Question: What was the “Yellow Fleet” and why did it take them eight years to complete a one-day canal crossing?
Answer: Ships in the Suez Canal that were trapped during the Six Day War
Though the Egypt-Israel conflict of 1967 was only a Six Day War, it became an eight-year prison for the crews of 15 boats in the Suez Canal. Israel had seized the Sinai Peninsula and Egypt had retreated west, but to make sure its enemy couldn’t make use of the Suez, Egypt’s President Gamal Abdul Nasser ordered the military to sink old ships at both ends of the canal, making the exits impassable. Just to up the ante, mines were added.
The problem was that there was still a convoy cruising through. British, American, Swedish, Polish, West German, French, Bulgarian, and Czechoslovak vessels were only halfway through their daylong transit of the canal when they were trapped. One of two American ships stalled at Lake Timsah and stayed there, but all the other ships continued to Great Bitter Lake, the widest part of the canal, where they became a sort of floating United Nations.
When the war ended quickly, there was hope they might soon be on their way, but Egypt left the sunken vessels in place. At first, since the weather was beautiful, it was almost like an unplanned vacation. The Polish ship’s captain later said, “The first month was like a holiday. The second month was very hard. By the end of the third month, it was terrible.”
The longer they waited there, the more the ships looked alike: the wind scoured the vessels and blasted them with sand from the dessert. That’s how they got their nickname, The Yellow Fleet. Their shared identity became more formal about six months in, when the captains gathered to form the Great Bitter Lakes Association. There were rules and regulations, guidelines for community behaviors, and agreements between neighbors. Commerce kicked in, with a valuation system for goods and services that could be traded between ships. It was just like any other small town, except for the seven languages, no lawns, and the fact that the whole place had come into existence overnight.
Eventually, life changed in the Yellow Fleet. Crews were allowed to fly home and new workers rotated in to keep up with ship maintenance. Because of the heat, workdays were short: six hours on weekdays, four on Saturdays, and all Sundays off. With an ever-growing list of leisure activities (see below), it was anything but “bitter,” location notwithstanding, and some crew members served multiple times until the lanes were cleared and they were finally free to sail (or, in most cases, be towed) home in 1975.
9 Ways The Yellow Fleet Passed the Time in Limbo
- Lifeboats were tricked out with sailing gear and the Bitter Lakes Yacht Club was born.
- The biggest ship, Britain’s MS Port Invercargill, was used for the matches of a new soccer league.
- West German vessel Nordwind hosted church services for Christian worshippers.
- Bulgarian freighter Vasil Levsky was the most popular destination for movie nights, but other ships also hosted.
- Sundays found sailors flocking the swimming pool on the deck of the Swedish Killara.
- The American vessel, naturally, hosted barbecues and was known for beer.
- In 1968, crews from all eight nations held their own 14-sport Olympics in tandem with the Mexico City Games, with Poland taking the most medals.
- Waterskiing became popular after crews configured homemade surfboards to pull behind lifeboats.
- Each ship handmade its own postage stamps, to use alongside real Egyptian stamps, but it became a game to see which letters could go the furthest with only the fakes, which are now collector’s items.
Enjoy a smoother (and shorter) transit of the historic canal during your Suez Canal Crossing: Israel, Egypt, Jordan & the Red Sea Small Ship Adventure.