Aboard a tanker in Turkey’s dangerous Bosphorus Straits

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The Bosphorus looked calm as the Gas Grouper, a 570-foot tanker, slid into the strait. But as Ismail Akpinar, a Turkish skipper, looked out from the navigating bridge, he saw only danger: the chaos of the currents, the hairpin bend, and the dozens of ferries, fishing boats, and pleasure yachts blocking the passage to the other side.

The ship was its own threat: a laden liquefied gas tanker that would cause an explosion with a blast radius of miles, he estimated, if its cargo accidentally ignited.

Navigating the sinewy Bosphorus, one of the busiest and most difficult waterways in the world, ship pilots help avert disaster and protect the ships and the surrounding metropolis of Istanbul, where so much life flourishes on the waterway or on its shores.

Technological advances on ships and on land in recent decades have reduced the burden on pilots. But their role remains vital as traffic through the strait has steadily increased and ships have become larger and unwieldy. Millions of barrels of oil flow through the Strait every year, a bottleneck for global energy and commodities such as food. And as warships pass through, the waterway is a window into regional conflicts from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, including escalating tensions between Russia and Ukraine.

Last year, global attention focused on the dangers of sea passage through straits and canals when the Ever Given, a huge container ship, was stuck in the Suez Canal for six days after drifting sideways in strong winds. And in Turkey, the security of the Bosphorus is at the heart of ongoing rows over President Erdogan’s proposal to dig a new canal parallel to the strait, a project that has sparked significant opposition.

The ship pilots of the Bosphorus – members of an old, even ancient order – work two days and four days off. They steer three or four ships daily on the 19-mile strait. Sometimes the waterway disappears in the fog. The engines of massive tankers fail. The work can be physically demanding.



Every once in a while the captain of a passing ship gets drunk. The most common challenge is engine failure, which crews counteract with fast anchoring

As the gas grouper entered the waterway and sailed south from Ukraine through the straits to Tunisia, Akpinar, a slim 62-year-old who holds the title of chief pilot, climbed the wooden and rope ladder on the ship’s side.

Despite all the recent advances in shipping, no one seems to have found a replacement for the ladders, which can be up to 10m long on larger ships. Over the years, several Bosphorus ship pilots have fallen in bad weather and at least one has died.

“Pilot aboard,” Akpinar told the ship’s crew as he came on deck. “Adjust your speed, 13 knots please.”

He lit up as he noticed all the gremlins of the waterway pointing to buoys marking an unsteadily shallow section of the strait that separates the landmasses of Europe and Asia. In front of the Yenikoy district in Istanbul, the ship had to make an 80-degree turn, one of 12 course changes in the Bosphorus. Further south, the strait narrowed to 700 m and then passed the “Devil’s Stream” at a speed of about 4 or 5 knots. Currents in another area could reach 7 or 8 knots: so strong that “you can’t control the ship,” he said.

So much of Istanbul life takes place on or near the Bosphorus

(Washington Post/Nicole Tung)

Erdogan has proposed carving a 48km artificial canal parallel to the Bosphorus — the latest in a series of mega-projects he sees as central to his political legacy. The president and his deputies have argued that the canal is necessary in part because the Bosphorus is still congested and the threat of catastrophic accidents is ever present.

However, critics have called the canal redundant and exorbitantly expensive, and warned its construction will trigger a cascade of environmental damage. As busy as the Bosphorus is, they point out that traffic has actually decreased over the past decade. And while minor accidents do occur with some frequency, major disasters that were common in earlier eras have become relatively rare.

The Turkish ship’s pilots, many of whom work for the state, were largely absent from the debate, a politically sensitive issue given the strong support the project has garnered from Erdogan. In interviews, half a dozen pilots working for the state shipping organization or private companies refused to speak over the canal.

However, neither volunteered enthusiasm for the project, instead emphasizing the rigor of their training and experience to implicitly argue that their presence was sufficient to keep the Bosphorus safe despite the peculiar dangers of nature.

Ismail Akpinar assists the gas grouper in its passage through the straits

(Washington Post/Nicole Tung)

The waterway connects the Black Sea and the Sea of ​​Marmara. Due to the difference in elevation and salinity of the two bodies of water, the strait has two currents, a north-south surface layer and an underlying countercurrent. Strong seasonal winds and dense fog also threaten seafarers, occasionally causing the strait to be closed to ships.

“We cannot control nature,” said Muammar Arslanturk, a former president of the Turkish pilot consortium. “The art of winning against things we can’t control is what we do.”

Some Turkish pilots like to trace their lineage back to ancient times. They cite the mention of Tiphys, a “skillful helmsman” in the Greek epic The Argonautica, who helped the mythological hero Jason navigate the “swirling” Bosphorus on his way to retrieving the Golden Fleece.

The strait is still eddying. But the threat these days is just as likely to come from the ships or their crews.

Some try to hide mechanical problems from the Turkish pilots. Sometimes crew members have difficulty communicating with pilots or even each other due to language barriers. Every once in a while the captain of a passing ship gets drunk. The most common challenge is engine failure, which crews counteract by quickly dropping anchor to stop the ship from drifting towards shore.

The anchor is no guarantee, and over the years ships have often plowed into the crowded shores of the strait. “There is no handbrake,” said Gurhan Akturk, a Turkish pilot.

Passengers disembark from a ferry in the shadow of the Maiden Tower, a garrison and ship station on the Bosphorus

(Washington Post/Nicole Tung)

For all the talk of declining traffic in the strait, ships seemed to be everywhere as Akpinar steered the ship, an endless procession of commuter ferries, small fishing vessels, police boats, and other pilot boats heading for the nearest tanker. And along the shores of the strait were endless crowds of people, gathering on piers, in waterfront restaurants or wading into the water.

“It’s always like this,” Akpinar said.

As he worked, he hardly noticed Istanbul’s waterfront gems: the medieval Rumeli Fortress nestled in hills; the Ottoman-era waterfront villas; the Ortaköy Mosque, a baroque vision that seems to float on the waterway.

“When I’m working, I can’t see the beauty of Istanbul,” he said.

Maritime transit through the Bosphorus, the Sea of ​​Marmara and the Dardanelles Strait at the southern end of that sea is regulated by the 1936 Treaty of Montreux, which does not require ships to accommodate Turkish pilots. Signatories, including Russia, have protested Turkey’s efforts to mandate the practice. Last year nearly 60 percent of passing ships chose to have a pilot on board, and Akpinar and his colleagues argue almost certainly were safer doing so.

Recently, in the autumn, four ships, including a fishing boat, were involved in two separate collisions in the Bosphorus, according to Turkish maritime authorities. Only one of the larger ships involved, a Russian-flagged cargo tanker, has hired a Turkish pilot, authorities said.

Ismail Akpinar climbs down the rope and wooden ladder after helping the gas grouper through the strait

(Washington Post/Nicole Tung)

When they advocate the construction of the Istanbul Canal, the government and its allies often cite accidents on the Bosphorus. “Have you heard or seen anywhere in the world where a woman lost her life when a ship hit her house? That happened in Istanbul,” Binali Yildirim, former prime minister and one of Erdogan’s key allies, said in a recent speech.

He appeared to be referring to an accident that occurred in 1963 when a Russian freighter crashed into a waterfront villa in thick fog, killing three people, including a five-year-old girl. However, such accidents have become less frequent in recent years, according to pilots and others who analyze shipping in the strait.

The walls of the Pilots Association, a trade union, in Istanbul’s Kadikoy district are adorned with photos and diagrams of disasters so pilots won’t forget. One of the worst occurred in March 1994, when an oil tanker collided with a freighter, killing 29 crew members on both ships, causing a fire that burned for days and blanketing 60 percent of the Bosphorus with a layer of oil, according to a summary by the Turkish government at the time.

The accident occurred in a pilot change area of ​​the strait when neither vessel had a pilot on board, the summary said, noting that the disaster would have been much worse had it occurred in a narrower part of the strait, closer to the shore.

“Having a sea pilot makes a big difference,” said Yoruk Isik, who heads the Bosphorus Observer, a consultancy that analyzes maritime traffic in the Turkish Straits. Turkey should pressure the International Maritime Organization and like-minded countries to make the addition of pilotage in the Bosphorus mandatory, he said. But even without such a change, crossing the strait in any weather is still safer than passage through a built canal, he added.

Taking a tea break at the pilot station after the gas grouper was safely out of the straits, Akpinar said he and other pilots prefer to keep huge container ships and ships carrying dangerous cargo out of the Bosphorus. Otherwise, Istanbul with its splendor, its long history and its millions of inhabitants would be in danger.

“We have to protect it,” he said.

© The Washington Post

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