools :-(
"And now go and see the world!" he told me. And so I did. The roundtrip brought me to Amsterdam, Paris, Madrid, Lisbon, Marseille... - no hotels, but spending overnight in overcrowded night trains, no restaurants, but harvesting fruits in the gardens of other people, no cabs and similar conveniences... and finally I ended up in Malta (the last money was spent already in Lisbon, but never mind - somehow I managed).
Well, back to Marsaxlokk: Seeing all these tanks and gantries one may ask, what for such a tiny island needs such a port? Certainly not for handling their own imports and exports, which are very limited. Marsaxlokk is a so called "hub port". 95% of the cargo handled there has nothing to do with Malta, but is stored here for subsequent distribution to many other Mediterranean ports or already collected from all around the Mediterranean, in order to ship it with large intercontinental ships.
This works as follows: Large ships, especially container ships have extremely high port expenses. Pilot dues, tugboats and quay hire are sky-high as they are mostly calculated according to the tonnage of the ship. Loading and unloading operation is of course expensive as well. Therefore the operators of container lines reduce the number of ports of call of their large ocean carriers to an absolute minimum, - calling only "hub ports". Of course, these companies cannot only call hub ports; they have to serve niches as well in order to render their network as intrinsic as possible and to offer a maximum worldwide coverage. The cargo distributed from and to the hubs is done with smaller, mostly chartered coastal ships (so called "feeders"). The mother ship herself, performing the real voyage, is calling only the hubs. A single port call for a ship with a capacity of 8,000 containers cost about $ 200,000, including all costs for the cargo operations).
Let's take a container from Sweden to Korea. It would be insane to load this container in the port of Stockholm aboard a ship and send the ship directly to Pusan. In realty the container will be "feedered" by a small ship to e.g. the port of Felixstowe near Harwich in England (a major North European hub). There the mother ship takes it on board among thousands of other containers from many Northern and Central European countries. The mother ship will call now her next hub, let's say, Marsaxlokk, - her MedSea-hub, as shipping people use to name it. There is already waiting all the cargo meanwhile collected from the Black See, the Adriatic, the Eastern and Western Mediterranean. Other important MedSea-hubs are Taranto (Puglia, Italy) and Gioia Tauro (Calabria, Italy). It depends on the shipping company which hub they are using.
Now the mother ship passes the Suez Canal and calls her Middle-East-hub, let's say, Ṣalāla in Oman. Her next hub, the SE-Asia one is mostly Singapore, and then she calls finally her Far-East-hub, - let's say: Kaohsiung in Taiwan or Hong Kong. There the container from Sweden will be discharged and feedered up to Korea. The mother ship will immediately commence her way back to Europe via the same hubs, for which she has already loaded cargo in Asia again and where is new cargo waiting for her.
A major hub in North America is e.g. Freeport on Grand Bahama Island. A hub is not necessarily a very big port, but it has to be located in a strategically advantageous place, avoiding any major deviation of the mother ship.
Sailing on such a huge container ship is not pleasant. The captains there are under permanent pressure, as they have to follow a strict schedule. This is no sailing like on my old cargo ship, where they let me wait a week or so idling around due to no cargo available, or where they give me orders like: "Just proceed in direction Gibraltar. Once you are there drop anchor and let us know. We have nothing for you at present." And after a week: "Proceed to Alexandria, we have found some oranges for you to carry to Russia."
But this is a comfortable kind of sailing. I have done duty on large container carriers and I would not do that again. This is something for the young people having to prove still their skill and ability. No longer for Captain Peter. No way. I don't need that havoc and permanent strain. I want to carry my stinky fish to Africa or fruits to Russia and to be left alone when I visit my confluences :-)
Information about Malta obtained partly from Nautical Publication Nr. 45, Mediterranean Pilot, Vol I, 11th
ed. 2002, Hydrographer of the Navy, Taunton, England)