Seven minutes. That’s the longest average time a rower will spend racing on the day of the traditional regatta after months of rigorous training.
“Ah those seven minutes. There is nothing like them. They are tough and you have to hang in there and keep going,” says Lino Fabri, 66, who has been rowing in the regatta for four decades.
“It is tempting to stop rowing, but once you finish the race, the satisfaction is immense and you will keep going back to row year after year, race after race.”
Fabri is one of the oldest rowers. His love for the regatta started in his childhood and he is proud to help keep this Maltese tradition alive.
The regatta races are national events held twice yearly. On Freedom Day, March 31, it marks the withdrawal of the British troops and the Royal Navy from Malta in 1979.
It is also held on September 8, Victory Day, whose origins include the end of the Great Siege of Malta in 1565, of the French occupation in 1800 and the Siege of Malta during World War II.
Rowing teams representing the cities bordering the Grand Harbour – Cospicua, Kalkara, Marsa, Marsamxett, Senglea, Vittoriosa and Birżebbuġa – take part in 10 races under two different categories using four types of traditional Maltese boats – frejgatini, kajjikki, dgħajjes tal-pass and tal-midalji.
The 1,080-metre race starts at Ras Ħanżir and ends at the Old Customs House.
“You train all that for a few minutes. The average time of the longest race is seven minutes and the shortest average is four-and-a-half minutes,” Fabri says.
While he was born and bred in Senglea, over the last 40 years he never had the opportunity to row for his city since there was never a slot available. So instead, he has rowed for all the other cities, or districts, as he calls them.
His passion for the regatta started when he was a boy, aged about seven, as he joined other children playing along the shoreline in Senglea.
“We were always playing near the sea. There we would see rowers preparing for the regatta, see them train and listen to them speak,” he recalled.
As he grew up, he started expressing the wish to take part in the races but it was not easy since the rower slots were taken up. He first rowed in the 80s and never looked back.
As he thinks back at the hundreds of races he had done, he talks about the pride and fond memories of the 1996 regatta when he placed first with Kalkara. He has come in second and third many times.
“I remember one year there was a tragedy when a car fell into the sea during a race. I was racing on a frejgatina and placed second. When I got to shore, there was chaos,” he recalled.
It was a shock to everyone to learn that Josianne Cesare and her 18-month-old son Jean Luca died when the car rolled into the sea during the 2001 Freedom Day regatta.
In recent years, Fabri has trained young rowers, harping on the importance of training all year round. Training includes running, gym and indoor rowing.
Unfortunately, he says, seasoned rowers often stop training and rowing in their 40s.
“The enthusiasm is still strong in clubs but not so much in the audience. In the past, the bastions were bursting with spectators. Now far fewer people come to see the races.”
But nothing will stop him from racing as long as he has the strength. Which is why he is training to row for Marsa next month, with a group of people from the Siġġiewi team set up last year.
“This is a tradition. We rowers love it.
“I am 66, one of the oldest rowers still participating, and I plan to keep rowing for as long as I can.”
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