July 2016 : Into the Black Sea

Buna ziua from Constanta in Romania!

We’re now well up on the western side of the Black Sea, 403 miles on from where we started at the beginning of the month, at the far south-western end of the Sea of Marmara in Turkey.

The prevailing north-easterly winds were always going to make the passage towards Istanbul something of a challenge and in fact blew quite strongly for most of our time in the Sea of Marmara. This sea – of which we had known nothing – lies between the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus. 150 miles long and 43 miles wide, it has two island groups – the Prince’s and Marmara Islands – the latter group being rich in marble giving the sea its name.

Moving on from Karabiga, we headed for a bay on the island of Pasalimani – delightful and very well protected from the north easterlies. We might have stayed longer but for a forecast of strong winds in a couple of days’ time, keeping us moving on eastwards. We enjoyed a good sail across the peninsular of Kapidag and put into the fishing port of Cakilkoy. We had been expecting a small harbour with some desultory fishing activity and plenty of room for us. However when we turned into the harbour the awesome sight of a mighty fishing fleet of 60-70 large and medium boats greeted us. Rafted out 6-8 boats deep, not an inch of the quay could be seen. However, as we motored around wondering what to do the fishermen on a boat at the far end beckoned us over to raft to them. None of the crew spoke English (and why would they!) but called a friend who had spent time in America, who immediately came over to chat to us, telling us that this is the biggest fishing port in Turkey and that the fleet was in the thick of preparations for departure into the Aegean in a couple of weeks to spend several months prowling around the eastern half of the Mediterranean. Going ashore we walked the length of the waterfront which was bustling with activity. The boats – all modern and well equipped - were in staggering contrast to the village itself which appeared desperately poor. The main form of motorised transport was an engine on wheels towing a cart – laden either with people or goods. Women and girls wore traditional dress – yellow headscarves for the younger women seemed de rigeur. Visitors were obviously an uncommon sight but we were given a very smiley welcome.

The following day we set off again, with a forecast of wind increasing during the day followed by several days of very strong winds. Given that we will be passing through the Sea of Marmara again at some point – in the opposite and hopefully easier direction - we decided to abandon this cruising phase and head straight for the marina we had chosen as our base for Istanbul – 65 miles away. We enjoyed an excellent sail for the first half of this passage, before the winds died only to pick up strongly on the nose and we took quite a pounding before making it into Yalova marina. Yalova could not have been in greater contrast to Cakilkoy – showers to die for, surrounded by chic restaurants full of happy eaters celebrating Eid – the end of Ramadan, a nearby Carrefour and the ferry to Istanbul right next door. The winds did indeed blow strongly for several days after this – but we were busy with other things – routine maintenance, provisioning (great market for fruit and veg, but Julia found it hard to accept a Carrefour not stocking pancetta) - and of course Istanbul.

What can we say about Istanbul – as enthralling, fascinating and magnificent as we knew it would be! Almost too overwhelming, we decided to take it in several easy stages as we’ll be back again.

On this occasion we spent a couple of days on the ‘major’ sights – the exquisitely perfect Sulanhamet Mosque, venerable Haghia Sofia, the Galata Bridge and Tower - both giving us views of what would confront us when we came to head up into the Bosphorus, the fabulous Topkapi Palace – and lots of wandering the streets. Our first day in the city was a religious holiday and the crowds were out. Obviously we had concerns over security given recent bomb attacks in Istanbul. Security measures were evident, but not oppressive, with checks on entry to major sights and at metro stations and perhaps more police on the streets. The only time we felt anxious was when using a long and extremely crowded underpass near the Galata Bridge. Shuffling along at a snail’s pace in this confined area graphically brought to mind the Foreign Office advice to avoid crowded situations.

We became intrigued by the ‘headscarf controversy’ while observing passengers on the ferry to Istanbul. The wearing of headscarves, along with the fez and turban, was banned in the public sector in the 1920s as part of Attaturk’s campaign to secularize and modernize the new Turkish Republic following the collapse of the Islamic Ottoman Empire and the issue has remained controversial ever since. On one side are those who support the secular principles of the state and fear ‘creeping islamisation’ and the repression of women. On the other are those who believe that this form of religious expression has been repressed for too long given the majority Moslem population. There is quite a range of female attire – from strappy tops and shorts to the full black cover-up. On the day of the religious holiday we reckoned that at least 60% of women were wearing headscarves and some form of over-garment, but not as many on the ordinary work day. Julia was fascinated by the many styles in which headscarves could be worn, particularly by young women who wore stylish, even glamorous tunics or over-shirts with headscarves which seemed designed to create an exotic and alluring image.

Our departure from Turkey was a mixed experience. First we had to clear out – go through the customs and immigration formalities. This is so complicated that most yachts use an agent to do this in Istanbul – at a cost ranging from $200-$400. We thought we’d take up the challenge and do it ourselves. We set off from Kalamis marina right at the southern end of the Bosphorus, with advice from the marina manager who was prepared to act as our ‘phone-a-friend’ in case of difficulty. We returned 7 stressful hours later having traipsed around 4 different offices in different locations involving long walks, taxis and ferries. Preposterous – and hardly the most relaxing preparation for tackling the passage up the Bosphorus, which having officially left Turkey, we were obliged to do immediately.

The Bosphorus - the world’s narrowest strait used for international navigation - connects the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea. It is 17 miles long, the width ranging from 3,700 metres to 750 metres and a couple of sharp bends. It has a strong southerly flowing current and usually a strong wind from the north – so quite a challenge for a yacht. It is straddled at the southern end by the city of Istanbul – and by the time we got away from the marina it was around 5pm – rush hour. We were approaching from the Asian side and the number of ferries charging around back and forth across the Bosphorus to and from the several ferry terminals on each side was truly staggering. Having observed how car drivers relate to pedestrians – ignoring them even on crossings, we had a pretty good idea how ferries might relate to yachts. We managed to avoid being hit – but it was somewhat stressful given that all the while the current was turning more strongly against us. We could only progress at 1-2 knots for a period and crossed to the European side just north of the Golden Horn where we found some counter current for a short time. This ferry dodging gave us very little time to admire the sights– which were of course quite wonderful - silhouetted against the late afternoon sun. Once past the Golden Horn, ferry traffic slackened off a bit, giving us more time to focus on the big ships coming through. Mainly they transit the strait in one direction for 12 hours then the other way for the next 12 hours. What time the direction changes we don’t know, but the big ships were not the problem we’d expected, although to negotiate the bends they have to use most of the channel. The current against us settled down to about 3 knots – so progress was very slow. However, as darkness was falling came the sight of the new Yavuz Sultan Selim bridge across the northern end of the Bosphorus and underneath it a clear view out into the Black Sea! There is a convenient little harbour on the Asian side just under the bridge, so although we should have continued on, we were quite tired and so sneakily anchored there for the night. Yet again, we’re glad that, in due course, we will be returning to the Bosphorus and, with the wind behind us, good current and no time pressure we can take time to admire the wonders of this waterway.

So, into the Black Sea! Approximately 600 miles x 300 miles - a huge expanse of water, surrounded by Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Russia, and Georgia. Recent theories have linked the formation of the Black Sea with the biblical legend of the Flood. According to this theory the Black Sea was originally a fresh water lake until, 7,600 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age, the worldwide rise in sea levels cut a narrow channel - the Bosphorus - allowing water to flow into the Black Sea at the rate of 10 cubic miles per day for two years. This deluge caused the waters in the Black Sea to rise at the rate of six inches per day and covered all the coastal human habitations. Since the Black Sea is a large body of water with very few islands, the wind and waves are more ocean- like than in the Mediterranean creating an almost constant swell even when there is no wind. The local Turkish saying is that the Black Sea has four good harbours: Samsun, Trabzon, July and August!

The following day we made our departure heading for the Bulgarian port of Tsarevo just under 90 miles away. Hoping to drift along slowly and quietly to arrive early the next morning, we found ourselves enjoying a very fast and very boisterous passage - the usual strong north-easterly wind this time on our beam. Rather than arrive at Tsarevo, which is flanked by rocks, in the middle of the night we decided to chance our arm and make a final ‘unofficial’ stop overnight in the tranquil harbour of Igneada before setting off again to complete the passage. The border between Turkey and Bulgaria was clearly evident on the coast with large flags flying on each side and we arrived into Tsarevo – a small resort town – to a welcome on the specially designated quay from the Harbour master, Police and Customs officers who dealt with entry procedures in about 20 minutes – all very easy. We felt immediately aware of and pleased to be back in Europe – not to cast any aspersions on Bulgaria, but we had not entirely expected this.

The 165 mile coastline of Bulgaria is all about beaches and resorts with names like ‘Sunny Beach’ and ‘Golden Sands’. Although it is said to be the best cruising area in the Black Sea, we did not find ourselves tempted to dally. After the idyllic anchorages of the Aegean, we were not enticed by the rather bleak little coves we spotted between beach resorts, although we had planned some time at anchor in Bourgas Bay. This was much as we’d expected – the Bulgarians we’d met in Greece all thought we were mad to be coming this way! The wind conditions tended to propel us along at a reasonable pace, in that we felt that good forecasts should be taken advantage of.

Another 20 miles on to Sozopol, the oldest settlement on the Bulgarian coast. Today its charms lie in the old town of meandering cobbled streets situated on a narrow peninsular with Ottoman half-timbered houses – a style we first saw in Albania a couple of years ago. There was a genuine ‘lived-in’ feel to the place and while the main street was busy with tourists, it was not overwhelmed. Then north across Bourgas Bay – shown on the chart as filled with a Spaghetti Junction of big shipping separation lanes including three ‘roundabouts’. However the only ships we saw were half a dozen anchored off Bourgas.

Nessebar, another medieval town, is also situated on a narrow peninsular and flanked by miles of beach resorts, and is completely overwhelmed by the crush of holidaymakers. However, it is redeemed by a number of magnificent Byzantine churches dating from the 5th to the 15th centuries – appearing as gems in the morass of souvenir shops, bars and selfie-takers. On arrival we were directed to a berth at the end of a car park, on a quay reserved for tourist trip boats. The largest - ‘Tatoo’ - seemingly unable to move anywhere without pumping out a heavy bass at mega decibels - became a source of horrified fascination for us as it alternately loaded and disgorged its hordes of sunburnt youth. This was not really a place to linger so we didn’t.

On to Varna - Bulgaria’s third city and major seaport. Our expectations of a posh Yacht Club marina were dashed when we arrived at a derelict quay with graffiti worthy of Stokes Croft, just inside the port entrance. However though their premises were decayed the membership seemed quite active – kids out in Optimists in the path of super-tankers leaving port, and obviously very proud of their club member participant in the Single Handed Trans Atlantic Race of 1976. Varna was a proper city with a life of its own – vibrant and lively – pleasant pedestrianised boulevards, historical sites from the Roman era and some wonderful Belle Epoque architecture. Highlights – the Archaeological museum displaying the oldest jewellery ever found, from 6,500 year old graves, the golden domed Cathedral, and the quirky Naval Museum with its displays of real artillery, helicopters and boats. We could have spent longer, but the forecast started predicting southerly winds – a miracle we could not afford to ignore.

Our last port in Bulgaria was Balchik – a low key holiday resort whose main attraction is the beguiling Summer palace of Queen Marie of Romania – a delightful blend of Turkish, Bulgarian and Gothic architecture – an interesting little oddity. From here we moved northwards 44 miles to the port of Mangalia in Romania. The formalities here were simple and friendly, though Romania certainly takes its borders seriously. We were called up on the VHF radio as we crossed into Romania waters, and on leaving Mangalia we had to inform the border police so that an officer could come along to the pontoon to see us actually leaving – having jokingly ascertained we had no Syrians aboard.

The Black Sea is definitely not a mainstream cruising area for yachts and we have met very few. The majority (4) had emerged into the Black Sea from Northern Europe via the Rhine/Danube Rivers. From our conversations this trip sounded to be less fascinating than one might think – although a very resourceful and lively young Dutch couple reported ‘many adventures’ during their trip in a small yacht having had no previous boating experience at all. A Russian couple had arrived from St Petersburg through the Russian river system. An Italian single hander had just returned from a visit to Odessa – with inspiring and tempting descriptions. Weather conditions had prevented him from exploring the Danube Delta – one of our planned destinations. One of the only two British boats we met was on its way back to the Bosphorus with crew on board who live within walking distance of our home!

Our final passage this month was an excellent one. Romania seems to have quite a yachting scene and we departed Mangalia straight into a regatta involving well over 30 yachts – more than we have seen this whole summer. We enjoyed a great sail, Aremiti rising to the occasion splendidly for the first leg of the race as honorary straggler (not last!) – having an inflated dinghy on deck isn’t really optimal. It was great to have this distraction from the rather unspectacular coastline of scrubby dunes alternating with beach resorts curiously named after the planets. Constanta is the largest port in the Black Sea and where the canal linking to the Danube enters the sea, and it took well over an hour to pass. Finally entering the marina, the police launch called us over to check details and await confirmation from ‘Control’ that we could be allowed in!

And so, what next? We don’t know what to make of the situation in Turkey following the attempted coup. We can’t get out of the Black Sea without going through Turkey, and had planned to do rather more than simply ‘escape’. We will have a number of choices to make next month – so watch this space!