Sailing on the Great Bitter Lake

David Kemp was master of the Port Invercargill from March 1968 and he features in my book Stranded in the Six-Day War (available at Recently, David kindly dug out his old photos from the Great Bitter Lake and sent me an album of images of life on board the ships marooned in the Suez Canal. I’d like to share some of these images, along with extracts from my book.


This piece is about sailing.


Sailing The seafarers quickly discovered that the Great Bitter Lake was ideal for sailing, which became the second main sport. The sailors modified the lifeboats, giving them extended keels and extra sails. The rowing boats were also modified to become sailing craft. Fortunately, one of the ships had a sewing machine so the sailors could stitch new sails.


Sewing bed sheets to make a sail for Ivy – soon to become Yellow Submarine

Captain Hill explained that the boats were allocated classes: Class A consisted of the ships’ lifeboats; with two masts, they were schooner rigged (with fore and aft sails on both masts). Class B craft were mostly converted canal rowing boats, which had been left aboard the ships by the Egyptians. These boats were usually used to carry ships’ ropes to the shore when tying them up. Now, they were fitted with a single mast with a jib and a standing lug-sail rig (a quadrilateral-shaped lug sail with a small sail in front). Captain Kemp noted that there was ‘no buoyancy, so great care must be taken not to capsize’ – a great challenge! One of them, owned by the Port Invercargill, was named the Yellow Submarine. As Captain Kensett noted, ‘although not up to Olympic standards [!], they proved to be extremely interesting to sail, and each boat was known for its idiosyncrasies. . . . Captain Hill was a fan of the Yellow Submarine, which he declared ‘often outsailed all other vessels on the Lake with some remarkably fast passages.’


Yellow Submarine, rigged for a sailing regatta

Regattas The boats were built and modified for racing. To organise sailing competitions, the Great Bitter Lake Yacht Club was formed, with a committee consisting of one member from every participating ship. Regattas took place every month on a Saturday, always organised by a different host ship. Despite its small crew, even the African Glen organised its own regatta in April 1969, which was recorded with a commemorative stamp.


The regattas were taken extremely seriously. Michel Caracatzanis recollected that there was a meeting before each one to plan the route. On the morning of the race, the host ship issued course cards. The organisers placed observers at different points of the route to check for faults, which incurred penalties. The GBLA ‘Rules of the Road’ ensured fair play, with instructions including ‘Towing by swimming is not allowed’.


It was forbidden to take any photos owing to the sensitive location in a military zone.



Nippon’s sailing lifeboat over rigged for sailing regatta

Captain Hill described the events. The start time was 1pm for both Class A and B boats: ‘the assembly of the craft at the starting line was always an impressive and exciting occasion.’ The start and finish points were level with the host ship’s gangway so the judges could supervise easily. The ship’s siren blasted to mark the start of the race, and they were off. While they were watching, the spectators enjoyed refreshments provided by the host ship: ‘to moisten throats in a temperature of 95° Fahrenheit, quantities of iced bottled beer were freely available.’ Afterwards, trophies were presented to the victors at an award ceremony – two trophies for each class, made by the host team. Captain Kemp remembered ‘what hidden talents and ingenuity came to the fore. I saw some great creations in brass turning, metal work, wood carving, poker work and artistic talent exhibited.’ The award ceremony was followed by a meal for competitors and spectators; at the height of the GBLA they numbered 200–300 people. The meals might be fish and chips (British), fried prawns and shrimps (French) or a carcass of spit-roasted lamb (German). The meal was washed down with beer and iced punch. Regattas were another high point of Bitter Lake life.


L to R: Sindh, Boleslaw Bierut; Rear: Djakarta, Scottish Star, Nordwind; Front: Lednice

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