Turkey stirs up a storm in the Bosporus: Curbs on waterway traffic anger old salts

Click to follow
The Independent Online
RIDING at anchor in the morning mist at the mouth of the Bosporus, Captain Stoika Giorgiu of the Romanian supertanker Biruinta said he was simply trying to exercise his right of free passage, as guaranteed in the Montreux Convention.

But the Turkish authorities, which are determined to protect Istanbul's 10 million people living an oil slick away, did not see it that way. Istanbul traffic control 'advised' Captain Giorgiu that a tugboat should help his 1,000ft ship to cope with the four-knot current.

'I've been up and down the Bosporus 140 times with this ship. Everything is normal,' the captain's voice crackled over the radio-telephone. 'I cannot explain the tugboat expenses to the owner.'

Captain Giorgiu won the argument: even under its new Maritime Traffic Regulations in the Turkish Straits, in force since 1 July, Turkey claims no right to change the freedoms of Montreux. But the Romanian had won a Pyrrhic victory. The Istanbul harbourmaster waited 12 hours before he announced that the Bosporus was clear of traffic for the Biruinta to pass. That is a long time for a ship that can cost up to pounds 10,000 per day to charter. 'It's a Cold War out there,' joked a Turkish pilot dispatcher, looking out over his ageing equipment and a semi-derelict quayside. Swarms of fishing caiques and scores of ferries criss-crossed the waterway, intersected by a steady stream of rusty coasters, squat Danube-Rhine freighters, great new cargo ships piled high with containers, and the huge, silent, potentially deadly oil tankers.

When the Montreux Convention was signed in 1936, diplomats thought in terms of Black Sea naval politics, not supertankers nearly as long as the Bosporus shipping lanes are wide. Last year, an average of 136 ships per day carried 118 million tonnes of cargo through the Bosporus.

Accidents keep happening. Ships crash into the bedrooms of seaside villas. Others mount the coast road beside the fish restaurants. So many have rammed the corniche at the trickiest corner round Akintiburnu ('Cape Current') that the municipality has given up repairing it.

The city miraculously escaped disaster in March, after a tanker collision at the Black Sea mouth of the strait. And when the big Romanian tanker Independenta ran aground and blew up in 1979, thousands of windows were blown out and thick black smoke turned day into night.

In this light, Turkey's case for tighter safety measures in the Bosporus seems entirely reasonable. Or is it just, as some claim, an attempt to force oil exports from former Soviet states into a trans-Turkey oil pipeline?

Compulsory pilotage seems a good place to start the debate. Only half the ships in transit take pilots at present, even though their fees are cheap by international standards. The Russian argument that the ageing radar guidance system should be updated first does not impress the Turks. 'You can buy all the radars you want, but above all, it's what people do that is important,' said Saim Oguzulgen, of the pilots' association, as he rode over choppy seas to a big Ukrainian liner.

An officer helped us to make the jump on to the side- ladder. We passed through decks of holidaymakers and suitcase-traders to reach the bridge, commanded by Captain Leonid Khokhlov, 54, a model of Soviet-trained seamanship.

'Steady ahead, 12 knots,' the pilot ordered in cheery Russian as we eased into the strait. Captain Khokhlov's ship is clearly fitted to high standards. He felt no need for a pilot, having negotiated the Bosporus hundreds of times. But we were catching up fast on an unreliable-looking coaster.

'I would certainly feel better if I knew there were pilots on those coasters,' Captain Khokhlov said, whipping out binoculars to check on a yacht towing another yacht directly in his path a few hundred yards ahead. His cruise ship may be relatively agile, but a full tanker takes more than 10 times its own length to stop.

The atmosphere on the Ukrainian liner's bridge was warm and friendly, despite Black Sea worries that Turkey's new rules will set illegal precedents to close the straits. In the heavy halls of the Russian Consulate, Consul General Leonid Manjosin pointed out that many of the ships are enjoying a honeymoon of booming Turkish-Black Sea trade.

When our ship sailed abreast of the quay at Galata, there was no space to dock. A dozen vessels, bearing the names of long-forgotten Soviet academicians, were lined up one behind the other. Young Black Sea capitalists were piling the decks high with cargoes of Turkish fruit, furniture, clothing and towering stacks of beer.

Wherever the great power struggles over the navigation of Bosporus may lead, this historic dock is back in its 19th century element.

(Photograph omitted)