Jhe Bosphorus looked calm as the Gas Grouper, a 570ft long tanker, glided through the strait. But as he watched from the navigation bridge, Ismail Akpinar, a Turkish ship pilot, saw only dangers ahead: the chaos of the currents, the hairpin bend and the dozens of ferries, fishing boats and pleasure yachts obstructing travel to the other side.

The ship was its own threat: a tanker loaded with liquid petroleum gas that would cause an explosion with a blast radius of several miles, he said, if its cargo accidentally ignited.

As they navigate the nervous Bosphorus, one of the busiest and most difficult waterways in the world, ship pilots help stave off calamity, protecting ships and the surrounding metropolis of Istanbul, where so many life takes place in the waterway or along its shores.

Technological advances in recent decades on ships and ashore have eased the burden on pilots. But their role remained essential as traffic in the strait steadily increased and ships became larger and more cumbersome. Millions of barrels of oil pass through the strait each year, a choke point for global energy and basic commodities like food. And as warships transit, 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 massive container ship, became stuck in the Suez Canal for six days after drifting sideways in high winds. And in Turkey, Bosphorus security is at the center of ongoing talks over President Erdogan’s proposal to dig a new channel parallel to the strait, a project that has drawn considerable opposition.

The pilots of the Bosphorus ships – members of an ancient, even ancient order – work two days in a row and four days off. They pilot three or four ships a day on the 19-mile strait. Sometimes the waterway disappears in the fog. The engines of the huge oil tankers break down. The work can be physically demanding.

Occasionally, the captain of a passing ship is drunk. The most common challenge is engine failure, which crews thwart by quickly dropping anchor

As the gas grouper entered the waterway, sailing south through the strait bound for Tunisia from Ukraine, Akpinar, a slender 62-year-old who holds the title of chief pilot, climbed the wooden ladder and rope on the side of the boat.

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

“Pilot on board,” Akpinar told the ship’s crew as they emerged onto the deck. “Adjust your speed, 13 knots please.”

He lit up noting all the gremlins in the waterway, signaling towards buoys that marked a precariously shallow stretch of the strait, which separates the land masses of Europe and Asia. Before Istanbul’s Yenikoy district, he noted, the ship is expected to make an 80-degree turn, one of 12 course changes in the Bosphorus. Further south, the strait narrows to 700m, then passes the “Devil’s Current” with a speed of about 4 or 5 knots. Currents in another area could reach 7 or 8 knots: so intense that “you can’t control the ship”, he said.

Much of Istanbul life takes place on or near the Bosphorus

(The Washington Post/Nicole Tung)

Erdogan has proposed digging a 48km man-made canal parallel to the Bosphorus – the latest in a series of megaprojects he sees as key to his political legacy. The president and his surrogates have argued that the canal is needed in part because the Bosphorus is still overcapacitated, leaving the threat of catastrophic accidents ever present.

But critics called the canal redundant, prohibitively expensive and warned its construction would unleash 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, the large-scale disasters that were common in earlier eras have become relatively rare.

Turkish ship pilots, many of whom work for the state, have been largely absent from the debate, a politically sensitive topic given the strong support the project has received from Erdogan. In interviews, half a dozen pilots who worked for the state maritime organization or private companies refused to talk about the canal.

None, however, expressed enthusiasm for the project, instead pointing to the rigors of their training and experience to implicitly assert that their presence was sufficient to keep the Bosphorus safe despite the particular dangers posed by nature.

Ismail Akpinar assists the passage of gas grouper through the strait

(The Washington Post/Nicole Tung)

The waterway connects the Black and Marmara seas. Due to the different elevations and salinity of the two water masses, the strait has two currents, a surface layer running north to south and an undercurrent below. Strong seasonal winds and dense fog also threaten sailors and sometimes cause the strait to be closed to ships.

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

Some Turkish pilots like to trace their lineage back to antiquity. They cite mention of Tiphys, a “skilled helmsman” in the Greek epic poem “The Argonautica”, who helped the mythological hero Jason navigate through the “swirling” Bosphorus en route to retrieve the Golden Fleece.

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

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

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

Passengers exit a ferry in the shadow of Maiden’s Tower, a garrison and ferry terminal on the Bosphorus

(The Washington Post/Nicole Tung)

Despite all the talk of sluggish traffic in the strait, there seemed to be ships everywhere as Akpinar piloted the vessel, an endless procession of commuter ferries, small fishing boats, police patrol boats and other pilot boats, heading for the next tanker. And along the shores of the strait were endless crowds of people, gathered at docks, in waterside restaurants or wading through the water.

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

As he worked, he barely noticed Istanbul’s waterfront gems: the medieval fortress of Rumeli, nestled in the hills; the Ottoman-era waterfront mansions; the Ortakoy Mosque, a baroque vision that seems to float on the waterway.

“When I work, I can’t see the beauty of Istanbul,” he says.

Maritime transit through the Bosphorus, the Sea of ​​Marmara and the Dardanelles Strait at the southern end of this sea is governed by the Montreux Treaty of 1936, which does not oblige ships to embark Turkish pilots. Signatories, including Russia, protested Turkey’s efforts to impose the practice. Last year nearly 60% of ships in transit chose to take a pilot and, according to Akpinar and his colleagues, it was almost certainly safer for him.

Recently, in the fall, four vessels including a fishing vessel were involved in two separate collisions in the Bosphorus, according to Turkish maritime authorities. Only one of the larger vessels involved, a Russian-flagged freighter, had hired a Turkish pilot, authorities said.

Ismail Akpinar descends the rope and wood ladder after helping the gas grouper cross the strait

(The Washington Post/Nicole Tung)

When arguing for the construction of the Istanbul Canal, the government and its allies frequently invoke 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? This happened in Istanbul,” said Binali Yildirim, former prime minister and one of the main allies of Erdogan during a recent speech.

It appeared to refer to an accident in 1963, when a Russian freighter crashed into a waterfront mansion in thick fog, killing three people, including a five-year-old girl. But in recent years, such accidents have become less frequent, according to pilots and others who analyze navigation in the strait.

The walls of the Pilots Association, a trade union, in Istanbul’s Kadikoy district are decorated with photographs and diagrams of disasters, lest the pilots forget. One of the worst occurred in March 1994, when an oil tanker collided with a freighter, killing 29 crew on both ships, sparking a fire that burned for days and covered 60% of the Bosphorus of a layer of oil, according to a summary of the Turkish government at the time.

The accident happened in a pilot change area in the strait, when neither ship had a pilot on board, according to the summary, which noted that the disaster would have been much worse if it had happened. produced in a narrower part of the strait, closer to the shore.

“Having a maritime pilot makes a huge difference,” said Yoruk Isik, who runs the Bosphorus Observer, a consultancy analyzing maritime traffic in the Turkish strait. Turkey should lobby the International Maritime Organization and like-minded countries to make it mandatory to add pilots in the Bosphorus, he said. But even without such a change, transiting through the strait, regardless of the weather, was still safer than passing through a constructed channel, he added.

As he took a tea break on the flight deck after the gas grouper had safely exited the strait, Akpinar said he and other pilots were in favor of moving the massive container ships away from the Bosphorus and ships carrying dangerous goods. Otherwise, Istanbul – with its splendor, its long history, its millions of inhabitants – was in danger.

“We have to protect it,” he said.

© The Washington Post