The Suez Canal is one of the most important commerce routes in the world since it allows for more direct trading between Asia and Europe by eliminating the need to circumnavigate Africa and so shortening the length of the voyage. The Suez Canal, which is sometimes referred to as “the artery of international trade,” is responsible for at least 12 percent of all global trade flows through it.
Between 1967 And 1975 ships became stranded in the Suez Canal, and were forced to stay for eight years, which resulted in the establishment of one of the world’s strangest “micronations” in the history of the planet.
There were 15 ships stranded in the Great Bitter Lake (a salt lake connected to the canal) between 1967 and 1975, resulting in the closure of the canal. They established their own society at sea since they were unable to depart.
The Six-Day War in June 1967 marked the beginning of the current era. Egypt and Israel were at war with each other. Although it was just for a short period of time, the ramifications lasted for years. Israel reportedly captured the Sinai Peninsula during World War II while Egypt, in an attempt to cripple Israel’s economy, reportedly blockaded the Suez Canal with sunken ships, mines, and other debris. This created difficulties for ships from all over the world, but it was particularly difficult for the 15 ships that were traversing the canal on the day of the closure.
According to CN Traveler, the ships were flying eight distinct flags: four were British, two each of West German, American, Swedish, and Polish, and one each of Bulgarian, French, and Czechoslovakian, and one each of Bulgarian, French, and Czechoslovakian. Realizing that they would be unable to leave together, the vessels moored together at Great Bitter Lake, in the center of the canal, where they would remain for the next eight years.
Things were difficult right from the start; the sailors stood by and watched as both sides of the fight traded gunfire above their heads. “The first month seemed like it was a vacation. The second month was particularly difficult. By the end of the third month, the situation had deteriorated significantly,” observed Captain Miroslaw Proskurnicki of the Polish ship Jakarta.
After being moored together, the marooned seamen formed an unofficial micronation to call their own. They dubbed it the “Yellow Fleet” later on, in reference to the years of desert sand that had accumulated on the ship’s decks. Members of this new “country” were forced to keep themselves occupied because they had nothing else to do than clean the ships and perform basic maintenance. They originally established the Great Bitter Lake Association in order to provide for the requirements of the crew members.
Each ship was assigned a specific mission. On one of the Swedish ships, pool parties were organized, and another ship served as a hospital for the survivors. On the Bulgarian ship, there were movie nights. On a German freighter, the males (and one woman) were in charge of putting together religious services. According to Captain Paul Wall, who spoke to the Los Angeles Times in 1969, the chapel was more of a beer party. The lake’s waters were actually “35 feet of water, and 5 feet of beer bottles,” according to sailors who have jokingly stated this.
In 1968, the “little nation” staged a version of the Olympics, which included lifeboat races in the canal, weightlifting, air rifle shooting, high jumping, and soccer matches on the deck of the MS Port Invercargill, among other events. Afterward, it continued to establish its own postal service and stamps. “On Sundays, the guys would congregate aboard the MS Nordwind and create their own postage stamps, which collectors from all over the world were wanting. Although the letters from the Great Bitter Lake Association were sent from hand-drawn labels from a fictitious country, many of them were delivered, according to the publication CN Traveler. According to the New York Times, supplies were sent to the ships by United Nations Emergency Force teams, and an agent visited the ships once a month to provide two hours of radio time for crew members to communicate with family and friends back home. The use of radio communication between ships was strictly prohibited.
After a number of years, the businesses that owned the ships were granted permission to rotate the sailors back to their homes. A large portion of the cargo that the vessels were transporting became bad as well. Soon, only a skeleton crew was left to keep the ships afloat.
The canal was reopened in 1975, as Egypt and Israel moved closer to reaching a diplomatic accord. Two of the ships were able to depart the lake on their own, but the others were unable to do so.