The Great Bitter Lakes Association
Capt Arthur Kensett

In July 1969 at the height of the Arab Israel war I flew to Egypt to join the "Port Invercargill" which, along with 13 other merchantmen, was trapped in the Great Bitter Lakes in the middle of the Suez Canal as the canal had been blockaded at each end at the beginning of the conflict. The journey from Cairo was very interesting and I noted that the Arab agricultural system appeared not to have changed much since the days of the Pharaohs. As we drove through the villages the locals gaped at us as they were little used to seeing Europeans and eventually, after a long journey, we arrived at Checkpoint Charlie on the edge of the desert where our paperwork was examined in minute detail before we were allowed to proceed down to the jetty where we boarded a boat to be delivered to the "Port Invercargill". As we approached the ship we were welcomed by much blowing of ships whistles, flying of flags and were subject to a sudden shower of empty bottles and cases, the traditional welcome by the crew waiting to be relieved from the British ships greeted the new comers with what was known as the "Great Bitter Lake Bottle Traffic" reception.

Port Invercargill

All the ships were flying the G.B.L.A. flag; the Association having been formed some time before as an exclusive club limited to those serving on the ships trapped in the Lakes. By now it now consisted of hundreds of members of various nationalities having their own badges, ties, pennants etc.

In order to compensate for the inactivity of manning laid up ships, the G.B.L.A. organised a number of competitions covering many sports, but the most popular was football and sailing. A yacht Club was formed and monthly regattas took place in which all sorts of craft from lifeboats to work boats and even specially built home made craft pitted their wits against each other in the races around the ships. One such boat was built by the carpenter on the German ship "Munsterland" which looked beautiful with her Egyptian cotton sails and superb lines and she sailed like the wind. Officially we were not allowed the leave the ships due to the war going on around us but luckily this was not enforced by either of the protagonists.

Football was played on the large clear wooden deck of the "Port Invercargill" with two teams of four men with only five minutes play for each "half" which made it a very fast game. League and World Cups games were played out which were always followed by a lavish spread organised by the host ship. Friendly games of table tennis, darts, cards and chess were played on various ships and the French ship built a sand box where they could play Petanque.

Most ships had some sort of animal life onboard from dogs, cats, tortoise, doves and even rabbits. Some of these animals would stretch out on deck especially when films were being projected, although what they made of the films escapes me as even we had difficulty at times in understand the subtitles!

Food, as on all ships, was an important topic and luckily we had a very good cook who could do wonders with tins of "Tom Piper Stew" with mushrooms, peppers, and spices which we scavenged from the various cargoes that the ships were carrying. We even found some two year old eggs which tasted just fine. So meals were always a surprise as one never knew what had been discovered in the holds. Fishing was popular as there was a lot of fish in the Lake but although we made a substantial trawl, the only fish we caught was by line in the deep water channel. Crabs could be found and caught which helped to vary our diet.

Although there was a war going on around us one became blasé after a while and as no doubt both sides tried to avoid damaging the ships at least one was struck by shrapnel during a heavy raid. I carried a cine cameras with me and managed to film the Israelis bombing an Egyptian village and although we occasionally found pieces of shrapnel on deck we never felt threatened. All this war activity did not stop us from nonchalantly sailing around the Lake in a light breeze but we felt safe guarded by our motor boats which were used as the main means of transport between the vessels. However two sailing boats were lost when the Israelis arrested them on the bank and after giving the crew a hard time the soldiers sent them back to the ship. Blue Star Line sent out an outboard motor which was in great demand as due to lack of spares, the engines of the boats were in a bad way.
One of our greatest needs was for a doctor, there being only one on a Polish ship, but he was most helpful and kind and no ship had to wait long if help was required. He was unable to speak English so his Radio Officer used to accompany him on his medical rounds to the various ships.

Apart from the 14 ships trapped in the Great Bitter Lakes there were others in various parts of the canal and in order to reduce the costs to the shipping companies some ships were instructed to tie up alongside each other. So after hanging bales of cotton over our side I manoeuvred the "Port Invercargill" along side the abandoned "Scottish Star" and once securely alongside we deserted her and we all flew home. So ended an interesting interlude in my sea career. Eventually the ships were written off as constructive total losses and when the Suez Canal eventually reopened they were sent to the breakers yards.

The above was adapted from Capt A Kensett's memoirs - Ed

The Suez Canal reopened and on 30th May 1975 the "Port Invercargill" was towed to Port Said where she was sold to the Defteron Corporation of Greece and renamed "Kavo Kolones (2)". From Port Said she was towed to Piraeus where the cargo was unloaded. Examination of her hull revealed that it was not corroded too badly and she was put back into service but only for another four years until August 1979 when she was broken up at Kaohsiung by Shyed Sheng Huat Steel & Iron Works. - Ed


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