Fiasco though this undoubtedly is—one with major repercussions for the global shipping system—history offers a reminder that things could be worse.
In 1967, 14 cargo ships were traveling through the Suez when the Six-Day War broke out between Israel and neighboring Arab countries Jordan, Egypt, and Syria, turning the canal into a combat zone. Egyptian authorities instructed the ships’ crews to anchor in the widest part of the Suez, Great Bitter Lake. Though the war lasted a matter of days, the ships would remain stranded there for the next eight years.
What was the Yellow Fleet?
Nicknamed the Yellow Fleet in reference to the desert sand that eventually coated the ships as they sat at an impasse, the boats hailed from Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, France, Poland, Sweden, West Germany, the UK, and the US. Their plight came down to being in the wrong place at the wrong time: Israel won control of the east bank of the canal during its offensive, while Egypt retained the west. After the war ended, Egypt shut down the canal to prevent Israel from using it, blocking it with debris, old vessels, and landmines.
After three difficult months, the original crew members of the ships were allowed to head home. But shipping companies didn’t want to leave the boats there unmanned. “The logical thing to do was to keep people there to protect the valuable cargo and the investment that they’d made in the ships,” Cath Senker, author of the book Stranded in the Six-Day War, told the podcast 99% Invisible. And so relief crews cycled in and out to keep watch over the boats, forming their own international community in the process, known as the Great Bitter Lake Association.
Mental Floss gives the rundown of how the novel marine society divvied up responsibilities:
Each ship adopted a special duty to keep the “country” running smoothly. The Polish freighter served as a post office. The Brits hosted soccer matches. One ship served as a hospital; another, a movie theater. On Sundays, the German Nordwind hosted “church” services. “We call it church,” Captain Paul Wall told the Los Angeles Times in 1969. “But actually it is more of a beer party.” (The Germans received free beer from breweries back home.)
The enterprising Great Bitter Lake Association found plenty of other ways to keep busy, hosting their own version of the Olympics in 1968 (the Polish crew won), and even creating their very own handmade postage stamps.
But the party couldn’t last forever. As the years ticked on, shipping companies sensibly reduced the number of people they sent to the skeleton crews. In total, 3,000 workers did a tour on board the marooned ships at one point or another.
In 1975, the Suez Canal finally reopened. The canal had remained closed so long that most of the Yellow Fleet ships had decayed and needed to be towed. But two of them—the German ships Münsterland and Nordwind—made it out on their own steam.