The Turkish Straits: a Brief Overview


Mr. Pilot

The Turkish Straits: a Brief Overview

03 November 2018 - 09:43



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

countries; and

• 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

sharp turns.

2. Oceanographic Structure: Characterized by surface and subsurface

currents, eddies and counter currents.

3. Meteorological Structure: Sudden daily and seasonal changes in

weather conditions.

Due to these unique characteristics and conditions, the Turkish Straits are

difficult waterways for the ships navigating through.


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

the history.

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.

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