THE TURKISH STRAITS: A BRIEF OVERVIEW
From ancient to modern times; Turkish Straits has been a strategically
important waterway for maritime transportation, for commercial and military
purposes. Due to this importance, the region has been a playground for regional
actors and global powers in the history, as it is today. The challenges in the
Turkish Straits could be summarized as follows:
• Turkish Straits; especially the strait of Istanbul; is narrow;
restricted, and quite risky for the maritime transportation.
• A mandatory legal regime which allows the coastal state to
implement all of the necessary safety measures is only partially existent.
• There is the maritime transportation needs, such as the important
raw materials and other import and exports for the Straits-dependent Black sea
• There is an existing and also vast potential of oil production in the
land-locked Caspian region;
Could there be a compromise?
The Turkish Straits consist of the Strait of Istanbul, the Strait of
Canakkale and the Sea of Marmara. The total length of this system from one end
to the other is 164 Nautical Miles. Turkish Straits has unique characteristics.; we
can summarize these characteristics under three major headings:
1. Morphological Structure: This is characterized by rocky curves and
2. Oceanographic Structure: Characterized by surface and subsurface
currents, eddies and counter currents.
3. Meteorological Structure: Sudden daily and seasonal changes in
Due to these unique characteristics and conditions, the Turkish Straits are
difficult waterways for the ships navigating through.
A BRIEF LOOK AT THE HISTORY
Apollonius of Rhodes; in the third century BC; mentions the word “Pilot”
in his book “The Argonautica” as a “skillful helmsman”. And this pilotage was
done in the Strait of Istanbul (The Bosporus). Legendary hero Jason led his
Argonauts through Bosporus to reach Colchis, in search of the “Golden Fleece”.
This journey is dated back to 1200-1300 BC. And passing Bosporus; was one of
the biggest challenges on the route. The following paragraph is from the book
“…with a favoring wind they steered through the eddying Bosporus.
There, a wave like a steep mountain rose up in front as though rushing upon
them, almost reached up to the clouds; would you say that they could escape
grim death, for in its fury it hangs over the middle of the ship, like a cloud, yet it
sinks away into calm when it meets with a skilful pilot.”
This skillfull pilot; who steered Argo safely through Bosporus; was
Tiphys. This might be the first known pilotage in the Bosporus- and in the
history as well.
What made Jason to sail form Greece, to fight with the perils of the Straits
and go to Georgia? We should seek for an economic reason; and it is not far
away. Gold was produced in Georgia. And that is represented in the legend as
“The Golden Fleece”.
Another strategic fight to have control on the Straits was the Trojan Wars.
Troy; was at a strategic place controlling the Straits. Ancient Greeks thought it
was necessary to capture this city in order to control the trade to the Black Sea
countries. The beautiful Helen is seen as the reason of the Trojan Wars, as it is
seen on the recent film “The Troy”; but the main reason was far beyond this.
The main reason was seeking control of these strategically Important waterways.
And only after the fall of Troy the Greeks could control and colonize Black Sea
There is another legend about the Straits from the Ancient times; and it is
the name “Bosporus” itself; but I will leave this to the excursion and the guide
there will tell you about the meaning of “Bosporus” and the legend about it.
Apart from legends; throughout the written history; Turkish Straits region
has been an important playground for the world’s powers since the beginning of
For centuries, the Strait of Istanbul has been a strategically vital waterway
to and from the Black Sea. In 513 B.C. the Persian emperor Darius built a bridge
of ships crossing it to lead his army to Greece. Throughout history many forts
and palaces were built on the coasts of the Straits, as testimony of the strategic
value of these most difficult waterways. In 1453, Ottomans conquered Istanbul
and the role and significance of Straits as a commercial passageway connecting
east and west had dramatically changed. Ottoman control over the Straits lasted
for centuries, however, depended upon the Empire’s strength and power. In
1833, Treaty of Hunkar Iskelesi was signed between Ottomans and Russia; with
which free passage to Russian warships through Straits “in case of need” was
granted. Treaty of London (1840) and Straits Convention (1841) followed.
These were the first international instruments to regulate passage through the
Straits. Ottomans totally lost control over the Straits by the 1918 Mondros
Armistice. According to this armistice, Turkish Forces were to be demobilized
immediately and Allied forces were to occupy strategic points along the Turkish
Straits. And treaty of Sevres signed in 1920 which entrusted the responsibility to
administer the rules of passage through Straits to an International Straits
Commission. But, the success of the Turkish revival under leadership of
Mustafa Kemal, prevented the ratification of the Sevres Treaty. And, the
Lausanne Convention followed after the success of Turkish Independence War
under the command of Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk). The most significant aspect of
Lausanne Convention was that warships would be no longer prohibited from
entering the Turkish Straits.
Today, the traffic in the Turkish Straits dominantly regulated by the rules
of Montreux Treaty, which was signed in 1936. Article 1 of this convention
provides that the parties “recognize and affirm the principle of freedom of transit
and navigation in the Straits” while Article 2 states that “ during peacetime,
merchant vessels of all states have complete freedom of navigation in the Straits,
whether it be day or night”.
Today’s larger and more powerful ships which cannot even be compared
to the smaller vessels of Jason’s time, still appear to need, the help of Tiphys to
pass safely through these waterways.
Within Turkish Straits system particularly the Strait of Istanbul forms a
winding and quite narrow geographical structure with 18 nautical miles (31
Km.) in length and 700 meters at the narrowest points in width; its numerous
bends require 12 course alterations for the passing vessels. Some of these
alterations are very sharp which is more than 90 degrees.
From the meteorological aspect, the Strait of Istanbul is heavily
influenced by strong Northern winds, rain and intensive fog particularly in
spring and autumn seasons. Furthermore, weather conditions can change rapidly
so that a ship beginning its passage in cloudy weather can all of a sudden find
herself inside a thick fog with zero visibility.
This happened to me once as I was piloting a tanker from the north to
south. At the beginning visibility was fine but as we rounded the Yeniköy bend,
which is still near the entrance of the Strait of Istanbul, we faced a thick fog
making the fore mast of the tanker invisible that was indeed extremely
dangerous. As I am so familiar with the Straits, I was able to pass through it
safely but I do not even want to imagine a captain by himself in a similar
situation, without a pilot, carrying thousands tones of oil.
As is known the dynamic factors of surface and subsurface currents are
different. The main factor for subsurface currents is the difference of density
between the Black Sea and the Aegean Sea, while the main factor of the surface
current is the difference of water levels between these two seas.
Surface currents are one of the most important handicaps for navigation
through the Straits, which can increase up to 6-8 knots in speed. Because, danger
created by surface currents are twofolds. Vessels navigating with the current
lose the ability to steer as they only can actually make 2-4 knots through the
water. In a winding road we all know how important steerage is. Would you
want to drive around a 80 degree curve with weak steering?
The second danger emerges when a vessel must turn around a bend and a
cross current. In such. a case, current literally pushes the fore of the vessel and
makes it very difficult for her to turn in the desired direction. For instance, a
large vessel carrying explosive cargo caught in such a cross current may find
herself in someone's living room.
Human error is accounted for 85% of accidents at sea. Therefore taking
on a pilot for the passage is the best way to reduce the risk of an incident in the
Turkish Straits. Unfortunately, only 40% of vessels (average of Istanbul and
Dardanelles) passing through the Turkish Straits take a pilot and yet 85% of the
vessels involved in accidents in the Straits did not employ a pilot. In any case, it
should not be forgotten that through safety measures the risks of navigating
through the Turkish Straits can be reduced to a certain extend, but they will
never be fully eliminated. A fisherman is quoted as saying after the Sea Empress
incident that “What they talked about was that they were 99.9% that there
wouldn’t be a major spill, but we got the 0.1%”.
Passage through the Straits, particularly in Istanbul becomes even more
dangerous due to increasingly busy local traffic with an average of 2000-2500
daily crossings by boats transporting citizens’ back and forth between the two
coasts of the city. Cruising boats along the Strait for tourist and entertainment
purposes further increase the amount of local traffic especially in summer
seasons. Boat movements are also increased by the swarms of fishing boats.
The overall traffic volume in the Turkish Straits has reached critical and
dangerous level. The risk of accident for passing vessels threatens the safety of
the City of Istanbul as well as the navigational and environmental safety.
More than 50.000 vessels, in average, annually use the Turkish Straits and
this number has been increasing steadily. That means 150 passages per day. In
other words, together with the congested local traffic, on average one vessel
passes through the Strait at every 10 minutes. More importantly, the number of
passing tankers through the Straits has also reached alarming limits. In 1999,
daily 15 tankers passed an 80 million tons of oil was transferred through the
Turkish Straits. That increased to 140 million tons in 2003; the average number
of passeing tankers did not changed, though.
As that amount well indicates, the Straits are under the high risk of
catastrophic accidents. We are potentially one explosion away from such a
The Maritime Traffic Regulations for the Turkish Straits and the
Marmara Region have proved successful as can be seen by the dramatic
reduction in accidents since its implementation in 1994.
I would like to talk about some of the major accidents that have happened
in the Turkish Straits before the Regulations:
M/T Independenta., Romanian flag collided with freighter M/V Evriyali,
Greek flag, on 15 November 1979. A most all of the crew at the Romanian
tanker lost their lives (only 3 out of 46 survived). Collision caused fire and
grounded tanker's wreck affected the area for some years.
Ammoniac loaded tanker M/T Blue Star, Panama flag, collided with
Turkish Crude Oil Carrier M/T Gaziantep, which was on anchor, on 28 October
1988. Huge quantities of ammoniac cargo polluted the environment. As was in
the case in the Nassia accident it was by sheer luck that the wind was blowing
seaward and not landward. It would have been disastrous otherwise.
M/T Nassia collided with bulk carrier M/V Shipbroker, both Southern
Cyprus flag, on 13 March 1994. 29 officers and crewmembers of both ships lost
their lives, including the master of Shipbroker. The latter burnt totally. The fire
on the tanker Nassia, fully loaded with crude oil, damaged the Strait and the
environment. Approximately 20.000 tonnes of crude oil a considerable part of
Nassia's cargo - caused severe pollution, and a fire, which lasted 4 days 5 hours
40 minutes, all of which resulted in the suspension of traffic in the Strait for
several days. Once again Istanbul was so lucky because the winds were not
blowing towards land but out to seaward.
We can summarize the reasons for accidents in the Turkish Straits as
1- Vessels trying to pass these difficult waterways without using a
2- Technical deficiencies of the passing vessels
3- Sudden changes in natural conditions such as currents, wind, rain,
snow, fog etc.
I have explained briefly the dangers of navigation through the Turkish
Straits. What about environment? What would happen if there was an accident
and oil spill? Do we have the means of completely cleaning the environment
from the pollution, and to what extent we can be successful in doing this?
In relation to preceding questions I would like to touch upon the wellknown
ease of the Sea Empress:
The tanker Sea Empress was laden with 131,000 tones of crude on when
it ran aground in southwest England at the entrance to Milford Haven. 72.000
tones of crude oil spilled into the sea. There was no fire but the oil continued to
spill into the sea for 3 days.
Despite all the efforts to clean the spill, only 3500 tones - that is 5% - of
oil was cleaned.
In the case of the Straits, it is even more difficult to clean up because of
the currents and the narrowness of the Straits. We may not be always that lucky
to have an accident without fire. Having said this, I do not mean to say that
efforts should not be made to clean up a spill in the Straits-but we should be
aware of the limits imposed by the nature. A huge catastrophic oil spill in the
Straits could take from us the beauties we could never ever replace. Istanbul can
never be reproduced.
Turkish Straits; especially Strait of Istanbul; are narrow and difficult-tonavigate
corridors heavily used for maritime transportation.
There are a number of safety measures established in the Turkish Straits;
including a new modern VTS System. But despite the strong recommendations
by IMO and Turkish Straits Regulations; the ratio of vessels using pilot is only
Preventive measures should have the priority; and pilotage should be at
the first rank amongst them; because human error is responsible more than 80%
of all accidents. Pilotage is the most effective tool to minimize the human errors.
In the case of an accident and an oil spill; there is not much to be done in
the Straits due to strong current that prevails in the Straits. That is why the
preventive measures have the priority. But however; the tools for cleaning
purposes and an emergency procedure is also a must. These are also established
recently by Turkey.