The Suez Canal: from the 1967 war to the Ever Given

On 23 March, strong gusts of wind drove the giant Ever Given completely off course as it passed through the Suez Canal. A sandstorm created poor visibility, affecting navigation. The vessel ran aground, its vast bulk horizontally wedged across the narrow waterway.

The 400-m long, 224,000-tonne Ever Given is one of the largest container ships in the world. It is longer than the canal is wide. The ship was stuck for a week.

The Ever Given
The Ever Given (

Ships stopped

More than 422 vessels were also stuck in a traffic jam, waiting to travel through the canal. One trapped ship halted the deliveries of everything from urgently needed PPE to iPhones, tea and livestock. It’s estimated the stoppage cost world trade somewhere between $6 and $10 billion a day. [1]

: Ships stuck either side of the Suez Canal, 24 March (Pole Star, from
Ships stuck either side of the Suez Canal, 24 March (Pole Star, from

The rescue operation worked intensively to dredge the sand at the side of the canal, with tugboats assisting to yank the vessel free. On 29 March, the boats sounded their foghorns to celebrate their success. The Ever Given was on the move again.

Canal closures

As the world watched the operation, the international media looked back to other times when the Suez Canal was closed. While I was researching Stranded in the Six-Day War, I found tons of references to the canal closure during Suez Crisis of 1956. But little about the far lengthier closure of 1967.

Marooned for 8 years

Now, the events of 1967 are more visible. Journalists have picked up on the extraordinary story of the 14 merchant ships trapped for 8 years in the Suez Canal. The significance of this vital but narrow waterway was starkly demonstrated back then.

Caption: The Blue Funnel ships, Melampus and Agapenor
Caption: The Blue Funnel ships, Melampus and Agapenor

Economic impact

Ships were forced to travel a much longer route to their destination. Tankers carrying oil from the Persian Gulf to Europe had to voyage around the southern tip of Africa. It took 16 days longer. Indeed, it was the huge cost of long freight voyages that led to the development from the 1970s of hefty container ships like the Ever Given.

The impact on Egypt was devastating. With the loss of revenue from the Canal, the economies of nearby cities such as Ismailia collapsed. Their populations were resettled elsewhere in Egypt.

Social effects

When I was researching the impact of the 1967 closure, I was particularly interested in the social effects.

The seafarers aboard the trapped ships came from countries on opposing sides of the Cold War. Poles, Bulgarians and Czechs were from the Eastern bloc. British, French, West German and American seafarers hailed from the West. Neutral Swedes were alongside them.

Article in Swedish daily Aftonbladet, 31 March 2021 about the stranded ships
Article in Swedish daily Aftonbladet, 31 March 2021 about the stranded ships

Around 200 sailors were stuck in the war zone between the Egyptians on the west bank and the Israelis on the east bank of the Suez Canal.

Great Bitter Lake Association

Facing boredom mixed with fear, the seafarers developed a community to make life more fun – the Great Bitter Lake Association. They shared food supplies and resources, and organised social and sports events. Regular football and sailing tournaments helped them to pass the time and stay fit, and engendered a sense of belonging. Seafarers even created their own stamps, a symbol of their independent community. Cooperation enabled the seafarers’ survival – both physically and psychologically.

Nippon’s sailing lifeboat over-rigged for sailing regatta

Mutual support

Many of us can relate to the sensation of being stranded. In the UK, we’ve been in lockdown for months, unable to socialise, work or travel as normal. On my street, as in countless others, neighbours have set up a mutual support group.

We offer practical help, swapping plants, furniture and jigsaws. Neighbours shop for people self-isolating with Covid and share advice and funny videos. We haven’t yet arranged a football tournament or started printing our own stamps. But who knows? As on the ships trapped in the Bitter Lake, social contact and cooperation provide the key to getting through tough times.


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