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The many industries that make up the world of freight have undergone tremendous change over the past several decades. Each week, FreightWaves explores the archives of American Shipper’s nearly 70-year-old collection of shipping and maritime publications to showcase interesting freight stories of long ago.
In this week’s edition, from the August 1975 issue of American Shipper (virtual pages 16-19), FreightWaves Flashback looks back at the cargo ships and crews caught up in the Arab-Israeli wars of the late ’60s and early ’70s, trapping them on the Suez Canal for eight years.
(Editor’s note: Throughout the spring and early summer of 1975, hundreds of articles and news stories were written about the Suez Canal. Some were feature stories on the action taken to remove derelict ships and shoals. More serious pundits speculated on how reopening the canal would change world trade and politics. Lost in the reams of copy was a refreshing piece written by a German writer for Hapag-Lloyd on the day-to-day life aboard 14 ships stranded in the Great Bitter Lake. We are grateful to Robert Albury of Albury and Co. in Miami for the article, from which we have taken excerpts.)
On the 5th of June, 1967, war broke out in the Middle East. It took by surprise several ships on passage through the Suez Canal, and led to the blockage of this vital sea route.
Hapag-Lloyd’s M/S “Munsterland” (9,365 grt) was on her eighteenth voyage from Australia to Europe, with Captain Karl Hoffman in command. Like the other ships involved, she entered the canal at Suez with the morning convoy. Their voyage came to a halt in the Great Bitter Lake, which serves as the passing point in the canal. The onrush of war determined the course of events thereafter. As he said later, Captain Hoffmann had a premonition that it might, but had entered the canal nevertheless. He had been assured that the convoy would still get through. True, the southbound convoy cleared the canal according to plan, but the northbound convoy-including the “Munsterland” — had to remain in the Bitter Lake, trapped by a combination of adverse circumstances.
The ships now lay right between the two opposing sides, like a convoy delayed by some unseen force. Powerless, unable to do anything about the situation. “Wait and see,” they were told, “wait!”
On the 25th of June, 1967, 22 of the people aboard the Munsterland were able to return to Germany, among them two wives of crew members and three passengers. The other seven passengers, all of them British subjects, had been able to leave some days previously. 24 men remained on board. They had plenty to do, keeping the ship’s equipment running and carrying out the necessary work on the ship herself and the cargo. They received double pay for arduous work in the danger zone. Naturally the owner’s second main worry was the cargo.
The Munsterland was fully laden. The major cargoes were 3,000 tons of steel and steel wire, almost 2,000 tons of wool, and over 1,000 tons of special sand for use in sandpaper manufacturing, etc. Other cargoes included tinned fruit hides and skins, agricultural machinery and further small consignments, among them five tons of kitchen clocks. 300 tons of pears were stowed in the refrigerated space, along with 57 tons of eggs (a total of almost 8 million), meat, butter grapes, etc.
In the dangerous and confused conditions prevailing, with the ships still stuck between the enemy fronts, it is not surprising that supplying them was at first a source of great anxiety and many difficulties. All essential supplies had to be forwarded via Egypt and an Egyptian agency, which certainly had to cope with a host of problems in its own country. Looking back, it is no wonder that now and again there were bottlenecks (many at first, fewer later) or that the goods often delivered after so much difficulty, sometimes didn’t fulfill wishes of the people who’d ordered them. Later things largely fell into a routine, and by the time those on board had adjusted themselves a little to the Middle Eastern mentality they were even quite satisfied.
Naturally the ships also had recourse to a great deal of self-help. Not only did the crew begin fishing in the lake for fresh fish, but gradually they started taking what they needed from the cargoes on board.
Luckily for the Munsterland her cargo included a great quantity and variety of food, and particularly eggs, pears and grapes. “I can’t bear to see another pear,” one desperate crew member is said to have stuttered after some weeks.
The eggs aboard would have been sufficient to provide the whole crew with three giant portions per day of scrambled or fried eggs (or eggs done any other way) for many years. In spite of the seafarer’s strong preference for this product of the hen (in the most amazing variations) a diet of eggs alone would have been going too far, and so the ships automatically began to swap resources, or to distribute them to less well endowed fellow sufferers. Apart from that, each ship offered its own specialities. For example, Munsterland became a much respected manufacturer of ice cream, while one of the Swedish cargo vessels acquired the name “Bitter Lake Cow.” On board this latter, any amount of “fresh milk” was produced from eggs and dried milk.
In August 1967, the first relief came for the survivors of the original crew. 21 men flew out to the Bitter Lake, and 21 men flew home. Captain Karl Hoffmann remained aboard the Munsterland for the time being. In October 1967, the strength of the crew reduced to 13 men, and subsequently it went down again to ten men: Captain, two engineers, two assistant engineers, an electrician, a carpenter, two sailors and a cook.
Boredom certainly never descended on the Great Bitter Lake crews. On the contrary, there was plenty of hard work to be done. The ship had to be preserved, i.e. it had to be protected, especially against the salt water corrosion which is especially strong in the Bitter Lake. Furthermore, the cargo had to be checked regularly, and partly re-stowed. As far as possible, the ship had to be kept free of very fast-growing barnacles; and the engine room had to be kept in full working order, so that the auxiliary machinery for electricity generation could remain in service. Monthly turns round the Bitter Lake were organised, so that all parts should periodically be given a proper run.
All the crew members of the Bitter Lake ships joined up in the Great Bitter Lake Association (GBLA). The club organised a regular programme of events. Meetings were held on different ships in turn, sometimes for film shows (since many owners supplied feature films for their ships), and sometimes just for a get together.
Members of the GBLA continued, and are continuing, to keep in touch after their service in the Great Bitter Lake. As is appropriate in such an exclusive group, the club has its own flag, and an exclusive tie has naturally also been designed for the members.
Less happily placed was the tanker “Observer” from the United States, which had been damaged by fire and was lying some 30 miles further north in Lake Timsah. Her crew had reduced very rapidly, and by November 1967, only two men still remained on board. They had no contact with the Bitter Lake group, and understandably felt very lonely. And worse still, they were situated at a point where the two enemy fronts were extremely close together, so that the crew quite frequently had the rather doubtful pleasure of being eyewitnesses of tank and artillery battles. With a mixture of sarcasm and humour, the Americans christened their ship the “F.B.I.” — the Forgotten Boat of Ismailia.”
But back to the Bitter Lake, however wretched the circumstances were, one could at least be sociable. During leisure hours, sport played a big part. Sport of all varieties, often adapted to circumstances in the Great Bitter Lake. There was a lot of table tennis, a football field surrounded by a net was fixed up on the “Port Invercargill,” a boat from the “Lednice” was available for water skiing.
The highlight of sporting life among the “trapped,” however, was the “Bitter Lake Mini-Olympiad,” held at the suggestion of the Poles on the occasion of the Tokyo Olympics between September 28 and October 12, 1968.
Two years later, when the eyes of a football-crazy world turned to Mexico, in order to witness the World Championship, there was again much activity in the Bitter Lake.
But the atmosphere on the Bitter Lake was not quite so peaceful and sunny — at least not permanently so — as one might imagine when reading about sporting activities and other festivities. As has already been mentioned, the crew members had a great deal of work to do. Sudden and unexpected sandstorms also caused a lot of work and worry, sometimes shipping up such a heavy sea that waves broke over the decks. It also sometimes happened that ships broke loose from their anchors and started to shift. All hands were badly needed then, because other ships were also endangered.
Life became even more unpleasant when the warring parties on the one or the other bank suddenly became more active. Crews saw artillery duels and air battles at first hand, an experience which they would gladly have foregone. As a precautionary measure on these occasions, everybody stayed below decks. Nevertheless, life was dangerous enough. On one occasion a plane jettisoned bombs into the lake, and on another a jet fighter lost its supplementary fuel tank. The latter dropped into the lake only some 100 yards away from the “Nippon” and was — it later emerged — still half full of kerosene. Despite everything, however, no single crew member came to harm during the whole period of eight years.
As time went by, life became quieter on the Bitter Lake. Some crews were reduced, and others were removed entirely. It could not be foreseen when, if ever, the Suez Canal would be reopened. For the Munsterland too, ways of cutting costs had to be considered. In cooperation with other shipping lines, a way of doing so was found. In mid-October 1969, four ships were moored alongside each other and entrusted to a crew of ten men who were responsible for all of them. In June 1970, a fifth ship joined the group.
By 1970 only 50 men remained on the lake. That made many things more difficult, even the sporting activities. These latter were by no means discarded, but took place in a different framework. As far as possible the “survivors” kept up what had meanwhile become hallowed traditions on the Bitter Lake.
The Christmas ceremonies, for example. On the afternoon of Christmas Eve boats from all the ships would congregate at the Great Bitter Lake Association Buoy (the GBLA buoy) in the middle of the lake. They all were made fast to form a star, and then the Christmas tree was hoisted on top of the buoy above the blue anchor bearing the number 14. The battery powered lights were then switched on and shone out over the lake, clearly visible from all of the ships.
Another nice custom was Sunday “church.” The bells of the five ships tolled before the festivities and crew members from all the ships in the lake assembled in good humour and dressed in their “Sunday best.” This was the occasion for stamping letters with special stamps, making announcements about upcoming events, fixing up new meetings and above all, for a good gossip. These expeditions to “church” contributed much to the good fellowship among the trapped men.
In July 1972, the German crew of the group was replaced, as a further rationalisation measure. Four men from a Norwegian specialist firm took over the inspection and necessary maintenance work aboard the ship.
Preparations to sail
Political developments during 1974 made it seem fairly certain that the Suez Canal would be reopened. From September 1974 onwards, crew members were sent out to the Bitter Lake in small groups. An advance party of three arrived first, in order to make preparations for the reception of further crew members. A further ten men followed them on September 16. A handful of Egyptian craftsmen were also taken on to help with the work necessary, particularly in the refurbishing of the crew’s accommodation. The Munsterland was in relatively good condition. There were a lot of barnacles on the hull, but almost no corrosion damage. The climate on the Bitter Lake had certainly contributed to the conservation of the ship. Rust formation had been very limited, because throughout the year the humidity is very low. And even so a whole series of repairs had to be done, particularly in the safety sphere, before the ship could be awarded the “ Provisional Certificate of Seaworthiness” by Germanischer Lloyd.
Not only the ship herself, but also the cargo, was in astonishingly good condition. Naturally the tinned foods were no longer usable, and indeed the parts of the cargo which had been stowed near them had also been spoilt, since the majority of the tins had burst, but the wool, for which several years in storage is nothing unusual, was mostly in perfect condition, as were the hides and — naturally — the consignments of mineral sand and lead. The steel wire positively shone and looked as if it had just been delivered from the factory. This too could all be put down to the low humidity.
Maintenance work and repairs dragged on over several months, roughly in parallel to the efforts which were being made to clear the Suez Canal of mines and other hindrances to navigation, and to make it passable again. Political developments caused concern.
Then the end of March came and the official announcement from Egypt that the Suez Canal would be reopened for international traffic on the 5th of June, 1975, the eighth anniversary of its closure. After initial scepticism, the necessary measures were set in motion at Hapag-Lloyd. Everything went very quickly, because practically everything had been prepared in advance. On May 2 the remainder of the crew flew out to Egypt. The Munsterland should finally be resuming the voyage home which had been interrupted back in 1967.
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