There is a gym for merchant ships

Three days of blockage? These ships waited eight years

The current blockade in the Suez Canal means that many merchant ships are unable to progress - for days, if not weeks. In contrast to the waiting time of the so-called yellow fleet, this is more than acceptable.

The container ship “Ever Given” has been blocking the Suez Canal - one of the most important waterways in the world - for three days. The freighter ran aground on Tuesday and stood sideways so that none of the following or oncoming ships can pass.

And so it means to wait: more than 200 ships are already stowed on both sides and hope that the giant container will be salvaged soon. It is not yet clear how long it will actually take - a few days or even several weeks - compared to the waiting time of the “Yellow Fleet”, it will certainly remain manageable.

In the 1960s there was a blockade in the Suez Canal, which kept the 14 ships from eight nations involved in waiting for almost eight years. The reason at that time was not a wrecked ship, but the outbreak of a war, followed by an ongoing diplomatic crisis.

On June 5, 1967, a convoy of 14 freighters crossed the Suez Canal to the north. At that time it was common for several ships from different countries to sail the canal together in one direction in order to be able to control the traffic more easily.

Between the lines

But this time the ships did not get further than the Great Bitter Lake, the widest part of the canal. The reason: the six-day war between Israel and the Arab states of Egypt, Jordan and Syria had broken out. Peter Flack was then a member of the merchant navy and was on the British freighter Agapenor, also part of the convoy. In the “99percentinvisible” podcast, Flack reported from the morning of June 5th.

He had just started his shift when his captain told him that the war had broken out. Shortly afterwards, fighter jets were already flying over the waiting ships - Israeli planes bombed Egypt. The crews of the Agapenor and the other ships were suddenly right between the fronts.

As reported by Cath Senker, author of the book "Stranded in the Six-Day War", the ships in the convoy were asked to anchor and await further instructions. The war lasted only a week, but the diplomatic crisis persisted. And so Egypt ordered a complete standstill on the canal.

“First of all, they didn't want Israel to have access to the canal,” explains Senker. And secondly, nobody could use it like that and "no hostile power could get into it". To be on the safe side, the canal was blocked by sinking old ships - and the convoy was trapped.

A soccer field on deck

Three months passed before at least the crews could go home. Although the Suez Canal has not yet been reopened, a compromise had been negotiated that at least the crew members could disembark. Since the shipping companies did not want to give up their ships, they sent new crews to the freighters every six months.

And so not only gradually developed a feeling of togetherness among the crews, in October 1967 they even founded an association with the aim of promoting friendship and mutual help: the Great Bitter Lake Association (GBLA).

The association was intended to regulate the unofficial trade that had arisen between the ships. The newly formed but still provisional community was to be given structure. Membership in the GBLA also included events that were hosted by a different ship each week.

People got together and shared what they could share: they drove regattas in lifeboats, a soccer field was laid out on one freighter, another housed the gym, while another ship became the medical point of contact. Even the "Great Bitter Lake Olympics" took place based on the 1968 Olympic Games.

Journey home after eight years

When the Suez Canal finally opened again in 1974, the heyday of the GBLA was long over. It was not until 1975 that the ships could leave their anchorage. First the canal had to be cleared again: parts of bridges, tanks, shipwrecks and 750,000 explosive devices were in the water.

Eight years after the blockade began, the ships were able to start their journey home. But not without help: most of the freighters had to be towed, only the two ships from West Germany made it back to the port of Hamburg on their own.

One of the two, the "Münsterland", not only set a record for the longest sea shipping, parts of the transported goods that had been on board for the entire eight years, three months and five days had also increased in value : Wool, steel, lead and ore sand were suddenly worth 1000 percent more.

From 1967 to 1975 over 3,000 men and one woman served on the “Yellow Fleet”, which incidentally earned its name from the yellow sand that wafted from the desert onto the decks. Some of the crew still meet once a year to remember their time together in the Suez Canal.