Turkish Straits: Difficulties and Role of Pilotage


Mr. Pilot

Turkish Straits: Difficulties and Role of Pilotage

28 April 2016 - 15:51


The term “Turkish Straits” describes the Strait of Istanbul, Strait of Çanakkale and areas of the Sea of Marmara. For purposes of maritime transportation; it describes the passageway within the traffic separation scheme from the Black Sea extending to the Aegean Sea. This article aims to give an overview of the pilotage services in general, and then will touch upon the difficulties of navigation in the Turkish Straits and the importance of pilotage as a maritime safety tool to eliminate the risks created by these difficulties.


The maritime pilot's role is to assist the Master of a vessel during the ship's passage to and from a berth in a given pilotage area, by providing local knowledge of navigational and operational matters combined with specialist ship-handling experience (1).

The pilot is entirely familiar with the special regulatory requirements and unique conditions that exist in his specific pilotage area, and with which the Master of the vessel cannot be expected to be fully conversant. The pilot is wholly familiar with all the local factors that might affect the navigation of the ship. These may include strong tidal flows, recent shoaling, ferry activities, dredging operations and other hazards.

The maritime pilot also provides an essential communications link with the port authorities, maritime traffic services (VTS), tugboats, boatmen and other ships.

Maritime pilots not only supply pilotage to ships; but also provide a public service by contributing to the overall safety of maritime traffic and by ensuring the protection of the environment.

Maritime pilots are one of the main elements for providing maritime safety in high risk marine environments.” Unlike the VTS system, which is positioned on-shore, pilots are positioned right on the target, carrying out their duty on the bridge of the ship, just at the very heart of operations.

The basic advantage of a pilot being onboard of the ship is that a pilot feels the ship, her interaction with the sea; he/she has eye-to-eye contact with the ships’ navigational team, and sees the capabilities and possible incapability of the ship. These, in the author’s opinion, are what make a maritime pilot different from any other element in a high-risk marine environment.


Pilotage is compulsory at Turkish ports for all Turkish flag vessels over 1000 GT and for all foreign flag vessels over 500 GT. Principally, the following types of pilotage organizations currently provide pilotage services in Turkey:

Public companies Private companiesCompanies owned by a cooperative body of pilots (Only one example)Companies owned by businessmenPublic portsPrivate ports

Pilotage is governed by two regulations:

1-Regulation on Competencies of Pilots (1997)

2-  Regulation on Pilotage and Towage Organizations (1998)

Pilots’ certification is given by the Undersecretariat of Maritime Affairs, which is part of the Ministry of Transport. Pilots are supervised by the Port Authority. Pilotage is compulsory for vessels exceeding 500 GT. This does not apply to domestic ferries, and national war and administrative vessels (3).

During the 1990s, as a result of complaints brought against pilotage services provided by public companies the Maritime Undersecretariat decided to take some steps to address these problems. Initially, the Maritime Undersecretariat modified some of the port regulations in order to give opportunities to private enterprises to provide pilotage services in those areas falling outside of the  monopoly zones of public administrations (4).

In Turkey, the pilotage system works well; however, there are some challenges that continue to exist. Due to the complexity of the system, the unique philosophy of pilotage is only being partially achieved throughout pilotage areas. Furthermore, in some parts of the system where pilots are employed by ports open to free competition, pilots might experience difficulty in refusing pilotage service that they might assess to be unsafe, despite the IMO Resolution A.960 that provides that “the pilot should have the right to refuse pilotage when the ship to be piloted poses a danger to the safety of navigation or to the environment.”

During the privatization process of Turkish ports, pilotage services were also included in the privatisation package. In fact, pilotage services needed to be excluded from the privatization package in order to regulate these services as a service independent from the port. Unfortunately, this was not the case in Turkey in the privatization process of many ports.

Turkey has been successful in privatization process; but its difficult to say the same for the Pilotage services within it. The author holds high expectations that a fully regulated, unified pilotage system will take place in the near future in Turkey. In order to achieve that, the author offers two suggested options:

1- Establishing the Turkish Pilotage Federation that consists of local bodies which provide pilotage services; 

2- Establishing the Turkish Chamber of Pilots which sets the operational procedures of the pilotage profession and which guarantees that nation-wide services retain the same philosophy and understanding in pilotage.

In either option, the Turkish Straits Pilotage Services should be included in the system in order to maintain unification.


Apollonius of Rhodes, in the third century BC, described a “Pilot” in his book The Argonautica as a “skillful helmsman.” Furthermore, the pilotage to which he referred took place in the Strait of Istanbul (The Bosporus). The Legendary hero Jason led his Argonauts through the Bosporus to reach Colchis, in search of the “Golden Fleece”. This journey has been dated back to 1200-1300 BC. Passing through the Bosporus was one of the biggest challenges on the route to Colchis. The following paragraph is from the book “Argonautica”:

“...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 skillful pilot, who steered the Argo safely through the Bosporus was Tiphys, who may also have been the first known pilot in the Bosporus.

What was the reason behind that Jason sailed from Greece to Georgia and fight with the perils of the Straits? We should seek an economic reason; and it is not far away. At the time, gold was produced in Georgia, and it was represented in the legend as the “Golden Fleece.”

Another strategic reason for gaining control over the Straits was the Trojan Wars. Troy was located in 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 seen in the recent film “Troy”; but the main reason was far beyond this. The main reason was to gain control of these strategically important waterways. It was only after the fall of Troy that the Greeks were able to control and colonize the Black Sea coast.

There is another legend about the Straits dating back to ancient times having to do with the name “Bosporus” itself. “Bosporus” means “cow’s passage” and according to the legend, the beautiful Io passed through this passageway when running to avoid a fly when her lover, the “boss” of Olympus, “Zeus” converted her into a cow in order to prove to his jealous wife, Hera, that she was not his lover.

Apart from legends, throughout written history, the Turkish Straits region has been an important playground for world powers since the beginning of history.

For centuries, the Strait of Istanbul has served as a strategically vital waterway to and from the Black Sea. In 513 B.C., the Persian emperor Darius built a bridge of ships across the strait to lead his army into Greece.

Throughout history many forts and palaces were built along the coast of the Straits, as testimony to the strategic value of these most difficult waterways. In 1453, the Ottomans conquered Istanbul, dramatically changing the role and significance of the Straits as a commercial passageway connecting east and west.

Ottoman control over the Straits lasted for centuries, however, its strength fluctuating according to the Empire’s strength and power. In 1833, the Treaty of Hünkar Iskelesi was signed between the Ottoman Empire and Russia, which granted free passage to Russian warships through the Straits “in case of need”.

The Treaty of London (1840) and the Straits Convention (1841) followed. These were the first international instruments to regulate passage through the Straits. Then Ottomans lost total control over the Straits under 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.

The Treaty of Sèvres, which was signed in 1920, entrusted the responsibility to administer the rules of passage through Straits to an International Straits Commission. But, the success of the Turkish revolt, under leadership of Mustafa Kemal, prevented the ratification of the Sèvres Treaty.

The 1923 Lausanne Convention followed the success of the Turkish Independence War under the command of Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk). The most significant aspect of the Lausanne Convention was that warships would be no longer prohibited from entering the Turkish Straits.

Today, the traffic in the Turkish Straits is regulated according to the rules set forth by the 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” and leaves the pilotage and towage “optional”

A legal analysis of the Turkish Straits necessarily begins with the 1936 Montreux Convention, but does not stop there. Local practice and the 1994/1998 Maritime Regulations are also a part of the existing regime (5). 

From the pilotage aspect, Article 2 of 1936 Montreux Convention established the rule that “pilotage and towage remains optional” It is a certain rule, however, the issue is not that simple. The 1994/1998 Turkish Straits Regulations strongly recommends to all ships to use a pilot (6) . The IMO issued Rules and Recommendations further supported the Turkish Regulations by strongly advising (7). 

ships to use a pilot when transiting the Turkish Straits. Despite the existence of Article 2 of the Montreux Convention, all other supporting legislative documents regards pilotage as a tool to be used in order to carry out a “safe a prudent seamanship” while passing through the Turkish Straits. Accident statistics and analyses also support this statement. Therefore, ships that do not use pilot for passage through these most difficult waterways could have no valid ground to verify this situation after a serious accident.

On the other hand, Article 2 of Montreux Convention applies only to the ships engaged in non-stopover passage through the Turkish Straits. Turkey has the authority to establish compulsory pilotage regime for ships which are bound for ports and piers or anchorages within the Turkish Straits area. Therefore, pilotage for ships bound for a Turkish port within the Straits is compulsory and this constitutes 40 percent of all ships passing through the Turkish Straits.


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 the Turkish Straits system, particularly the Strait of Istanbul, which forms a winding and quite narrow geographical structure 18 nautical miles (31 Km.) in length and 700 meters at the narrowest points in width, there are numerous bends including one that require 12 course alterations for passing vessels. Some of these alterations are very sharp, in some instances more than 80 degrees.

From the meteorological aspect, the Strait of Istanbul is heavily influenced by strong northern winds, rain and intensive fog particularly during 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 the ship 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, which was indeed extremely dangerous. Being 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 of tonnes 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, which can increase up to 6-8 knots in speed, are one of the most important handicaps for navigation through the Straits. This is because the danger created by surface currents is twofold greater. Vessels navigating with the current lose the ability to steer as they can only actually make 2-4 knots through the water. On a winding road we all know the importance of steerage. Who would want to drive around a 80 degree curve with poor steering capability? This is the case for ships turning the Yeniköy bend in the Istanbul Strait.

Figure 1- Sharp bends (Yeniköy) In the Strait of Istanbul and effect of current.

The second danger emerges when a vessel must turn around a bend and across currents. In such a case, the 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 generally accounted for 85 percent of accidents at sea. Therefore taking on a pilot for the passage has proven successful to reduce the risk of an incident in the Turkish Straits. Unfortunately, only 40 percent of vessels (average of Istanbul and Çanakkale) passing through the Turkish Straits take a pilot and yet, statistics show that 92,8 percent of the vessels involved in accidents in the Straits had not employed a pilot. In any case, it should not be forgotten that although safety measures reduce the risks of navigating through the Turkish Straits such risks they would never be fully eliminated. A fisherman has been quoted as saying after the Sea Empress incident: “What they talked about was that they were 99.9 percent 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. Pleasure boats used in 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.

All of these perils listed above demonstrate that navigating through the Turkish Straits require the following:

1- Utmost navigational knowledge with particular attention to navigation in narrow channels (harmonized with local experience);

2- Prudent seamanship and manoeuvring skills (harmonized with local experience);

3- Familiarity with the geographical, oceanographic and meteorological characteristics of the Straits;

4- Fluency in local language and knowledge of the routes, attitudes and manoeuvring characteristics of local vessels and traffic;

5-  Good cooperation with VTS, knowledge in what-to-do in emergency situations; and

6-  Good bridge team management.

Who can appropriately provide necessary services for all of the items listed above? Certainly, the answer is the “Pilot.” Pilotage has traditionally been the best viable means to minimize the risks in a high-risk marine environment and the Turkish Straits is no exception.


Some of the major accidents that have occurred in the Turkish Straits before the passage of Regulations are as follows:

• M/T Independenta: Romanian flagged tanker Independenta collided with the Greek flagged freighter M/V Evriyali, on 15 November 1979. Almost all of the Romanian tanker crew lost their lives (only 3 out of 46 survived). The collision caused a fire and the tanker’s wreck remained grounded affecting the area for some years.

• Ammoniac loaded Panama flagged tanker M/T Blue Star, collided with the Turkish Crude Oil Carrier M/T Gaziantep, which was at anchor, on 28 October 1988. Huge quantities of ammoniac cargo polluted the environment. As was in the case of the 1994 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 flagged vessels, on 13 March 1994. Twenty-nine officers and crewmembers of both ships lost their lives, including the master of Shipbroker. The ship burned totally. The fire on the tanker Nassia, which was fully loaded with crude oil, caused damage to the Strait and the marine environment. Approximately 20.000 tonnes of crude oil, a considerable part of Nassia's cargo, caused severe pollution, and a fire, which lasted four days, five hours and forty minutes, all of which resulted in the suspension of traffic in the Strait for several days. Once again Istanbul was lucky because the winds were not blowing towards the land but seaward.

There were not any major accidents or spills after the implementation of 1994/1998 Turkish Straits Regulations. However, one should take this fact with caution recalling that was a fifteen- year of interval between last two major accidents in the Turkish Straits: the Independenta in 1979 and the Nassia in 1994. Therefore, by not having an accident before 2009 would only be consistent with previous margins. But on the other hand, apart from major accidents, the overall volume of accidents indicate that there has been a sharp drop in the number of accidents since the implementation of 1994/1998 Regulations.


Pilotage services in the Turkish Straits are provided by Turkish Maritime Incorporated. This is a public public-owned company. The company is subject to privatization and almost all of the assets have been privatized except for pilotage and towage services in the Turkish Straits. Turkish Maritime Incorporated employs one hundred and forty pilots in order to provide the pilotage services. Services provided from two pilot stations in the Strait of Istanbul and two pilot stations at the Strait of Canakkale. Pilot stations located at the entrances of each Strait and at the either side. There is one additional pilot station dedicated to the Port of Istanbul for housing the harbour pilots.

Turkish Maritime Incorporated acts not only as a pilotage and towage service provider for the Turkish Straits, but also as a practical school and pool of experience for pilotage in Turkey. In May 2006, this company organized the first refreshment courses in Turkish pilotage history for its own pilots.

Table 1. Use of pilotage services in the Turkish Straits (Data provided by Turkish Straits VTS)

Table 1 shows the use of pilots in both the Istanbul and Çanakkale Straits. Vessels passing through the Çanakkale Strait use approximately 15 percent fewer pilots than the vessels passing through the Strait of Istanbul.

A long-term accident analysis carried out on a total of 608 accidents occurred between 1982-

2003 in the Strait of Istanbul demonstrate that human error is 22,5 percent responsible of the accidents(8). The other reasons are respectively: adverse weather conditions (14%) technical failure

(12, 2%), strong currents (4, 8%), fire (1, 3%) sabotage, (1, 2%) geographical and topographic conditions (0,3%), and others (0,7%). In the 246 cases the reasons for the accidents remain unknown. In analyzing the causation of accidents taking into account unknown causes; with the

8 Dr. Nur Jale ECE; “Analysis of the maritime accidents in the Turkish Straits”, 2006; P. 183

exception of technical failures such as, fire and sabotage, approximately 84 percent of all accidents between the years 1982 - 2003 can be linked to human error.

When accidents are analysed from the pilotage perspective, it can be clearly seen that pilotage eliminates the human error factor in accidents. Of the total 608 accidents that happened in the Strait of Istanbul between 1982-2003, 564 ships did not have pilot on board (92,8%) and 44  ships did have a pilot on board (7,2%) (9) .

Figure 2: Results of analysis of 608 accidents in the Strait of Istanbul between 1982-2003.


The idea of a VTS for the Turkish Straits dates back to the 1980’s, and was first put on the national agenda by the Turkish Pilots. As has been the case in pilotage history almost everywhere, pilots and pilot stations used to have the responsibility of performing many of the functions of a VTS. But, due to the low percentage of pilot use in the Turkish Straits during this period, as well as the absence of modern equipment, this aspect of the service could hardly have been called as being efficient.

The 1994 Nassia accident wasa milestone for the Straits triggering the urgent implementation of the 1994 Turkish Straits Regulations together with Traffic Separation Scheme, which had been prepared well in advance. The Traffic Separation Scheme was approved by IMO on Turkey’s request in May 1994, together with “Rules and Recommendations” the latter recognizing the right of Turkish authorities to suspend one-way or two-way traffic in order to provide for safe passage in cases of “large ship” passage. Implementation of these “Rules and recommendations” and the “Turkish Straits Regulations” in parallel, led to a great improvement in safety performance as reflected by the dramatic decrease in the number of accidents. However, nothing is free.

As a result of these safety precautions, the number of ships at the entrances waiting for passage increased causing complaints from Black Sea States such as Bulgaria, Russia and glag States such as Greece and Cyprus. These States voiced their complaints at the IMO in 1997. However, without going into detail, the IMO came to the conclusion, in 1999, that the IMO Rules and Recommendations had resulted in an increase in safety of navigation in the Turkish Straits. In addition, the IMO recommended the establishment of a modern VTS. This encouraged the already- existing efforts of Turkey in this regard and Turkey pressed the button for the establishment of a modern VTS. In October 1999, the Turkish government announced that Lockheed Martin was the winner of the VTS tender.

All operators of the Turkish Straits VTS are Master Mariners and have at least two years of Command experience. They have been trained in accordance to the IALA model course V-103/1 for “Basic Training” and model course V-103/3, which provides for “On the Job Training.” They have obtained their VTS Operator certificates after having successfully passed the final examination. However, the role of the pilots within this framework has not been clarified. A senior pilot at the VTS centre acting as a coordinator between pilots and the VTS operators would be to the benefit of more efficient services. That would further prevent the conflicts which might occur occasionally between the providers of both services.

The most important aspect of a VTS is in serving as a dynamic information source. Every ship has her own information resources: Radar, ECDIS, VHF, various navigational publications, pilot books, guides to port entrances etc. In addition to their advantages, each of these resources also shares the same weak point: they can not be expected to be updated at the very last moment. VTS constitutes a dynamic source in the responsible area, and is the most updated and dynamic source of information. This information may include the position and type of other ships in the area, meteorological or hydrological outlook, any malfunction of the navigational aids such as lights, light buoys etc. By the implementation of AIS system, all of these dynamic information and warnings will be available to all ships in a certain area and that will eliminate the voice communications burden on both sides. We can say that in the near future VTS systems will almost be “silent” contrary to the actual conditions of today.

VTS system has been revolutionary in many aspects; however, there are certain limitations for a VTS in such narrow waterways. First of all, as mentioned right above, The Turkish Straits, especially the Strait of Istanbul, are very narrow waterways. The width of an appropriate traffic lane measures only half a cable- less than 100 metres in certain areas. In another words; when something goes wrong with a ship, it takes only seconds for her to violate borders of the separation scheme and end with a collision, grounding or hitting the coast. Therefore, assessing the situation from a position ashore- even with the most modern monitoring tools- would possibly be misleading. On the other hand, pressing the ships to remain precisely within the borders of an appropriate traffic lane which is -as mentioned above- only half a cable at certain areas got the risk of being agitative for the decision makers on the ship’s bridge and could give more harm than good. That’s where the VTS services should be careful; because the situation has the risk of being counter-productive in the efforts of providing more efficient safety environment within the Straits.

Taking into account the time-lag in VTS system operations and also taking into account the main rule that ships should be commanded from the navigation bridge; VTS and pilotage services need to be done in close cooperation.

Apart from the concerns stated above, the VTS has brought revolutionary changes to the Straits. The overall traffic is now being audio-visually monitored and recorded at the VTS stations. Ships are being tracked from the Black Sea entrance to the Aegean Sea exit-or vice versa. In today’s world, security concerns also increased to the level of safety concerns; and no doubt that a VTS is a tool to improve the security margins in the Turkish Straits.


The Turkish Straits, as Admiral Efthimios Mitropoulos stated during the IMPA 2004 Istanbul Congress, “are the spiritual home of pilotage. ” Since the beginning, passage through these most perilous waters needed the assistance of a local pilot as a helping hand. This was not only because the narrowness and curved structure of the Straits, but also because of the current system, the speed of which might reach up to 6-7 knots (3-4 knots of current speed accepted as the normal everyday force in the Turkish Straits), and due to the curved structure of the straits, currents create eddies and counter currents in the area of the sharp bends. Today, as the human element still remains as the key factor in the process of decision making on the ship’s bridge, pilotage continues to remain a compelling need for a safe passage through the Turkish Straits. The long term accidents statistics supports this statement. 92,8 percent of accidents in the Turkish Straits involved vessels with no pilot on board.

Due to the international legal regime, a pilotage regime which is compulsory for all ships cannot be established in the Turkish Straits. Turkey has the authority to establish such a regime for vessels bound for Marmara ports. Such vessels represent 40 percent of all traffic. Despite such challenges the ratio of ships using pilot are steadily increasing. The most recent statistics indicate that 49 percent of all passing ships used a pilot in the Strait of Istanbul; this is a 10 percent increase from the previous year.

Today, the Straits are safer compared to the pre-1994 era. The International Maritime Organization has a great share in this. There were various discussions at the IMO since the first Pilotage has been “strongly recommended” by IMO on several occasions. I hope that in the near future 100 percent of ships will use the services of a qualified pilot when passing through the Turkish Straits. 



(1) European Maritime Pilots’ Association (EMPA) web site www.empa-pilots.org

(2) Istikbal,C; “Pilot, Ship and VTS”, IMPA Web Site  

(3) Prof. Dr. Osman Kamil SAG; “The importance of training and certification of maritime pilots” Presentation paper for

(4) Capt.Aykut EROL; “Importance of the pilotage services” articles published on various maritime magazines.

(5) Nilufer ORAL; “The legal regime of the Turkish Straits”; Presentation paper for the IMPA 2004 Istanbul Congress. 

(6) Article 27; Maritime Traffic Regulations for The Turkish Straits and the Marmara Region; 1998

(7) IMO Resolution A.827(19), 1995

8 Dr. Nur Jale ECE; “Analysis of the maritime accidents in the Turkish Straits”, 2006; P. 183

(9) Dr. Nur Jale ECE; “Analysis of the maritime accidents in the Turkish Straits”, 2006; P. 192

(10) Efthimios Mitropoulos, Istanbul IMPA Congress,  http://www.imo.org/Newsroom/mainframe.asp?topic_id=847&doc_id=3740 

(11) implementation of Turkish Straits TSS and attached IMO Rules and Recommendations in 1994 


.* This article was published in the book "The Turkish Straits: Maritime Safety, Legal and Environmental Aspects" Published by Turkish Maritime Research Foundation (TUDAV) and edited by Nilufer Oral and Prof. Bayram Ozturk

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