Skip to main content

Suez Canal

Shut for eight years after the Six-Day War

Rolls Press/Popperfoto via Getty Images

Some ships have been stuck in the Suez Canal far longer than the Ever Given, says the 99% Invisible podcast. When the Six-Day War between Israel and Egypt broke out in 1967, the canal was blockaded, trapping the 14 cargo ships that were travelling through it. The war swiftly ended, but the canal stayed shut for eight years. Rotating skeleton crews looked after the ships.

These sailors formed the Great Bitter Lake Association, named after a lake in the canal. Lifeboats were used for sailing regattas; one ship built a football pitch and hosted tournaments. The Czechoslovakian freighter provided a particularly warm welcome. “They would open a bottle of whiskey, throw the cork away… you could not leave the ship until that whiskey was gone,” says retired sailor George Wharton.

One Christmas, the sailors mounted a huge makeshift tree on a raft, and sung carols accompanied by an organ. Under a starry desert sky, Wharton heard Silent Night performed in the original German. “That really was a night to remember.”

The halcyon days couldn’t last for ever. During the Yom Kippur War in 1973, a stray missile sunk an American vessel, although no one was killed. In 1975 the canal was finally opened, and the ships, many decayed and barely seaworthy, were towed out.

Listen to the full episode here.