It took six days for the giant Ever Given container ship that got stuck in the Suez Canal to be freed. The vessel was en route to the port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands when it got stuck, causing massive traffic with hundreds of vessels waiting to pass through the Canal.
The Suez Canal is one of the most important trade routes in the world as it allows for more direct trading between Asia and Europe, cutting off the need to circumnavigate Africa and reducing voyage time. At least 12% of the global trade passes through the Suez Canal, which is often described as the artery of world trade.
The Ever Given vessel, which is about the size of four football fields, got stuck on the canal last month, making headlines across the world. Several rescue operations to get it refloated and freed became successful after six days. But the last time ships got stuck in the Suez Canal, they had to be there for eight years, and that even led to the creation of one of the world’s weirdest “micronations” in history.
From 1967 to 1975, 15 ships were stranded in the Great Bitter Lake, a salt lake connected to the canal. Not able to leave, they formed their own society at sea.
It all began with the Six-Day War of June 1967. It was a war between Egypt and Israel. It was brief but its consequences were felt for years. History says that when the war broke out, Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula while Egypt, in its attempt to ruin the Israeli economy, blockaded the Suez Canal with sunken ships, mines, and debris. This caused problems for all the world’s ships, but particularly for the 15 ships which had been transiting the canal on the day of the closure.
The ships were flying under eight different flags: four were British, two each were West German, American, Swedish, and Polish, and one each Bulgarian, French, and Czechoslovakian, according to CN Traveler. Realizing that they could no longer leave, the vessels moored together at Great Bitter Lake, at the center of the canal, and would be there for the next eight years.
From the start, things were tough; the sailors watched as both sides of the war exchanged gunfire over their heads. “The first month was like a holiday. 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 marooned crews, having moored together, formed their unofficial micronation. They later called it the “Yellow Fleet,” in reference to the years of desert sand that swept over the decks. With nothing to do except to clean the ships and attend to basic maintenance, members of this new “nation” had to keep themselves busy. They first formed the Great Bitter Lake Association to cater to the needs of the crew.
Each ship was given a special duty. Pool parties were held on one of the Swedish ships while one ship served as a hospital. Movie nights were on the Bulgarian ship. The men (and one woman) organized church services on a German freighter. The church was more of a beer party, Captain Paul Wall told the Los Angeles Times in 1969. Sailors to date jokingly say that the lake’s waters were actually “35 feet of water, and 5 feet of beer bottles.”
The “mini nation” even held a version of the Olympics in 1968, and this included lifeboat races in the canal, weightlifting, air rifle shooting, high jumping and soccer matches on the deck of the MS Port Invercargill. It further developed its own postal service and stamps. “On Sundays, the men would gather aboard the MS Nordwind and produce their own postage stamps, which collectors were requesting from all over the world. Many letters from the Great Bitter Lake Association were actually delivered, even though they were from hand-drawn labels from a made-up country,” CN Traveler wrote. Supplies were brought to the ships by United Nations Emergency force teams, the New York Times said, adding that an agent also came aboard once a month to allow two hours radio time to talk with people back home. The use of radio between ships was forbidden.
After some years, the companies that owned the ships were allowed to rotate the sailors home. Much of the cargo the vessels had been carrying also got rotten. Soon, only a skeleton crew remained to keep the ships afloat.
In 1975, as Egypt and Israel got closer to a diplomatic agreement, the canal reopened. However, only two of the ships were able to leave the lake under their own power.