Running Down the Bosphorus

We turned into the Bosphorus from the north around noon, a half built bridge towering above us. As we approached from the east, monitoring channel 16 and channel 11 (which controls the north sector)we had heard requests from commercial shipping for “permission to commence drifting”. So we knew there were ships waiting to enter the straits. However, as we passed the two small fishing villages on either side and slipped between the steep cliffs covered in green vegetation, there was no sign.

With a following 15 knot wind and sheltered from the unpredictable swell of the Black Sea, we settled in the centre of the stream to benefit from the best of the south going current and made good progress. We had the place to ourselves fortunately as it seems no wider than the Thames at this point. With the skipper at the helm, I set about making lunch a light salad lunch served on the table in the cockpit. There was an unhurried conversation about dessert. Halva was rejected in favour of sweetened hazelnut paste and local yoghurt.  The washing up done, I took my place at the helm. The skipper checked his navigation and continued to monitor Turkeli control channel (11). We were still alone.

Gradually, after another hour, the straits widened into what appeared to be almost a round lake the slopes on either side became gentler. Elegant Otterman mansions lined both shores, which we guessed had at one time been palaces, consulates and official residences. There were some very impressive modern buildings as well. The hill sides were dotted with modern villas and apartment blocks. We could see the two bridges in the distance. There were more boats about – a few private motor boats, a small ferry, some sightseeing trip boats, some buoys. WE occasionally altered course slightly out of courtesy. There was plenty of water for all. The boats going north preferred to hug the shore on both sides to avoid the current. Our direction being south and eventual destination being Europe, we tended to stay on the European side of the centre. WE passed the naval base and admired the distinctive outline of 14th century Rumelian castle in the distance between the bridges.

We were approaching the out suburbs of Istanbul, impressed by the houses, modern and historic we started taking photos. There were more leisure boats about. The skipper changed Channels again, this time from 11 to12. His instructions became firmer and more explicit. A lone fisherman in a rowing boat amidst the melee of motor boats. More trip boats. It became important to concentrate. And then we saw it. It seemed to come out of nowhere, but had been hidden by the hill that framed the 45 degree change in the direction of the straits.  A huge tanker, preceded by a pilot boat, almost blotted out our view of the Fatih Sultan Mehmet bridge. Never mind, hugging the shore to avoid the current, this one was coming straight up the centre. We rolled up the genoa and scuttled towards Europe, trying to keep clear of the tanker, in the south going current and away from the occasional shallows. For the next 2 hours there was constant stream of large commercial vessels making their way northwards. I am not sure which were tankers or containers, but I am sure they were BIG. As we passed under the Bosphorus bridge way way above us the huge lorries we had seen rolling eastwards on the motorway to Georgia looked like dinky toys.

The skippers instructions become more terse. In all he monitored 4 (11 to 14) different channels as we came down, each one controlling a different sector. The tankers and container ships kept on coming. The shores on all sides were lined with ferry terminals, fishing wharfs, buildings of all sorts from all the centuries. There was a steady cross traffic of ferries and sight seeing boats (Europe to Asia and back). We were approaching the Golden Horn. Again we seemed to round a corner. The cruise ships moor there at the junction with the Bosphorus. “Was that large German cruise liner about to depart?” “No, but the Italian one next to it might be”. “Could we see the 16th century Genoise Galata Tower?” “Was that the station where the Orient Express terminated?”“ Leave that buoy to starboard, there is a shallow patch there” “Funny how different the Topkapi Palace looks from this angle”.

Somehow in our efforts to avoid all the other boats we had been pushed too far to the east and needed to cross back towards the European shore. There seemed to be sufficient gap between two tankers to nip across the churning waters – unfortunately into the path of two ferries heading across to Asia from the western side. It was as if the M1 had emptied straight on to Marble Arch during the rush hour we were peddling round on a child's tricycle. WE had no choice but to stand on. Would the ferries alter course? Tense moment. Then one altered just slightly. I acknowledged his reluctant courtesy with a wave. Then the smaller one followed. I waved again. As they passed astern they both saw our ensign and broke into an assortment of hooting and waving . We responded in similar fashion. In the 3 and half hours it took us to come down the Bosphorus we saw only one other yacht in the distance. It was struggling northwards. And we think it might have been Russian. Then suddenly it seemed the waterway widened and we were in the Sea of Marmara. In all, it had taken us just over 3 hours. It was infinitely calmer. We turned westwards along the Sultanmemet with views of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque to starboard.

There were still queues of ships “drifting”, but much more clear water. The views of historic Constantinople gave way to vistas of modern Istanbul. Mile upon mile of tall modern office and apartment blocks stretched inland glittering in the sunshine. We followed the coast for another couple of hours weaving between the ships almost to the end of the suburbs and finally turned into the new Istanbul Marina around to 2000 hrs. It had been quite a day.


Deborah Wheeler, 23.08.2015 | More from Deborah Wheeler’s blog