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The Yellow Fleet: When Suez Canal was blocked for 8 years forcing 14 ships to remain stranded on the water

Following the six-day war broke between Israel and the Arab countries, Egypt had blocked both ends of the Suez Canal, blocking 14 ships on the canal at that time for 8 years

The Suez Canal, one of the most important shipping routes in the world, is currently closed after a massive container ran aground, blocking the canal completely. The gigantic container ship that goes by the name Ever Given, owned by shipping company Evergreen, got stuck on March 23 after it faced massive wind which diverted it from its route in the narrow canal.

Tug boats of the Suez canal have not been able to move the ship at all, as both its bow and the stern are stuck in the sand on both banks of the canal. The vessel may take weeks to clear, and during that time, the vessels that got stuck in the route will face the worst traffic jam of their lifetime. Even though the Suez Canal system has dual canals on the northern side and large lakes in the middle portion, the incident happened on the southern end, where there is only one canal.

Container Ship Ever Given stuck at Suez Canal. Image: QZ

But this is not the first time ships got stuck in a “traffic jam” at Suez Canal. Once the canal was blocked for as much as eight long years, starting from 1967. To understand the situation, one needs to understand the geography of the Suez Canal. On the map, the narrow canal can be seen that that passes between two landmasses.

The Canal passageway was opened in 1869. It is an artificial sea-level waterway in Egypt that connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Read Sea en-route to the Indian Ocean. Before the Canal was operational, the ships had to cross the African continent to reach the Indian Ocean for trade which would take weeks. After the Canal opened, the distance got reduced as it opened a direct route for the ships between Europe, Asia and the lands around the Indian and Western Pacific Oceans.

Sanghro, Rafi & Chandio, Jalil & Soomro, Siraj. (2018). The Special Relationship: The US, Great Britain and Egypt over the Suez Canal. Journal of History Culture and Art Research. 7. 127. 10.7596/taksad.v7i3.1614.

With the Canal, the distance between the Arabian Sea to London was reduced by approximately 8900 Km. Since it’s opening, it has been at the centre of the conflict due to rivalry between the nations around it. The Canal holds utmost importance in the marine traffic since its opening as it is used by the ships involved in international trade.

The war of 1967 that led to the 8-year-long traffic Jam

In 1967, the six-day war broke between Israel and the Arab countries that turned the Canal into a war zone. At that time, 14 cargo ships were crossing through the Canal. The Egyptian authorities instructed the crew members of the ships to anchor in the widest part of the Canal known as the Great Bitter Lake. The war ended in six days, but the geographical condition around the Canal was changed in a way they did not find any route to get out of the Canal.

The 14 ships that got stuck in the Suez Canal belonged to Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, France, Poland, Sweden, West Germany, the UK, and the US. Codenamed as the Yellow Fleet, the group of ships acquired the name because of the desert sand that eventually covered the ships as they had to sit at one place in the Canal for years.

After the six-day war, Israel won control of the east bank of the Canal. Egypt managed to retain the west bank. To ensure Israel could not use the Canal, Egypt blocked the Canal on both ends using debris, old vessels and landmines. The fleet of 14 ships was stuck just because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. For the international trade, it turned out to be catastrophic as they had to resume the old pathway around Africa increasing the shipping cost by several folds.

Companies rotated crew members to protect the ships

Three months after staying in the Canal, the original crew members were allowed to head home, but they had to leave the ships behind. However, the companies that owned the ships were not comfortable with leaving ships alone and unmanned. According to Cath Senker, author of the book Stranded in the Six-Day War, the logical thing for the companies to do was to keep people there to protect the valuable cargo on the ships. Thus the companies sent relief crews that cycled in and out to protect the ships. During their stay, these crew members formed their own international community, which was named the Great Bitter Lake Association.

14 ships were caught up in a proxy war of the larger political conflict. Image: hapag-lloyd

The crew members of the ships divided the duties for smooth management of their “country”. The Polish crew members served at the post office. The British hosted soccer matches. One Ship served as a movie theatre. Another ship served as a hospital. On Sundays, The German Ship served as Church. Though it was called a Church, according to Captain Paul, one of the crew members, “it was more of a beer party.”

The Olympics and the handmade stamps

It was essential for the members of the Great Bitter Lake Association to keep themselves busy. So what they do other than having parties, dance events and soccer games?

The soccer players of Yellow Fleet Image: express.co.uk

Well, they had their own version of the 1968 Olympics. The Polish crew members won the games. They even created their own handmade postage stamps!

Olympics at Yellow Fleet. Image: express.co.uk

The re-opening of the Suez Canal

Slowly, the shipping companies reduced the number of crew members for the ships. As per the records, a total of 3,000 crew members toured on board at one point or another.

In 1973, another war broke between Israel and Egypt. This time, it was Egypt that launched a surprise attack on Israel. The war caused severe damage on both ends by the end of the week. Finally, the conflict came to an end with the cease-fire agreement. They started to withdraw the troops as per the treaty across the Suez Canal borders.

The prominent nations worldwide started to build external pressure on the Egyptian government to re-open the Canal. Finally, Egypt started to clear the heaps of debris, landmines and old vessels to open the Canal, but it took them two years to clear it. On June 5, 1975, the Canal was re-opened.

The “Münsterland” after her arrival from the longest known journey in shipping history. Image: hapag-lloyd

The majority of the stranded ships, however, could not get out on their own. They had to be towed. Only German Ships Münsterland and Nordwind were able to get out of the Canal on their own.

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