Before Facebook, social media, digital cameras, mass tourism, mobile phones, modern buses, over-development and more, Malta was a very different spot. It was a sparsely populated island with next to no surfers… or indeed any at all until one daring man dipped his toes in the water on a rough and cold evening at Għajn Tuffieha Bay.
The rest, as they say, is history. I met up with Edwin Galea for, yes more drinks and food (don’t judge, it’s this job I swear) and one of the most insightful chats yet. We surfed down memory lane to a land of yesteryear, a land of the unknown where Edwin was coming of age in the stormy waters around our bays.
“I had just finished a windsurfing session and drove to Riviera to chill and unwind” Edwin opens, catching his breath. “I really just went to see the waves and they drew me in.” Next thing he knows is that he used his windsurf board as his surfboard and a rope as a leash. “We had no wax in those days but my board was grippy…but I had the totally wrong set up, single fin, no hard rails for turns…and still loved it”
“It was a dark, windy day, the beach was empty and I was totally alone…” Having only 12 to 14ft waves as company, he jumped in on that cold wintery evening. “I was hooked straight away… even though I got slammed!”
Back then Edwin used to windsurf with three other buddies, Jacques Savonna, Karl Azzopardi and Peppi, aka Gunny. Remember, this was 1989. You couldn’t just share a live stream from your phone back then and wait for your mates to join you. You were literally in solitude out there. His friends didn’t even know he went to try this new sport out.
This time, surfing, Edwin was in the water, rather than skimming off it on a windsurf. “I was in the waves, in the whitewash, with the jellies…” “… and the adrenaline was huge.”
“When I told my friends they were excited and wanted to join immediately”. “We’d hang out at Riviera back then to chill, jam, barbeque and drink… it was a real magic spot for us”
That was 1989. Malta’s first documented surfer. A local. A true native. “I’ve never ever surfed abroad. I am a native and was discovering this sport by myself.” There were no YouTube tutorials back then (shocking, I know) and barely any books. “I would get magazines from abroad and study them and six years later my buddy gave me my first surfing book. I’d ask people who travelled to bring down equipment like wax, or a leash.”
It wasn’t long before Ed had his first board. “Yeah man this American friend had one which was part of his furniture at home and I bought it off him.” It’s a truly organic approach to the sport.
No windfinder, no internet, no mobiles. “We had no idea where the waves were… me and my friends used to literally just follow the wind and wind up surfing in dangerous spots, spots which aren’t surfed these days.” They risked their lives, and indeed Ed has even saved four people from drowning in that notorious Riviera Bay rip current.
His love for skateboarding and windsurfing lead to the growth of a new passion. One which required less equipment and was totally raw to the islands.
“I know that in the 60s and 70s two guys surfed here too… one windsurfed and one used a longboard… one vanished and the other passed away.” There was no way to get training, or indeed more information until sailors would come to Malta with their own boards and surfed too.
Malta’s 80s surf scene
“We were only four surfers back then…” which is a far cry from today’s scene.
“Surfing kept me in Malta. We had a tiny island, 360,000 inhabitants, virtually no tourists, empty bays, nature and surf.” On the breakpoint back then eight surfers were considered many… today it’s bursting at the seams.
Malta’s a global touristic destination and the island has changed dramatically. “We were free back then, no traffic, no parking issues… just grab your board and go.”
“We were the locals back then, and the respect was there… we’d snake eachother just for fun because we were the only ones, a small clan of surfing friends.”
Edwin’s lifestyle revolved around his sports. He juggled between surf, windsurf, jogging and gym to stay fit. He worked four hours per day four days a week. The rest was all fun and games. “We surfed, jammed, produced music and chilled on loop.”
“There were days where I surfed until I dropped… literally vomiting and having diahreah due to the sun, exhaustion… and sewage.
In those days, sewage up north was pumped directly into the sea. This was a young, immature island with zero environmental awareness.
Back then the surf spots were minimal. “It was literally the ones we discovered, we surfed Riviera and Golden Bay which were the safe spots, but surfed around in Gozo too, up at Ramla Bay and some other secret locations.”
“Ramla’s current was (and still is) treacherous, but I was a total daredevil. I had to be… I was going against the current and I never saw rougher conditions than those in Ramla.”
Fast forward to July 2021 and longboard Liam Spiteri just saved two people from drowning there. Some things never change. “Once panic sets in, you’ve had it, and I’ve had my fair share of scares, ” adds Edwin.
“The element of the sea in those conditions overpowers you.” warns Edwin. This sport is not for the unfit, the faint hearted or the weak.
These two sports are married and in a future episode of BOMBA we’ll dive into skateboarding and its past here much deeper. “This was essentially surfing on land and it was my go-to hobby.” Training on skateboards made the transition to the sea more natural, and since Edwin is a pioneer for both sports locally, we’ll catch up with him soon about those skateboarding days.
Advice for young’uns getting into surfing?
“Go straight to the big waves in the deep end… that’s how I did it… you’ll never learn how to catch a wave unless you try and fail on big waves.” Simple as ever from Edwin.
Surfing in modern Malta: Valerio Cicconi’s world.