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Caught in the Great Bitter Lake

An incredible history: 40 years ago, the Hapag freighter “Münsterland” returned to Hamburg – after more than eight years in the blocked Suez Canal.

The fireboats of the Hamburg Fire Department sprayed fountains of water, the River Elbe was packed with an armada of leisure crafts, launch boats and excursion steamers, and the piers and river bank were crowded with hundreds of thousands of people. “It was completely unprecedented,” said an astonished Helmut Raasch as his ship entered the Port of Hamburg. On that Sunday in May 1975, the captain of the “Münsterland” saw “one of the greatest pageants that the port has ever experienced” on land and on water. This spectacular reception was all for just two freighters: Nordstern Reederei’s “Nordwind” and Hapag’s 157-metre “Münsterland”, with a gross register tonnage of 9,365. It was the story behind these two ordinary-looking freighters that moved so many people: they were returning from the longest known journey in shipping history.

When the "Münsterland" returned, the River Elbe was packed with an armada of leisure crafts, launch boats and excursion steamers.

When the “Münsterland” set out in 1967, it was supposed to sailing from Australia to Hamburg. As it turned out, its journey lasted exactly eight years, three months and five days. Along with 13 other ships from eight countries, it was detained on the Great Bitter Lake in the blocked Suez Canal and used as a bargaining schip in the Middle East conflict. To this day, it remains one of the most moving episodes in the history of shipping – above all because the crews of the ships succeeded in living out the principles of hope, camaraderie and mutual assistance for many years, however intractable the situation seemed. The Great Bitter Lake Association, GBLA, the name that a community of sailors from East and West gave themselves, thereby stood in sharp contrast to the conflicts and wars surrounding them in the Middle East.     

Since its opening in 1869, the Suez Canal has been one of the most important shipping connections in the world. At more than 160 kilometres long, it joins the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea via the Isthmus of Suez. The canal marked the boundary between Israel and Egypt in the Six-Day War in June 1967. In its rapid offensive, Israel had reached the canal and completely occupied its eastern bank. At that time, the world was in the tense grip of the Cold War, the East-West conflict between the Soviet Union and the USA. The crews of the 14 freighters crossing the Suez Canal at the start of June 1967 found themselves caught up in a proxy war of the larger political conflict. Egypt detained them on the Great Bitter Lake, blocking their exit path into the Suez Canal with sunken vessels.

14 freighters were caught up in a proxy war of the larger political conflict.

Caught up as witnesses to attacks and atrocities in the embattled region, face to face with dead and wounded soldiers, the trapped sailors were in many ways the antithesis of what they saw around them. For them, it was always clear that they would live according to the famous “brotherhood of the sea”. The crews of ships from East and West came to know and value each other. A disparate group of people who had been cast together at random between the fronts of a war lived together – literally in the same boat – under a flag that they designed themselves: a triangle with two blue stripes and one white stripe, featuring an anchor and the number 14. Without a doubt, their success was due in no small part to the fact that the people living together on the Great Bitter Lake were sailors. In other words, they worked in a field where constructive coexistence and camaraderie are a matter of course, in a way seen in few other professions. The captains and crews of all 14 ships banded together at the initiative of the British captain Jim Starkey in autumn 1967. The purpose of their “little UN”, as one of the members called the multinational group of companions in fate, was friendship and mutual assistance.

This soon became necessary, as some of the crew members were removed after a few weeks. From then on, the rest of them switched every six months. As soon as it became clear that they would remain in captivity for a long time, the crews attached their ships to each other in groups and carried out maintenance work on them together. Despite the forced break, there was a lot to be done: “Above all, the ship had to be protected from the very salty water,” recalls Dirk Moldenhauer, then the First Officer of the “Münsterland”. “With outside temperatures of about 50°C, we greased the cargo gear and checked the condition of the engines, the helm and the propeller. And once a month we would sail up and down the lake at full speed to prevent the engine from getting stuck.”

The "Münsterland" with a gross register tonnage of 9,365 crossing the Suez Canal.

Over the course of eight years, a total of 3,000 men lived together peacefully on the Great Bitter Lake. Many of the connections that they made in those years have been maintained to this day. “Each man gave what he had,” recalls a German sailor. “We didn’t have anything ourselves, but we shared with everyone else.” While waiting for the supplies that had to be transported across the war zone, the men first shared the provisions of all the ships and later the perishable cargo. The “Münsterland”, for example, was carrying meat, eggs and fruit from Australia on board.

There were other ways as well in which the crews made the best of the situation that they were stuck in. Before the eyes of the conflicting parties in the Middle East, there were international costume parties on the Great Bitter Lake. A speedboat was used for waterskiing, and dinghies were rigged as yawls for regattas. 1968 was an Olympics year, so the GBLA “Djakarta” held its own Great Bitter Lake games, with the Polish crew members forging medals especially for the event. There were competitions in rowing and weightlifting, swimming and diving, table tennis and even football. One of the decks on the British ship “Port Inver-cargill” was transformed into an improvised stadium for the football.

At the headquarters in Hamburg, nobody had given up on the “Münsterland”. Rather than writing it off as an insurance loss and letting it go to ruin, which was one of the options available, the ship was kept in working order over all those years – as a symbol of hope that the blockade had to end some day. The blockade was finally lifted in May 1975, ending the captivity of the 14 cargo vessels. In a ceasefire agreement, Israel had committed itself to withdrawal from the Sinai. This brought the Suez Canal back under full Egyptian control. The two German freighters were the only ships able to leave the Great Bitter Lake under their own steam. 

The "Münsterland" after her arrival from the longest known journey in shipping history.

The great reception for the ships at shed 73 in the free port in May 1975 was also, however, a sort of farewell to the conventional freight shipping that had shaped the Port of Hamburg for hundreds of years. When the “Münsterland” departed on its record-breaking journey, it had been one of the top ships; by the time it returned, the era of conventional freighters was almost over. Within a few years, container shipping had taken over. The “Münsterland” was sold in 1978. But before that, in July 1975, it set out on its first journey after its long captivity: from Hamburg to Korea – taking it back through the Suez Canal again.

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