It is said that the first steps leading to a successful adventure are quite important.  The purpose of this concise write-up is to give the background to the highly successful results which now make Malta the foremost Ships’ Registry in Europe and a leading Register globally.

As an introduction, I should state that my long involvement in shipping matters started surprisingly quite by coincidence. It so happened that when I was serving as an Executive Officer in the then Customs and Ports Department, I was asked by the Comptroller of Customs to start looking after and administer the office of a senior civil servant (Mr. J. Milanes) who had died suddenly. As this happened prior to Independence, this experienced and highly respected administrator had been doing duties as Shipping Master and Registrar of British Ships in terms of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894 of the United Kingdom, which then still applied fully to Malta. I distinctly remember spending days, and often nights, reading through the voluminous British Act and probing the office files to get an understanding of the duties involved. It resulted to me that although the office was officially recognised by the Registrar General in Cardiff, UK as a registrar in respect of the many British mercantile/passenger ships that called at Malta, the actual registration processes were hardly in use. The main duties were those of Shipping Master, which largely involved the engagement and discharge of crews, the repatriation of discharged seamen, the provision of medical care to sick or injured seamen and, not infrequently, resolving disputes between ship captains and crew members. I continued to learn the ropes in this shipping office for about five years when I was abruptly transferred to the Office of the Prime Minister in 1964 doing mainly HR and training duties. It appears however that the shipping label stuck on me.

Soon after Dom Mintoff took over as Prime Minister in 1971, I was approached and directed to help establish a Malta Shipping Register like the one recently established in Cyprus, which had the support of the many Greek shipowners. In early 1972, following arrangements made through diplomatic channels, I visited Cyprus and held discussions with the maritime authorities there. On my return to Malta, I passed the details of my visit to the Attorney General (then Dr Edgar Mizzi) who had already been busy drafting the local legislation to replace the UK Shipping Acts which continued to apply even after Independence until they were repealed through the enactment of the Merchant Shipping Act of 1973. Discussions took place with the Prime Minister and agreement was reached on a set of fees (registration and annual fees) and the consequential exemptions from local taxation which included Income Tax, Succession and Donation duties and Stamp duties.

The new Merchant Shipping Act (Act No. XI of 1973 – Cap 324), consisting of no less than 376 articles and five schedules, came into force on 6 April 1973 and soon after, in June 1973, I was officially appointed the first Registrar-General of Shipping and Seamen in terms of Art. 363 of the Act with responsibility, under the direction of the Minister, ‘to undertake the general superintendence of all matters relating to merchant shipping and seamen and ensure the carrying into effect of the provisions of this Act’. I considered that my first tasks should be to create the administrative systems and documentation (including the Ships Register itself and the many certificates listed in the Second Schedule of the Act) which were necessary to bring the Act into effect. Another major task was to formulate the many regulations which arise from the provisions of the Act. I can now say that seeking the approval of my Minister (being the Prime Minister himself) for the necessary rules and regulations was not a light task as anything I presented was subjected to deep scrutiny by the Prime Minister. Another task, which I considered essential, was that of reaching out to several private shipping agents and firms of lawyers to promote the new Register and attract shipowners through them. Progress was understandably slow, but I was pleased to note that in less than three years (until I moved to Sea Malta in 1976) there were already over 130 vessels flying the national colours for Maltese ships.

No sooner the Prime Minister was satisfied with the work carried out in the development of merchant shipping, he turned his attention to marine pollution, which was a risk that Malta faced, considering the frequency of oil-loaded tankers that plied in the vicinity of the Maltese islands. For this purpose, he asked me to prepare legislation aimed at preventing and controlling sea pollution, which I did.  However, I soon realized that he had a bigger project in mind. He aimed at establishing in Malta an IMO sponsored office for marine pollution control. He asked me to go to IMO in London and try to invite the Secretary General to come to Malta for talks with the Prime Minister. In the discussions that the Prime Minister eventually had with the Secretary General (at which I was present), as could be expected, the Prime Minister’s aim grew loftier, and he tried to persuade the Secretary General to bring the whole IMO organization to Malta and even offered to house IMO at the Bighi building, overlooking the Grand Harbour, which was then still unutilised. The IMO chief thought this was impractical but after further discussions he agreed to the setting up in Malta of a Regional Oil-Combatting Centre, which, I sensed, was the original aim of the Prime Minister. I cannot help recalling that as we were seeing the Secretary General out, the Prime Minister, very unexpectedly, patted me on my back and thanked me.

My liaison with merchant shipping continued strongly. I was soon struck by the dearth of certificated navigation officers, marine engineers and able-seamen. So, I did not lose time to create arrangements for training in nautical subjects. For this purpose, I had talks with the Guardia di Finanza in Rome and Naples and had the opportunity to visit the U.S. Coast Guard, as a guest of the U.S. government. These contacts led to the establishment of a Nautical School and a Cadetship Scheme in the previous Admiralty House in Kalkara.

Early 1977, marked a radical change in my hitherto attachment to the legalistic and administrative side of shipping when I was asked to move to the purely commercial aspect of shipping. I was asked by the Prime Minister to take over the running of the newly formed Sea Malta Ltd. (then under the chairmanship of Mr Albert Mizzi) from the expatriate Managing Director (Mr P. Guez) whose term of office had come to an end. I spent fourteen years in this company as General Manager and Managing Director until I was recalled to the Office of the Prime Minister to take over duties as head of the newly established Management and Personnel Office.

My merchant shipping involvement would not be complete if I do not mention the many directorships that I occupied during my appointments as Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen in 1973 and as Managing Director of Sea Malta Ltd. after 1976. These included:

Tug Malta Ltd.

Mediterranean Offshore Bunkering Co. Ltd

Gozo Channel Co. Ltd. (Chairman)

Malta Shipbuilding Co. Ltd.

Maconte Ltd. (Freeport development)

Mediterranean Insurance Brokers Ltd.

Additionally, I served as a Member in the Port Labour Joint Council (1977- 1987) and Port Workers Board. I acted as Chairman of the Committee for the Reorganisation and Modernisation of Port Services (1987/88) and participated as Malta Delegate in several official conferences relating to ocean chartering, marine pollution, liner conferences, Pacem in Maribus, Transmed 1987, transhipment matters with Algeria, Libya, and Tunis and also a UN technical cooperation meeting held in Argentina.

To conclude, I must not fail to mention that after my retirement from the office of Permanent Secretary in 1997 and the subsequent six years as Chairman of the Public Service Commission I had my long shipping association renewed when I was asked to create and run an association which brought together the many shipowners who operated ships under the Malta flag. Given my shipping inclination and experience, I gladly accepted this proposal and soon set up the Malta International Shipowners Council (MISC) – later described as an Association – and acted as its General Secretary. This association gave me the opportunity to take part in board meetings of European shipowners held at ECSA in Brussels and where I could therefore continue to promote registrations under the Malta flag.  I resigned from this Association in 2011 when I was 75 years of age.

To end this write-up, I wish to express my fullest appreciation of the Registrar Generals who very ably and competently carried out the duties that I had started in 1973. Their work, knowledge, dedication, and efficient administration have made the Malta Register the biggest register in Europe and a leading register globally. They have dealt admirably with several amendments to the original legislation to render it more responsive to operational changes and circumstances which arose over the years, such as eligibility for registration, the payment of fees, provisional registration, chartered vessels, transfer of shares in ship, maritime privileges and mortgages, priority of mortgages, ranking of creditors and bareboat charter registration. Also, highly commendable and impressive is the more recent expansion in superyacht registration.

Karin Grech
Author: Karin Grech