Once Upon a Time, There Was a Country in the Suez Canal

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In 1967, 14 cargo ships manned by young European and American sailors sailed across the Suez Canal and found themselves smack in the middle of a war zone – a war between Israel and Egypt. Arabs vs. Jews is a rivalry that goes so far back that it’s hard to pinpoint which land belongs to whom. Unfortunately, the young sea merchants, who had literally nothing to do with the geopolitics of the Middle East, unwittingly sailed into that heated battlefield on their way home and remained stuck there for eight bizarre years.

Sailors on the deck of the Yellow Fleet’s cargo ships.
Source: Pinterest

Astonishingly, the sailors, who spoke completely different languages, managed to create such a lively and spirited environment that it felt like they were on vacation at some adult summer camp. They hosted BBQ parties on deck, played cards, participated in sailing races and water-skiing, and even hosted their own mini-Olympics.

Here’s a look into their eight surreal years stranded at sea.

“War Looks Glorious on TV, but It’s Actually Horrific”

Connecting the Mediterranean with the Red Sea, the Suez Canal is an incredible engineering achievement. It’s made life easier for cargo ships, allowing them to cut directly through Asia to Europe instead of having to take the long, arduous journey around Africa.

The aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower transits the Suez Canal in 2013.
Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

The Suez Canal has heaps of exciting tales surrounding it. But arguably the most radical one is the story of the Yellow Fleet – 14 cargo ships that unwittingly found themselves in the middle of a battlefield. Aircraft and bombs were hovering above their heads, and shooting missiles were flying from Israel to Egypt and back again.

“On TV, war looks glorious. But to be honest, it is not. It is completely horrific,” noted John Hughes, a sailor from one of the said ships.

At the Wrong Place at the Wrong Time

It was 1967, and 14 vessels of different flags – four British, two West German, two Polish, two from Sweden, one French, one Czechoslovakian, one Bulgarian, and one American sailed into a war zone. Israel and Egypt were at each other’s throats. It was the third Arab Israeli war, also known as the Six-Day war.

An Israeli soldier is observing the borders of the Suez Canal with his binoculars.
Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images

In the months leading up to the war, tensions were dangerously high. Israel was threatening to attack after they had been banned from shipping along a waterway called the Straits of Tiran. Egypt placed its forces along the border with Israel, and Israel decided to fight back.

Unfortunately for the passing cargo ships, they found themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time.

They Knew They Were Sailing Into Trouble

Heino Clemens, an officer on one of the German vessels, was only 22 at the time of the war. His ship was returning from India and had stopped for fuel at the port of Djibouti (a country right above Ethiopia) when he overheard American sailors talking about the dangers of entering the Suez Canal.

A ship sailing across the Suez Canal.
Photo by Roger Anis/Getty Images

The men aboard his ship decided to take the risk and sail ahead anyways. Similarly, John Hughes, a British sailor, was warned during one of his ship’s pitstops in Aden, Yemen, that they “better get back to their ships because it’s going to kick off around here.” Hughes revealed that they took a vote that night whether to carry on up to the Suez Canal or sail through the bottom end of Africa. The arms raised that meeting signaled to carry on.

It Was Clear as Daylight That They Were Stuck

As the 14 ships docked alongside each other in the Canal, none of them imagined they would be stuck there for the next eight years. They presumed that at the crack of dawn they would be on their usual route back home. But morning came along, and it was clear as daylight that they weren’t going to sail anytime soon.

Israeli soldiers look at the burnt Egyptian aircraft at Al Arish airport, in Sinai, during the Six-Day War.
Photo by Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Getty Images

On the morning of the 5th of June 1967, the sailors aboard all 14 ships were startled by the roaring engines of three Israeli army jets hovering above them on their way to Egypt. The sailors hastily grabbed their binoculars and followed Israel’s aircraft as it bombed Egypt’s air force base.

The Bombs Kept Them Awake at Night

Israel’s attack frightened the sailors, who quickly stuck their country’s flags on their ships to indicate that they were neutral and weren’t affiliated with any of the angry sides. “We wanted to show we weren’t involved in these regional tensions,” sailor Heino Clemens explained.

A cargo ship with several flags on it.
Source: Facebook

Glancing at each other from the ship’s decks, the young men, some as young as 19, exchanged worried looks and puzzled gestures. For six days, they saw the restless planes, the incessant bombing and the flying bullets shooting from both sides. At night, the explosions kept them awake. And during the day, the action surrounding them wouldn’t allow for any shut-eye.

Egypt Closed Down the Canal

As quickly as the war emerged, it ceased. After six days, Israel reached the Suez Canal. It had officially conquered Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Israeli troops spread across the eastern side of the waterway, and Egypt stood across the western. Frightened by the possibility of further conquer, Egypt decided to show dominance by closing the Suez Canal altogether.

Scuttled ships blocking the entrance to the Suez canal at Port Said during the Six-Day War.
Photo by Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

They wanted to physically prevent Israel from having any access to the Canal. So, they scuttled old ships all around the southern and northern entries, filling it with a barricade that made the Canal impassable. And smack in the middle were, of course, the poor sailors who had nothing to do with the war in the first place.

Trying to Escape Was Pointless

The 14 cargo vessels were instructed to drop anchor in an area of the Canal called the Great Bitter Lake. There, they were told to sit and wait for any further development. “We noticed that a dredger had been sunk, blocking the northern entrance,” Peter Richmond, a British sailor, recalled.

An Israeli soldier watching from across the Suez Canal during the Six Day War.
Photo by Central Press/Getty Images

The sailors understood that the same thing had likely been done to the south of them, making the idea of escaping pointless. “There was no possibility whatsoever,” Peter noted. The men had little to no control over their situation.

They Were Isolated From the Rest of the World

With no internet, telephone, and satellite navigation, the men on board had no way of contacting the world outside the Canal. The only hope they had was the main ship radio that broadcasted all over the world, but that was taken away from them by the Egyptians, who feared that they would use it to leak information about the situation.

An Egyptian soldier aboard one of the ships in the Suez Canal.
Source: YouTube

As a result, each vessel had an Egyptian soldier patrolling it to ensure no fishy business was happening behind closed doors. “[The soldier’s job was to look after the interests of the Egyptian authorities,” British sailor John McPherson reported.

They Turned Their Lifeboats Into Taxis

Days turned to weeks, and weeks surprisingly turned into months. None of the sailors could genuinely fathom their situation. But, with no end in sight, they knew that something had to be done. If not outside of the Canal, then at least within its perimeter.

Sailors in the Suez Canal sailing on lifeboats.
Source: Pinterest

The captain of one of the British ships decided it was best to get in touch with the other countries, so he let out a lifeboat and used it as a taxi to sail around. He stopped by each vessel, offering his help and suggesting that they work together to form some sort of community. The men didn’t need much convincing. If they were to be stuck there for God knows how long, sticking together was a must.

They Swapped Meat for Fruit and Fish for Tea

From that point on, they came up with a number of creative ideas on how to improve life for everybody on the lake. The first and most obvious one was to swap produce and treat each other with whatever delicacies they had on board.

Sailors eating on the deck of one of the ships.
Source: YouTube

America would give Sweden frozen meat they picked up from Australia, and Sweden, in return, would pass them some fresh fruit and green tea they collected from Hong Kong. The ships were overflowing with cartons packed with all sorts of food. So thankfully, no one ever felt deprived or hungry.

Some Sailors Were Sent Home

After several months, the captains of each ship decided it was best to keep a skeleton crew of around 20 something people on board and let the remaining folks go. The vessels, they said, needed just a minimum of crewmembers to keep them in shape.

Sailor Sean Dring interviewing for an Al Jazeera documentary.
Source: YouTube

British sailor, Sean Dring, offered to stay on board. “I was 20, and I thought, well, okay, I’m the youngest, I’m not married, I haven’t got children. Yeah, it should be me that stays here for however long it takes for this conflict to end. I had no idea it was going to end up the way it did,” he recalled.

They Had Daily Duties

The ships’ owners decided to rotate the cruise every four months or so, allowing the merchant seaman a break from the bizarre situation. Each sailor received his full wage during their time onboard, even though there was little work to do apart from basic maintenance.

Sailors aboard one of the stranded ships in the Suez Canal.
Source: Pinterest

Maintenance included painting the vessel to keep it clean, removing layers of dust created by sandstorms, and operating the engine once in a while to keep the boat going. Every month or so, they moved the ship, sailed around the lake, and returned to their original position.

Why Yellow Fleet?

The convoy of cargos was known to the world as the Yellow Fleet because of all the sand that covered their ships. The frequent sandstorms covered their hulls in fine desert sand, painting their vessels a distinct yellow color.

One of the ships in the Suez Canal casting shadows on the Sinai desert.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It’s interesting to see how each ship came from a different country, spoke a different language, and had different cultural norms, but under the scorching hot sun and the ongoing tensions of the Middle East, they were forced to become one nation.

They Hosted Their Own Olympics

In 1968, the Olympics were held in Mexico. Bugged by the idea of not being able to watch it, the sailors on board decided to take the initiative and craft a sports competition of their own. It was everyone’s idea, driven by their desire to do something fun and meaningful.

Sailors playing soccer on deck.
Source: Pinterest

Their games included football, sailing, and weightlifting. They even had prizes and medals for the winners. The medals were made of lead and painted in gold, silver, and bronze by the Polish ship. They were handed out to the most skillful man who triumphed above the rest.

A Daily Routine of Cards and Darts

When they weren’t hosting Olympic games or painting their ships, the boys would relax on deck, play darts, cards, sing songs and even go out for hour long swims. Most of the sailors were young, lively, and energetic. Being stuck in the Canal was an adventure.

Yellow Fleet sailors playing guitar.
Source: Pinterest

They welcomed their bizarre situation with parties and sing-alongs. They spent hours on deck strumming the guitar, coming up with different anthems. “We were in a very comfortable prison,” the captain of the Polish ship, Miroslaw Proskurnicki, noted.

They Founded Their Own Yacht Club

Besides card games and BBQ parties on deck, the men hosted movie nights, screening films on the Bulgarian ship. They also dipped their feet in the pool over at Sweden’s ship, Killara. The men even formed their own yachting club, attaching sailing gear to the lifeboats and sailing across the lake during sunset and sunrise.

Sailors waterskiing in the Great Bitter Lake.
Source: Pinterest

If they were in the mood for something a bit more meaningful, the boys would hop on the West German ship, Nordwind, where church services were regularly held. All in all, it looks like the guys did a good job at creating their own mini nation, complete with traditions and rituals.

They Formed the Great Bitter Lake Association

In stark contrast to the rest of the world, the sailors of the Yellow Fleet formed memorable connections and displayed refreshing kinsmanship. It was imperative for them to get along if they wanted to maintain their sanity. As the months dragged on, the small community formed the Great Bitter Lake Association – the GBLA.

A GBA member jumping on deck.
Source: Pinterest

The concept was developed by the Swedish, who believed it would be a good idea to create something concrete and valuable. Something that would give the men something to do, basically. Whoever joined the GBLA received a badge and a neat tie with a small anchor on it.

The Association Was Open to the Public

The GBLA was open to anyone who entered the Canal. Diplomats, agents, journalists, photographers, anyone who came over to see how the boys were doing was welcomed by the GBLA and given the opportunity to join in on the fun.

Reporters arriving to the Suez Canal.
Source: YouTube

The media was fascinated by them. They documented their games, their barbecues, their routines, and their daily duties. For the most part, it didn’t look like the men were struggling. If anything, some of them were having the time of their lives.

They Had Their Own Postage Stamps

All sorts of neat things were organized through the GBLA. One of which was postal stamps. Sending mail home was a bit difficult at times. So, the idea for stamps came from the fact that the men didn’t belong to either Israel or Egypt. They were a little community of their own, and the stamps were a way to solidify their identity.

Post stamps of the Great Bitter Lake Association.
Source: Tumblr

Over the years, hundreds of stamps were made and sent out. The stamps were drawn by hand and were colored in various colors with whatever pens they had on them. The sailors were never sure if the mail would get to their loved ones just using the GBLA stamps, so they usually added Egyptian stamps just to make sure.

Their Cargo Was Beginning to Rot

After a few years, the frozen food stashed at the belly of the vessels was becoming a burden to keep cool. The freezers were costing a lot of money to keep going, so they asked for permission to ship the goods to Alexandria, but Israel wouldn’t allow it.

Sailors lowering down produce.
Source: YouTube

As a result, throwing the produce away, something they never imagined they would do, became a valid idea. “We had no option but to dump everything to the other side,” sailor John McPherson revealed. “I suppose we fed the fish if nothing else.”

Maintaining the Ships Became a Burden

As months turned into years, ensuring that the ships were in good shape became increasingly difficult. Summer in the desert would touch 50 Celsius, and the winter nights out in the open were bitterly cold. But no slacking off was allowed, no matter how hard conditions got.

A control board of one of the vessels.
Source: YouTube

The ships’ engines needed to be regularly activated, ready for the eventful day when the vessels would be released. But things were looking a bit bleak for the boys. Their fuel supplies were limited with no prospect of replenishment.

A Front Row Seat to the Geopolitics of the Middle East

Apart from maintaining the vessels and having fun, the men took stock of the events happening around them. They were trapped between enemy lines and had front row seats to the increasingly tense relationship between Israel and Egypt.

A soldier glancing at an aircraft.
Photo by Keystone/Getty Images

Israel continued to occupy the Sinai Peninsula, and despite worldwide pressures to release their grip, the determined country showed no signs of leaving. Over the years, clashes between Egypt and Israel continued over the Canal. The boys were no longer surprised by the heavy artillery flying above their heads.

The World Forgot About Them

With the Cold War at its height, the world was concerned with global politics. Major clashes between capitalist and communist forces around the world were on everyone’s mind. No one had time, say, to focus on a few stranded ships somewhere in the Middle East.

A floating Christmas tree created by one of the ships in the Suez Canal.
Source: Reddit

The Yellow Fleet in the Suez Canal was no longer an international priority. The news had already covered whatever they needed to cover in the first few years, and now, it was just the same old same old. The Yellow Fleet had gradually slipped off the media’s agenda.

The Arab Israeli War Strikes Again

In 1973, something finally gave. Sick of the hostile situation, the Egyptians crossed the Suez Canal and reentered the Sinai Peninsula, hoping to regain control of their conquered land. The Yellow Fleet crew watched the events unfold before their very eyes.

Israeli tanks cross a bridge built by Israeli troops over the Suez Canal October 25, 1973.
Photo by Ilan Ron/GPO/Getty Images

The surprise attack on Israel became known as the Yom Kippur War or the Ramadan War, and it lasted for nearly three weeks. After a tremendous number of casualties on both sides, the war was settled after the UN Security Council called for a ceasefire.

How Did the War Affect the Yellow Fleet?

The men hoped that the events of the war would lead to the reopening of the Canal and allow their ships to finally return home. But it would take two additional years for engineers to remove sunken barricades and debris from both ends of the waterway.

Sailors waving their hands.
Source: YouTube

And even after the entrances were cleared, most of the ships weren’t in any condition to sail to such lengths after being practically immobile for eight years. Only two German ships managed to start their engines successfully. They set sail on the 7th of June 1975 and arrived at Hamburg, setting the record for the longest sea voyage in history – eight years, three months, and five days at sea.

The Suez Canal Never Left Their Minds

When the men returned home for good, the experience was bittersweet. British sailor, Brendan Mulhall, revealed that his time in the Yellow Fleet had such a huge impact on him that the Suez Canal never really left his mind.

Brendan Mulhall interviewed for an Al Jazeera documentary.
Source: YouTube

“The experience I had on that lake, I carry it with me every day, every week and every year… The experience for a young person who was 23 years of age to be in such a dangerous environment, to turn it into one where we could have recreation and to enjoy ourselves, was an experience not to be missed,” he reminisced.

An Unforgettable Experience

Over a period of eight years, approximately 3,000 men were stationed at one point or another on the stranded Suez vessels. For some sailors, the experience in the Canal was one of the most rewarding and memorable ones of their lives.

Sailors in the Suez Canal sailing on a lifeboat.
Source: Pinterest

“What was remarkable was the strong community these crews forged, even though they came from countries on opposing sides of the Cold War,” British author Cath Senker told Express News.

Not All Ships Survived

The Canal was finally clear and open for commute in 1975, but only the two German ships—Münsterland and Nordwind—sailed safely home under their own power. The rest, despite the sailors’ best attempt to keep them alive, were too damaged to salvage.

Broken down ship in the Suez Canal.
Photo by Frank Pocklington/Getty Images

One of the vessels, the American SS African Glen, was damaged by an Israeli rocket in 1973 and sunk to the bottom of the sea. The Swedish ship, Nippon, was bought and fixed by the Norwegians, and the British received insurance money for their damaged vessels.

The Suez Canal Today

Nowadays, the Suez Canal is open for passage and remains one of the most vital waterways in the Mediterranean. Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty after the war ended in 1973. Since the treaty, Israel has been granted access to and from the Canal.

Container ships sail in Suez Canal.
Photo by Gehad Hamdy/picture alliance via Getty Images

The Suez Canal still attracts attention due to the occasional traffic jams caused by massive container ships. But the Yellow Fleet remains the first and last mini nation to have formed there due to international tensions. Let’s hope it stays that way.