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Afloat between the fronts

In 1967, Egypt and Israel went to war, making the Suez Canal the front lines. The global shipping passage was brought to a standstill – with 15 ships caught in the middle as eyewitnesses.

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By Anton Delchmann & Anja Rieckert

Since its opening in 1869, the Suez Canal has been a key passage in global shipping traffic.

But one day, that artery came to a standstill.

This is the story of 15 ships that took nearly 8 years to complete a 12-hour journey and the crews that turned boredom into adventure and a war zone into a front line of seafarer solidarity.

The morning of June 5, 1967, a convoy of 15 cargo ships entered the Suez Canal, expecting the passage through Egypt to take 12 to 16 hours.

Then the bombing started. This was the beginning of the Six-Day War between Egypt and Israel.

Despite a cease-fire signed after six days of fighting, bombing went on for two weeks. The ships were caught between the two fronts with 14 stranded in the Great Bitter Lake, one of the widest bypasses in the canal. One ship, the American SS Observer, was stopped in Lake Timsah, one lake further north.

Egyptian canal authorities stopped the cargo ships from completing their journeys. They assured the captains that passage would be possible in a matter of days.

Instead, Egyptian forces strategically blocked the lake’s exits by sinking a dredger at the northern end and a ship at the southern end. The cargo ships were now trapped in the Great Bitter Lake. No one knew then that this blockade would last for another eight years.

The canal’s obstruction was a result of its location as the front line between Egyptian and Israeli troops. The Great Bitter Lake was in the middle of this conflict zone.

The Suez Canal is the shortest shipping route between Asia and Europe and is among the most important straits worldwide. Its sudden closure was a dramatic and unexpected shock for global trade.

Ships were now forced to travel the longer and more expensive route around the African continent.

Higher transport costs drove up the price of goods. Certain countries saw a doubling of their shipping distances, resulting in substantial changes in trade partnerships.

Countries in Southeast Asia and eastern Africa were hit especially hard. A ship from Mumbai headed to Lisbon now had to sail 9,700 nautical miles (NM) rather than the 5,300 NM possible before the Suez Canal’s closure.

Meanwhile, the winds covered 14 ships in the Great Bitter Lake and the lone ship in Lake Timsah in yellow sand, causing the crews to dub themselves the »Yellow Fleet«.

Deadweight tonnage, including the sum of the cargo weigh, fresh water, ballast water, provisions, passengers and crew

To reduce maintenance costs, the 14 ships on the Great Bitter Lake organized themselves into 3 groups with names assembled from the ships within the group. These were able to operate on skeleton crews and most of the sailors were sent home.

Later, these reduced teams were rotated in six-month cycles. Each team maintained all of the boats in their group.

These half-year teams were made up of 10 people, including 1 captain, 2 engineers, 2 engineers assistants, 1 electrical engineer, 1 carpenter, 2 merchant seamen and 1 cook staffing each of the three groupings. Each team were accompanied by two Egyptian soldiers.

The crews had regular contact with one another, offering much needed camaraderie to these isolated eyewitnesses of years-long tension around the Sinai Peninsula. They formed a group known as the Great Bitter Lake Association (GBLA).

For the shipping companies trapped in the Great Bitter Lake, it was a matter of course to help and support one another.

Their ships were carrying a wide range of goods, including foodstuffs able to sustain sailors from all the crews for some time.

Church services were held every Sunday.

Collective meals were regularly prepared, supported by a vegetable garden grown on the deck of France’s MS Essayons.

Even Christmas was celebrated together on the decks.

After a long series of negotiations with the Egyptian government, 12 German sailors were allowed to visit Cairo and the pyramids.

They sent postcards and letters from these adventures to loved ones at home. Often bearing unique »postage stamps« created on board and GBLA cancellations, these missives have become widely sought collector’s items among stamp collectors.

The shipmen also kept fit on board. Competitive sporting events ranged from rescue boat regattas to swimming or soccer tournaments, and even a Bitter Lake Olympics Games in 1968.

Medals were awarded for various events, with the Polish team taking the year’s crown.

Six years after the Six-Day War, the Arab world sought revenge for their 1967 loss. The Yom Kippur War began on October 6, 1973. The Yellow Fleet’s sailors were again under siege and endured attacks across the cease-fire line.

This time the Egyptians had also enlisted Syria to fight with them against Israel.

Israel was completely surprised by the attack, launched on the holiest day in Judaism. It took days for the Israelis to regain their positions before advancing against the Arab armies.

Superpower pressure on the warring parties led to a ceasefire agreement on October 25, unanimously passed as Resolution 340 in the United Nations Security Council.

After years of standstill, the canal, including the Great Bitter Lake, was a stagnant ceasepool of equipment and artilery.

After the troops were recalled, naval units began freeing the canal from mines and war wreckage. They removed 3 sand dams, excavators filled with cement, 20 semi trucks, at least 8 tanks and more than 100 small boats and barges clogging the waterway. A further 750,000 mines were removed from the banks.

The clean up took almost two years. During this time, the German engineers were working on getting the MS Münsterland and the MS Nordwind ready for the passage home.

On June 5, 1975, the day finally arrived for the Yellow Fleet’s seamen to say goodbye to the Great Bitter Lake – and to one another.

The German ships were the only ones to return to their ports under their own power. When they came home, around 30,000 spectators greeted them as they reached the Kiel Canal.

Even today, the story of the Yellow Fleet remains one of the most moving episodes of seafaring history – not only for its exceptionalism, but also for the beacon of optimism, camaraderie and mutual support in the face of an apparently hopelessness situation shone by its formidable sailing crews.