The Bitter Sea

It is June 1967, fourteen cargo ships chug along in a convoy, northbound from the Gulf of Suez into the Canal – heading for the Mediterranean. Halfway through the Suez canal, war breaks out between Israel and Egypt. The access roads to the canal are closed. The ships find themselves stranded in the Great Bitter Lake, the widest point in the channel. All the ships drop anchor. Rockets and jets fly overhead for a week. Thus begins one of history’s most amazing and forgotten stories of survival, connection, and friendship.

After days of waiting, the crews learn that the channel is blocked indefinitely by deliberate ship sinkings. The Six-Day War begins years of debate over how to administer the canal. While the outside world haggles over new border lines and administration of the canal zone, the crews remain stranded. Neighbors, outcasts, orphans. The sailors on the vessels hail from eight different nations – representing Communist and European flags, as well as American companies. All are contractually required to never abandon ship.

Despite coming from countries on opposite sides of the Cold War, the crews forge a strong community with a genuine spirit of cooperation. This extraordinary story of stranded seafarers coming together in a time of heightened tension – both geopolitical and personal – is amazingly true and has hints of Peter Weir’s The Way Back (2010).

After a month of politicians talking at the UN, our castaway ships move closer together and secure to each other to enable passage between ships. They form their own governing body to share supplies amongst the crews: dubbed the Great Bitter Lake Association. Every Sunday they all meet aboard the newest vessel, Germany’s “MS Northwind” for church services and to decide how to survive the coming week. This floating commune, a micro-society, cut off from the outside world (while their home nations and their employers refuse to budge) are stranded there in the Great Bitter Lake amidst a newly militant Middle East stalemate. The first year is the hardest.

Occasionally dust storms cover them with sand and so they give themselves the nickname “The Yellow Fleet” from the sand dust. Ten days before the 1968 Olympics, the crews enjoy their own Olympic Games on the decks of the ships. Their mini-Olympics is in many ways the climax of their story.

Gradually, the sailors’ contracts end and some are allowed to leave. Eventually there is just a small skeleton crew maintaining all the ships – a stranded floating city. One by one, these last engineers and sailors are allowed to go home too. Ultimately, the canal reopens. It’s been eight years. 

When the last ship finally returns to Hamburg, it is received with great fanfare, and a reunion of the men and women who had survived together in the Bitter Sea. They continued to reunite every 10 years.