Never got round to reading Stranded in the Suez Canal? Don’t worry – here’s the short version.
Aboard the Agapenor, Suez Canal, 5 June 1967
09.00: Peter Flack, serving as third mate on the Blue Funnel cargo ship Agapenor, was up on deck. He can vividly remember the outbreak of hostilities to this day:
I came up to the bridge about 7.30am for my 8 till 12 shift, and we were approaching the Suez Canal from the south, on a northbound convoy. We were about to enter the Great Bitter Lake, one of the passing points in the canal. I was on the bridge with the deck apprentice. The captain, communicating by pipe and whistle, called up to tell me he’d just heard that war had broken out between Israel and the Arab states. He calmly said, ‘If you see anything unusual, please let me know but don’t tell the Egyptian pilot.’ We continued on our way. I figured something interesting was about to kick off, so I asked another seaman to bring me my camera.
Flack was right. He continues:
At around 9 a.m., planes appeared to come out of the sun to the east, 15 degrees above the horizon. . . over the old Agapenor came the Israelis. . . . In they went as low as ever until right overhead when they released their bombs to devastating effect. Most of the [Egyptian] planes were knocked out and the fuel supply was in flames. . . . Naturally everyone ran for cover, but none hit.
The Egyptian air bases at El Kabret were obliterated in this surprise assault, the precursor to Israel’s invasion of Egyptian territory.
Stranded in the Six-Day War
Peter Flack was witnessing the outbreak of the Middle East war on 5 June. That day, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser ordered 14 cargo ships from 8 nations that were travelling through the Suez Canal to halt. They gathered in the Great Bitter Lake. The following day, Nasser blocked the canal at both ends, trapping the ships in the warzone between Israeli forces on the east bank and the Egyptians to the west. In six days of fighting against its Arab neighbours, Israel seized the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan, the Golan Heights from Syria, and from Egypt, the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula.
The war was over, but Nasser did not permit the ships to budge. Did he intend to use them as a bargaining chip in peace negotiations? Nobody knew.
With around 200 crew aboard, these merchant ships were vast warehouses, transiting the Suez Canal to transport food, drink, clothing, toys and industrial materials to destinations across the globe. Joining the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea, the canal was a vital short cut between Europe and Asia and Africa. Without it, ships had to make a far longer journey around the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa. The Agapenor was homeward bound to Liverpool; the longer route would have added an extra loop of 8,200 km.
Although the 1967 war was brief, tensions between Israel and Egypt continued. They escalated into confrontation again with the War of Attrition in March 1969, an attempt by Egypt to wear down the Israeli forces and push them out of the Sinai Peninsula. Naturally, Israel retaliated. After 1970, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat planned to reopen the canal. But the 1973 Arab–Israeli War intervened; the renewed conflict further delayed the preparations.
Over the years, the ship owners employed crews to maintain the stranded ships and protect their precious contents. The perishable foods were eaten or eventually rotted. In early 1969, the seafarers dumped hundreds of tonnes of mouldy fruit overboard – for a while, a sea of bobbing, rotting apples surrounded the ships. Yet the non-perishable goods would retain their value.
Stuck in limbo
We return to the seafarers, stuck in limbo. In the first days after the 1967 war, they were completely isolated, with no communications from the Egyptian authorities. Running short of water, they started to distil seawater for drinking, but it was disgusting. Fresh food supplies were running low too. The ship owners agreed that the crews could exchange foodstuffs. Fortunately, between them they were well stocked, with a variety of fish, meat and seafood, apples, pears, eggs, tea and rice – and plenty of wine and beer. Banned from communicating by radio from 26 June, the seafarers began to use their lifeboats to travel from ship to ship, swapping food and drink, and making social visits.
Once the immediate danger from the conflict was over, some played chess, listened to music on their tape recorders, sunbathed or went swimming. In the cool of the evening, the beers flowed freely. Peter Flack was a little more adventurous. He invented his own water sport, a cross between water-skiing and surfing.
It may have sounded like an extended holiday but the initial weeks were stressful. The crews had no idea when they would be freed, and were unable to contact their relatives. Peter wrote a long letter to his family but couldn’t post it. He has kept it until this day.
Behind the scenes, the shipping companies and the Egyptian authorities held extensive negotiations. Finally, after two months, the stranded seafarers were allowed to leave, to be replaced by a series of relief crews who would maintain the ships until they could safely depart.
The Great Bitter Lake Association
The 14 ships came from 8 nations on both sides of the Iron Curtain: from the West, four British ships, a French ship, two West German ships and an American ship, plus two from neutral Sweden. From the Eastern bloc, two ships from Poland, and one each from Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria were trapped in the Great Bitter Lake.
In October 1967, the crews of this ‘mini United Nations’ decided to form their own autonomous community: the Great Bitter Lake Association (GBLA). The first decision was to ‘abolish all nationalities’ – everyone was to be treated equally, whether from the East or the West. The captains were still in charge, but they joined in activities with the crews. In recognition of the softening of the boundaries, captains were addressed by their first names. Captain Brian McManus, who joined the Melampus and Agapenor in mid-1968, became ‘Captain Brian’.
Any community requires organisation. The GBLA had ‘church’ every Sunday, and all the crews attended. But it was no ordinary church service. When Captain Brian was invited to the Sunday devotions for the first time, he ‘thought it strange for two cases of beer to be passed into the boat before she cast off with the church party, but made no comment.’ Upon arrival, the Nordwind captain Gerhard Lomer welcomed him. ‘Have a beer, Brian’ he offered, and the British captain accepted a Tuborg.
Church was the place for discussing the exchange of tools, materials and skills – all offered free on the basis of need. Here, the social and sports activities on the Great Bitter Lake were organised. And there were many.
The seafarers quickly discovered that the Great Bitter Lake was ideal for sailing. They modified the lifeboats and canal rowing boats, adding sails and extended keels. Every month they held a regatta. All the spectators gathered on board the hosting ship to enjoy refreshments as they watched the race. Afterwards, trophies were awarded to the victors, and everyone shared a delicious meal. If the French were hosting, it might be the chef’s Great Bitter Lake speciality – shark aioli. The Germans served smoked salmon or juicy steaks.
A weekly football tournament was organised on the Port Invercargill, its deck transformed into a football pitch, with cargo nets for the goals, and alongside to prevent the ball dropping overboard. The four-a-side matches played between the ships, five minutes each way, were fast, rough games. GBLA football was not for the faint-hearted.
George Wharton was 24 when he arrived on the Agapenor in 1967. An athletic type, he got involved in all the sports. For George, the highlight was the GBLA Mini Olympics of September 1968, organised to coincide with the Mexico Olympics by the Polish crew of the Djakarta:
[They] produced bows and arrows, and targets. They padded obstructions on their foredecks to make running and jumping courses, and swung out derricks to support the goals of a water polo pitch. They painted lines on the deck of the Djakarta for the sprint race, and crew members lent their mattresses for the high-jump contestants to land on. 
The Olympics sports included sailing, diving, sprinting, high jump, archery, shooting and water polo. The Poles won overall; gold, silver and bronze medals were awarded on a specially built podium, to the accompaniment of the victors’ national anthems. George Wharton remembers proudly that he won more medals than any other contestant.
Not all GBLA activities were physical. Perhaps surprisingly for a large group of lads, another major pastime was stamp making. For the seafarers, letters were the only way to stay in touch with their distant families. After the initial crisis of the Six-Day War, they were able to send and receive letters via the Suez Canal Authority. Some enterprising seafarers decided to make their own stamps to represent the Bitter Lake community.
It was painstaking work, at minute scale. Some artists drew their designs by hand and coloured them with inks, crayons or even coffee grounds. Others used potato or lino cuts. Fortunately, two of the ships, the Melampus and the Swedish Nippon, had duplicators for printing.
The Polish sailors were the masters of stamp creation. One of them, Kassimir, produced 14 different stamps featuring each of the ships, complete with tiny hulls, funnels, masts and cranes.
The GBLA was a hive of creativity, offering opportunities the seafarers may never have had in their normal working lives to play sports and enjoy arts and crafts.
The GBLA lives on
Over time, the shipping companies reduced their costs, cutting crew numbers by mooring the ships in pairs and later in groups. By mid-1970, just 50 people managed the GBLA fleet. Olympic-scale events were no longer possible, yet Sunday ‘church’ gatherings, sailing and stamp making continued.
Eventually, after the 1973 war, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat declared that he would reopen the Suez Canal. In spring 1974, an international salvage operation started to remove the mammoth obstructions, including Israeli tanks, wrecked aircraft and even a passenger ship. Egyptian divers risked their lives to clear mines laid during the lengthy conflict.
In May 1975, the ships were finally permitted to leave. By now they were great, rusting hulks, with peeling paint, blasted yellow by the sand. Yet the crews had maintained the engines well, and several vessels left under their own steam. With the ships gone, the Suez Canal reopened on 5 June 1975 – 8 years to the day after it was blocked.
Some of the seafarers who had participated in the GBLA stayed in touch, exchanging memories of their extraordinary experiences. As I was interviewing them for my book, I thought – why not hold a 50th anniversary reunion? The curators at the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool were keen to host the event.
On 1 June 2017, around 100 former seafarers and their relatives gathered for the reunion. Some had not set eyes on each other since their time in the Suez Canal; there were emotional scenes as they rediscovered former shipmates. Peter Flack greeted Captain Brian McManus, now 90 years old. Andy Lanigan attended with his son. Elderly now, his memory was not what it had been. But as he entered the museum that day, he spotted his old pal from the Great Bitter Lake, exclaiming ‘there’s Georgie Wharton’. Having not met for decades, they renewed their friendship.
How do the seafarers look back on their time in the Suez Canal? Peter Flack remembers it fondly. After the horror of the Six-Day War, life on board was pleasant: ‘luckily we had a good supply of beer. This helped.’ For George Wharton, the Mini Olympics Games were the highlight – ‘the weightlifting on one ship, the football on the German ship – it was incredible.’ For Captain Brian McManus, it was participating ‘in a multi-national society where the Iron Curtain [was] shredded to pieces . . .and . . . membership of the rather unique Great Bitter Lake Association.’
To me, this unique episode indicates the potential of ordinary people, left to their own devices, to create cooperative communities even in challenging circumstances.
 Captain A W Kinghorn, Before the Box Boats, Kenneth Mason, 1983, p. 132