Malta
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‘We’re a lifeline for Gozo’: life as a Gozo fast ferry master

When the Gozo Fast Ferry launched as a more efficient way to travel between Gozo and Malta, Charles Bonnici was the man at the helm for its maiden voyage. 

Nearing the end of its third summer, Bonnici finds himself facing the same challenge as when he began: the whim of the weather. 

As recently as Monday evening, the entire ‘Gozo Highspeed’ service was suspended due to unfavourable sea conditions.

‘‘Everyone reads the forecast, everyone except the sea itself,” Bonnici jokes. 

“When it’s rough, we try to visually see a smoother path for the ferry, but sometimes it’s impossible. Respect for the moods of the weather is one of the very first ‘survival’ lessons that seafarers learn.”

Except for rogue jet skiers, which Bonnici discloses are “top of the list” of annoying obstacles the ferry comes up against, the main problem he and his crew face is forced disruption due to bad weather. 

Since the start of this year, the service has seen 10 days of cancellations. 

Waves above 2.5 metres or wind above 25 knots mean that the 15-mile trip becomes too tumultuous for people aboard to withstand, even with the captain’s careful manoeuvring. 

In such conditions, Bonnici explains that an on-duty captain finds themselves faced with the tiring task of “standing, balancing, steering the ferry with the right hand and manning the engines with the left”. 

“The boats can handle rougher seas than passengers could take,” he notes. “We have to assume worst case scenario and err on the side of caution. We take no chances.”

When the enterprise started, crossings were cancelled on the basis of the forecast alone, with passengers given at least 24 hours of notice. More recently, ferries have continued to run right up until weather dictates otherwise. 

As Senior Master, Bonnici is the one responsible for making this call. 

“We’re not a leisure service. We’re a lifeline for Gozo. So we feel obliged to keep the service running as far as we can.”

He says it is “especially important for Gozitan nurses, doctors, and paramedics,” identifiable to the crew in their blue scrubs every morning. “The ferry helps bring Gozo closer to Malta.”

“Everyone reads the forecast. Everyone except the sea itself”

In the 1990s a similar service existed. However, a lack of demand meant this ‘Gozo Express’ was a financial flop. It’s only with the increase in Malta’s population that the need for a faster way to travel between Malta and its sister island seems to have become viable. 

Although the numbers aren’t large enough to justify two ferry providers –as shown by the combination of Virtu Ferries and Gozo Fast Ferry into one ‘Gozo Highspeed’ Service in June – there is a steady level of demand. 

According to the National Statistics Office, close to 500,000 passengers travelled between Mġarr and Valletta in 2022, approximately 8.4% of the total passenger journeys between Malta and Gozo. 

However, the ferries are frequently only half-full. 

“At full capacity, each ferry can take 300 passengers. That means it takes 300 cars off the road: less congestion, less waiting in traffic, less fumes.”

Your Wisdom, one of the vessels that is part of the Gozo Highspeed service. Photos: Charles BonniciYour Wisdom, one of the vessels that is part of the Gozo Highspeed service. Photos: Charles Bonnici

This is among the reasons that when it looked like, ‘the dream of setting up the Gozo Fast Ferry’ was about to become a reality, Bonnici was happy to accept the company’s offer to be their first Master. 

He remains dedicated to getting passengers where they need to be. 

Each long shift involves five round trips, he reveals, 10 45-minute legs with 10 15-minute handovers in between. During this time, a crew will travel up to 240 kilometres, nearly the distance between Malta and the Strait of Messina. 

Nevertheless, every second matters. Departing and arriving on time is a point of pride for Bonnici: “I’m always one minute early.”

Up on the bridge of Your Wisdom, where Bonnici and his chief officer Sean Camilleri control the vessel, there are empty cups of coffee, small green plants, and a knitted bear attached to one of the silver bars overhead, crafted by the wife of Dave Mooney, who helps run the onboard Till Late kiosk.

‘When you work at sea, it’s not just sea men and sea women. We’ve become like a family.”

Until five years ago, Bonnici used to be involved in offshore oil and gas exploration, building and launching new vessels all around the globe. 

What brought him back to Malta? 

Until five years ago, Bonnici used to be involved in offshore oil and gas exploration, building and launching new vessels all around the globe.Until five years ago, Bonnici used to be involved in offshore oil and gas exploration, building and launching new vessels all around the globe.

He wanted to spend more time at home with his wife and two young boys.

“All of the crew have come from the deep sea, jobs where you’re away for months at a time. I tried to work on land for two years but failed. At heart, I still want to be as far away from shore as possible.”

He works coastally as a compromise, but the draw of the distant ocean hasn’t subsided. 

Even his last days off were spent at sea, delivering a new motor yacht for a friend in Naples. 

“It’s been 25 years,” he smiles. “I can’t imagine myself doing anything else.’