Eight years on the Suez Canal

In 1967, fifteen ships and their crews were trapped on the Suez Canal because of the Six-Day War. The ships would remain there for the next eight years.

Suez Canal from space
NASA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As I write this the Ever Given container ship has been stuck in the Suez Canal for five days with no end in sight. But this is not the longest time that a ship has been trapped in the Canal – the record is five hundred times longer.

Back in 1967, the Six-Day War between Israel and Egypt, Jordan, and Syria ended with the Israeli occupation of the Sinai Peninsula. This put one bank of the Suez Canal under control of Israel and the other bank under Egyptian control. The Egyptian government, in an effort to refuse Israeli access to the canal, blocked both ends with scuttled ships and mines. There was just one problem: fifteen European and American ships – plus their crews – were still in the canal when it was sealed up.

Fourteen of those ships docked in the Great Bitter Lake, the enlarged “passing lane” section of the Suez Canal. When it became apparent that they weren’t getting out any time soon, the stranded crews formed a sort of small impromptu nation. The MS Port Invercargill, out of the United Kingdom, was the largest ship – so they gathered on its deck to play soccer. The West German MS Nordwind became the sailors’ church; the Bulgarian ship MS Vasil Levsky screened movies. They ran their own Olympic Games and awarded each other painted lead medals. They even issued stamps so that they could communicate with their families.

The crew gradually found ways to get off the ships and back home – the last original crew member left in 1972. The ships became covered in a layer of desert sand, picking up the nickname the “Yellow Fleet.” It wasn’t until 1975 that the canal was reopened and the ships could leave – although only two of the ships were actually able to get out on their own.

They were German ships, of course. When they pulled into Hamburg and delivered their cargo (only the non-perishables were left) they completed the longest cargo shipping voyage in history. So far.

[Thanks to Carillon.]

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