Guardians of the Strait

Navigating the world's most dangerous waterway

Guardians of the Strait Since classical times the Bosphorus has been a waterway of critical geo-political importance. Now, more than 50,000 ships a year navigate the treacherously narrow strait, carrying oil and other pollutants through the heart of Istanbul. Crowded with tankers, commuters, fishing boats and cruise ships, the bottleneck is an accident waiting to happen. This beautifully crafted doc explores how its people tirelessly keep the stretch open and safe.

“Leave immediately! Leave immediately! Nihat Captain's tanker, 274 meters, engine problem!”. As it travels through the Bosphorus, a vast tanker loaded with crude oil suffers from a mechanical failure. Control operators urge surrounding vessels to divert, whilst those on the boat try everything they can to manoeuvre their way out of disaster. Yet Captain Nihat remains calm. “If you panic in these situations, you make more mistakes”.

The Bosphorus, a narrow strait in Istanbul, marks the boundary between Europe and Asia. The frontier between empires and cultures for over a thousand years, its waterways have been a constant locus of activity and exchange and excitement. As with ancient Constantinople, so too with modern Istanbul: now as then, the strait provides the city with its lifeblood. But the strait’s function is evolving: ancient activities such as fishing continue to exist, but must now share the waters with floating restaurants, cruise ships and tankers. For Ogze, who commutes over the Bosphorus every day, the changes haven’t taken away from the strait’s appeal. “It’s beautiful to travel by sea. It’s the best thing…It doesn’t matter how I am, when I feel the sea air everything else disappears."

Yet Ogze’s idyll is under threat: every day, thousands of huge cargo ships and tankers pass through its waters. What was once “the river in paradise”, is quickly becoming “one of the world's principle choke points”. And with 50% of ships preferring not to pay a small fee to take on a local pilot to help them navigate, the risk of a collision or accident is increasingly high.

With accidents happening once every day and a half, the fear of catastrophe looms over local residents. “We have a common fear here in the Bosphorus”. They recount stories of friends killed in their beds by tankers ploughing into water-side homes, whilst others are still haunted by the horrors of a collision in 1994, which caused a fire to burn on the Strait for six days.

Despite heavy traffic and pollution many Istanbulites still see the Bosphorus as the jewel of the city. For Captain Saim, a shipmaster, the dangers of the Bosphorus are matched only by its majesty, “For me, Istanbul and the Strait is heaven on earth.”

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