The giant Ever Given container ship that became trapped in the Suez Canal took six days to be released. It was on its way to the Dutch port of Rotterdam when it became stranded, creating huge traffic congestion with hundreds of vessels waiting to pass through the Canal.
The Suez Canal is one of the world’s most valuable trade routes because it allows for more direct trade between Asia and Europe, eliminating the need to circumnavigate Africa and shortening transit times. The Suez Canal also referred to as the “artery of world trade,” carries at least 12% of all global trade.
Last month, the Ever Given vessel, which is about four football fields, got trapped in the canal. The news ignited an uproar, causing international headlines. After six days, several rescue operations to refloat and free it were successful. However, the last time ships were stranded in the Suez Canal; they were forced to stay for eight years, resulting in the creation of one of the world’s strangest “micronations.”
Ships Stuck for Two Consecutive Years in Suez Canal
Fifteen ships were lost in the Great Bitter Lake, a salt lake linked to the canal, between 1967 and 1975. They formed their society at sea because they were unable to escape.
It all started in June 1967 with the Six-Day War. It was an Israeli-Egyptian conflict. It was brief, but its effects recurred for years. According to history, when the war broke out, Israel seized the Sinai Peninsula. At the same time, Egypt blockaded the Suez Canal with sunken ships, mines, and rubble to cripple Israel’s economy.
According to CN Traveler, the ships were flying under eight different flags: four were British, two were West German, American, Swedish, Polish, and one each Bulgarian, French, and Czechoslovakian. The vessels docked together at Great Bitter Lake, in the center of the canal, when they realized they couldn’t move any further. They would be there for the next eight years.
The Experience Being Trapped
The encounter of being trapped was not one to wish for. The sailors had to watch as both sides of the war exchanged gunfire over their heads right from the outset.
“The first month felt like a vacation. The second month was very hard. By the end of the third month, it was terrible,” Captain Miroslaw Proskurnicki of the Polish ship Jakarta said.
The stranded crews created an unofficial micronation after mooring together. They dubbed it the “Yellow Fleet” after the years of desert sand accumulated on the decks. Members of this new “country” had to keep themselves occupied with little to do but clean the ships and perform basic maintenance. They founded the Great Bitter Lake Association to meet the needs of the crew.
Each ship was assigned a specific mission. One of the Swedish ships hosted pool parties, while another acted as a hospital. On the Bulgarian ship, movie nights were held. On a German freighter, the men (and one woman) arranged church services. Captain Paul Wall told the Los Angeles Times in 1969 that the church was more like a beer party. To this day, sailors joke that the lake’s waters were “35 feet of water and five feet of beer bottles.”
In 1968, the “mini country” held a version of the Olympics on the deck of the MS Port Invercargill, which included lifeboat races in the canal, weightlifting, air rifle shooting, high jumping, and soccer matches. It went on to establish its postal system and stamps.
On Sundays, the men would assemble aboard the MS Nordwind to create their postage stamps, which collectors from all over the world were requesting. CN Traveler stated that many letters from the Great Bitter Lake Association were sent, even though they were from hand-drawn labels from a made-up country.
The United Nations team brought supplies to the ships by United Nations Emergency force teams. During such visits, an agent came on board once a month to give two hours of radio time to speak with people back home. The use of radio between ships was prohibited.
After a few years, the shipowners were permitted to send the sailors home. Most of the freight that the ships were transporting rotted as well. To keep the ships afloat, only a skeleton crew remained.
The canal reopened in 1975 as Egypt and Israel moved closer to a diplomatic deal. Only two of the ships, however, were able to leave the lake on their own.