Aboard The Trabzon

Ashore, the Bosporus seems like a broad passage, deep and easily navigable. From the bridge of a 229-meter freighter, the scale and proportion of things changes — dramatically. You realize that there’s nothing straight about the world’s most romantic, if not most important, strait. The Bosporus is a twisty, mighty and highly dangerous waterway. And if not accorded the respect she deserves, could easily prove lethal to many.

That’s why on Sunday morning I shook off the previous night’s Easter celebrations and hastened in a taxi to Rumeli Kavagi, camera in hand, in order to to board Ciner Shipping’s 6-month old freighter, the “Trabzon.” I wanted to capture at least something of life aboard one of these incredible vessels which slip up and down the Bosporus on a daily basis. It was an awe-inspiring experience, and one that’s deepened my respect for those who live their life at the mercy of the mighty seas.

My Ciner Shipping contact and friend, Despina and I reach Rumeli Kavagi where the Gözcu 1 (the Watcher), the agent boat which will ferry us to the Trabzon in a hurry, waits. When the Captain of the Gözcü says we have to jump from dock to boat, I don’t realize, unlike Despina, that he’s joking. But it’s worth it to see the look on his face when I do.

Before today, I’d never been farther than Anadolu Kavagi aboard a boat. I’ve never ventured into the Black Sea. Today we have Lodos, the strong south westerly wind which can make life treacherous for mariners. “Lodos in the Black Sea,” the captain of the Gözcü tells us, “is not a problem.” I fail to understand the significance of what he says at this moment.

Even this short excursion aboard the Gözcü is worth it. There is intermittent rain and sunshine, and finally, as if to mark the last corner of Europe, a rainbow above Rumeli Feneri. If I see dolphins, the scene will require a soundtrack. Freighters suddenly loom large in our channel, preparing for their Bosporus passage.

We draw close to one, which looks a decent size, but this isn’t our vessel. There’s no Ciner logo. It’s the St. Valentina, registered in Monrova, carrying who knows what. Then, she appears. The Trabzon. As we sidle up to her 229-meter hull, I see that we will board her by climbing a rope ladder. The security chief is waving from above. Serious or not, Lodos or not, the winds are strong. It’s quite an experience clambering up the side of a vessel like this, the ladder swinging out and away from the  hull, the wind licking the drool from your lip.

Once aboard everything changes. You no longer feel small and cowed. You feel small and protected, cradled in the hand of a friendly giant. Everything below seems puny, minuscule. We are given badges and escorted to the bridge where we see Captain Nailon overlooking the strait. He’s a quiet, confident Filipino, the apex of the 19-man crew. “Odessa,” he shakes his head. “Always problems.” A small yellow and orange colored boat ferries away a health and safety inspector, while an all orange boat marked “pilot” brings aboard the man who will be responsible for guiding us through the narrows to the Marmara.

On the bridge there is no wood panelling, no brass fixtures. Instead, small, efficient looking consoles, gleaming and new. Computer screens and GPS charts. There is a compact black handled control, like a race car wheel, rather than the many-spoked wood captain’s wheel of yesteryear. It’s almost a relief then, when I see Serdar Kaptan, a former sea captain and now a Ciner company man drawing on a chart with a fountain pen.

A stern faced Turk, Tuncer Bey, walks onto the bridge. He is one of 63 Bosporus pilots who oversee the passage of this strait. He shakes hands with Captain Nailon, and then quickly and confidently begins to call out headings. The Valentina passes below, quiet as a mouse, yet confident of her diminutive profile.

We pass Rumeli Kavagi, Sariyer, Tarabya, and then Yeniköy where they graciously blast the ship’s horn in greeting to Sevin and Sofia on our balcony in the hills above. I can see the house, but not my beautiful wife and daughter. Then you really begin to comprehend the scale of things as we approach the narrowest point of the Bosporus, traversed not far above us by Fatih Sultan Mehemet bridge, the second of Istanbul’s mighty intercontinental bridges. There are moments where you think the ship is on a collision course with the shore. There’s no stopping a ship of this size. Constant minute course corrections are required. Serdar Kaptan tells us that when there’s an accident, people always claim it’s an instrument glitch. It’s never an instrument glitch.

Bye-bye Bebek, I mutter.

Tuncer Bey, the pilot, is not concerned, but concentrated. Pilots work two days on, three days off.

Once the first of the two bridges is behind us we go below to take a look at the engine room. Again, there’s nobody shoveling coal into a boiler or anything like the good old days of shipping. Just more clean, shimmering panels. It’s not as noisy as I’d expect, but it’s almost sauna warm. Despina and I ask daft questions, like what happens if we press this red button, and what does this do? The Chief Engineer appears, a handsome smiling man in brilliant orange coveralls. Down here among the crewmen the atmosphere is much more relaxed. They don’t seem too worried about the dangers of obliterating a seaside village. Still, these men are incredibly hard-working. Despite such a massive ship, automation means a small crew who have plenty to do. Yet they are always smiling.

Back on the bridge we pass Ciner’s Shipping HQ and then Kiz Kulesi (the Maiden’s Tower). It’s here that another orange boat marked “pilot” sidles up to the Trabzon and we bid farewell to Tuncer Bey who has seen us through the Bosporus safely and efficiently. We continue on into the Marmara, which now resembles a parking lot full of freighters, tankers and other commercial vessels. Here the engines work only to maintain our position in an churning sea.

The crane operator climbs to his perch. A rusted old agent boat approaches loaded with supplies. Two stout, cheerful agents clamber up the rope ladder. It’s time to restock the ships larder and sign off on quantities. 750 kilos of rice. Check. 5000 eggs. Check. Cornflakes. Check. Nobody is idle. Three months worth of supplies need to come aboard. The Chief Engineer and crewmen form a convoy. The crane operator hauls skids of supplies: brooms, paint, onions, tomatoes, new coveralls … you name it.

Restocked it’s time for us to leave the same way the supplies came. Now something the Captain of the Gözcu said, returns to my mind. “Lodos. Not a problem on the Black Sea.”

But we’re not on the Black Sea. We’re on the Marmara. The rusted old supply boat is crashing up and down against the hull of the Trabzon. Spray surges up the ladder. The first supply agent is clambering up then down the ladder, then up again in order to avoid the bow of the agent boat which is rocks up with the waves. He’s broad as gorilla but agile as a monkey. This is where it really gets dangerous. Finally the man below catches him and they help Serdar Kaptan, who despite his experience at sea doesn’t do this daily.

Now it’s my turn. “I’m going to Charleston,” says Despina. It’s where the ship’s pig iron payload is destined. She’s not entirely joking. Charleston’s not an option for me. I’ve got nothing more than a Turkish driver’s license on me. Climbing down the ladder is a wholly different enterprise. The men below are calling out “Now! Now!” and I have to let go of the ladder at the right moment and let the men below grab me. Letting go of the ladder is counterintuitive. I have rope burns in my palms. Better yet, I still have my legs, shaky as they are. Despina tells me that nowhere else, except maybe India, do the supply agents work like this.

We circle the mighty Trabzon so I can take some final shots of one magnificent ship, while one of the agents grips me tight to prevent me from going overboard. Then our mighty host begins to retreat. Captain Nailon stands on the bridge deck waving goodbye. I was only aboard for a few short hours, but it was a magnificent experience, and a new perspective of the incredible shipping lane I now watch with renewed awe and wonder on a daily basis.