SURFSKI SPOTLIGHT: MALTA
It was the chance meeting that changed Christopher Camilleri’s life forever.
In 2010, he was forging a career as one of Malta’s best sprint kayakers – which is an achievement in itself, as the island holds no permanent rivers or lakes.
Instead, for years he had paddled his K1 up and down his local marina’s 600 metre stretch.
Eight years, in fact.
Up, turn, down, turn, repeat.
And opening onto the blowy Mediterranean Sea, it was rarely a smooth ride.
“There was a South African guy, Nico Smith, who just walked in one day and was asking about our kayak club,” Camilleri recalls.
“He told me, ‘You know what? You should start surfski paddling.’
“He was living in Dubai and managed to get us six boats and even organised a shipment to Malta.”
“We got these quite old surfskis… an Epic V10, an Icon and some old lifesaving skis – and that’s basically how it started.
For the Maltese kayaking community, this one act of initiative – and showing of kindness – would prove to be a complete game-changer.
Situated around 100 kilometres to the south of Italy, and 300 kilometres to the east of Tunisia, Malta truly is a paddler’s paradise.
Unlike the rest of neighbouring Europe, the air and water both stay warm year-round, and crucially for surfski paddling, the wind regularly blows.
Malta is also stunningly beautiful.
Its largely dry, rocky landscape creates a striking contrast to the island’s expansive turquoise waters.
The nation boasts a proud, rich history on the water too – so surfski paddling came as a natural fit.
“When we got those first skis, it was like letting a lion out of a cage.”
“It just gave us such an incredible opportunity to explore and train outside of the harbour, and obviously our seas make for a really nice place to do that.
“I found it just came naturally to us in Malta.
“We could ride waves quite easily because that’s what we grew up paddling our kayaks in – not in flatwater.”
GALLERY: Malta’s dry, barren landscape makes for a spectacular backdrop for the island’s surfski community.
Surfski paddling became an instant passion for Camilleri.
And although he continued to kayak for a few more years after that first shipment arrived…
He had been bitten by the bug.
In 2013 Christopher married his partner – also a Maltese kayaking representative – and stepped away from the sprint discipline, beginning his shift toward surfski.
“The six surfskis that we had at the time had zero secondary stability, so you had to be quite a good paddler from the get-go to be able to get on the open water,” he says.
“So in 2015 we got an extra set of boats, nine Viper skis produced by NELO.
“They were the sort of intermediate-beginner boats that allowed us to create a good platform to introduce the sport to the general public in Malta, as well as host international paddlers who may be visiting.
“It was a really huge opportunity for us.”
This concerted effort to grow the sport gave rise to Surfski Malta – a dedicated coaching centre.
Unlike in established paddling countries like Australia and South Africa, there was no blueprint to follow.
But operating out of a small boat shed on the harbour, Surfski Malta soon exploded in popularity, quickly laying claim to being one of the largest ocean paddling hubs in Europe.
“It didn’t take much advertising, just by word of mouth people were coming,” Camilleri says.
“And from there, it’s only continued to grow.”
Key to the take up was the community-focused approach that Camilleri formulated.
He knew that paddlers needed something to aim towards, but he didn’t want them to feel the pressures of racing.
The result: the Comino Challenge.
“In the beginning of summer we would hold a couple of Open Days at the club,” he explains.
“We had 18 new paddlers and over summer we would dedicate a boat to them along with physical training, technique work and an introduction to open water and waves.
“This course would culminate in the 15 kilometre Comino Challenge, where they would paddle from the very tip of Malta to Gozo, around Comino and back.
“The triangular course meant you would get downwind, upwind and crosswind… so if they could complete that, then they had mastered the basics of surfski paddling.”
Comino is one of Malta’s most idyllic locations, but provided a great challenge for the island’s emerging surfski community.
It proved to be a huge success.
“Dawid Mocke mentions it – surski gives you fitness, adventure and racing,” he explains.
“When you remove the word ‘race’, you attract more people.”
“Sure, our ‘challenges’ end up being a race anyway, but as stupid as it sounds, when you remove the word “race” it’s more inviting for people to get involved.”
“To go sub-four minutes in a sprint boat, it takes years of training.
“Even with our new paddlers, it doesn’t take long before you can exceed 15 kilometres an hour on most downwinds.
“When conditions are right, you’re enjoying it and feeling the speed… it’s amazing and that’s what keeps people involved.”
But Camilleri isn’t content.
A decade on from those first six surf skis arriving on Maltese shores, he’s more determined than ever to drive the sport forward – even while juggling his job as the managing director of a finance company.
“I have been working for the past 15 years, and what I learned is that you have quite a sedentary life in an office and if you don’t do anything you will age quickly, so it’s really important to me.
“And you get also a good sun tan while you paddle, so I can’t complain!” He laughs.
This past summer saw surfski paddling in Malta reach new heights.
“We escalated the Challenge to paddle around all of Gozo.
“Once again, we trained a group up from scratch and at the end they paddled the 36 kilometre journey, which was just incredible.”
But that effort will soon be usurped – and by some margin.
“We’re going to take it a step further and hold winter races while building towards a new challenge… this one will paddle around all of Malta over a three-day series.
“It’s a tough challenge because you’re racing on back to back days, but for the past three years we’ve been driving these programs and everyone is really enjoying it.”
That circumnavigation will total 70 kilometres, but will pale in comparison to Christopher’s long-term goal: a 100 kilometre crossing from Malta to Sicily.
“I am not doing it for any type of promotion. I just want to show that surfski is the best kind of craft for our conditions,” he says.
Although the magnitude of the challenges are increasing, so too are the opportunities for beginners.
For the first tine, single day clinics will be held across winter for new paddlers.
Crucially, all of the equipment is provided by the club.
“Our philosophy is to not push them into buying their own gear when they’re starting out.
“It doesn’t matter which brand of ski they’re on at the start – what matters is that you get your fundamentals right and that they are taught to you in the right way.
“Obviously our limiting factor is the number of boats we have, but we are working on doubling our fleet this year, meaning we could host 30 paddlers at any one point.
“It’s not a money making exercise for us. We are all volunteers, we don’t get paid to do it – we are just passionate about it.”
Being a non-profit club, fundraising is vital.
Any costs associated with its programs go toward new equipment and rent for their shed.
Last summer they were able to purchase an Epic V8 Double, which proved hugely beneficial.
“It was really good to teach people how to downwind because they can get in the back and learn the timing of paddling and of the ocean,” Camilleri says.
“At the end of the day, I am not an employee there.
“I do it from my own free will because I love the sport and want to make these opportunities open to as many people as possible.
“When I started I was a student and could barely afford a paddle, so I am trying to keep it as affordable as possible for others.”
In the space of just 10 years, surfski paddling in Malta has enjoyed an incredible rise.
Christopher admits there are some days paddling through the harbour, surrounded by dozens of likeminded paddlers, where he reflects on just how lucky he was to have that chance encounter with Nico.
“Destiny sort of has a way with these things,” he reflects.
“Unfortunately I lost touch with him, the email address I had for him at the time is no longer active, but he was a fantastic guy.
“He hosted me in his own home in Dubai, and through that, he unknowingly started surfski paddling in Malta.”