August 2016 : Danube and Turkey

We arrived back in the Balkans from our flying visit home courtesy of ‘Wizzair’ – Bristol to Sofia direct. After a day in Sofia and a couple in Bucharest separated by a very relaxing 10 hour train journey through Bulgaria and Romania, we arrived back in Constanta keen to get back to sea. There were exciting choices to be made: how best to get to the Danube Delta, whether we could fit in a trip to Odessa, would Turkey be a good place to be – après failed coup???

On our return to Aremiti we found her under the watchful eye of a cormorant perched on top of the main mast, apparently in perfect order. Only later the next day did we discover that a boat with an aggressive bowsprit had rammed the pulpit (safety rails at the front of the boat) pushing it sideways and knocking off the navigation light. The sheepish culprits owned up and were all for bending it back into shape there and then, but we felt the possibility of this causing worse damage which we would not have time to put right, meant we should postpone the repair until the end of our cruising. The damage is more an affront to Aremiti’s dignity than a functional issue. We comforted ourselves with the thought that this is Aremiti’s first bash in 8 years of cruising.

So – back to the decisions: due to uncertainty over bridge clearances, we decided against an approach to the Danube via the canal from Constanta, so would make a sea entry. Re Odessa, much as we relished the prospect of a berth just below the Potemkin Steps, we had to accept that we just didn’t have time to do justice to such a city. Re Turkey, this still appeared to be a reasonable destination in the light of Foreign Office advice – as long as we don’t go near Syria or take part in political demonstrations.

The wind was forecast to blow hard from the north for some considerable time, and local sailors looked doubtful about our plan to head for Sulina – at the seaward end of the Danube. It is a committing voyage – 90 miles along a coastline of ever changing shallows, no port of refuge and a potentially difficult or impossible entry into the river. However after delaying a day and closely monitoring forecasts, we identified a brief window of calm and set off for an overnight passage. A good decision and good passage – with good sightings of dolphins and oil rigs.

The Danube Delta is the 2nd largest river delta in Europe (the Volga being the first), covering 1,603 square miles, most in Romania but part in Ukraine. The Danube splits into 3 arms with the formation of new land occurring constantly at the mouths of each and is said to expand at the rate of 40 metres a year. It consists of an intricate pattern of marshes, channels, streams and lakes and is a mecca for birdlife - the area is managed as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Only the Sulina arm is now used for large vessel navigation and the channel built to protect this currently extends 10 km into the sea, the entrance being just a few miles short of the border with Ukraine.

Arriving off the channel entrance at around 8am the transition from sea to river was instant as we entered between the ‘training walls’, finding ourselves in a tranquil new world. The abundance of birdlife was immediately apparent looking into the shallow lagoon areas on each side, as thousands of migrating birds flew southwards across us. The little town of Sulina is a one off. The waterfront stretches about two miles along the river bank – first a stretch for incoming merchant vessels to complete their formalities, the rest lined with hundreds of small craft – everyone in Sulina must own a boat – indeed, there is no road link to Sulina. The water is hectic with small boats charging around at high speed – many of them trips for birdwatchers and others interested in the Delta, but also water taxis, ferries and of course, the stately passage of big ships gliding up and down the river dwarfing everything else. No concessions are made to boats moored on the quay which consequently dance wildly around in the wash all the time. Aremiti took this in her stride, continually but gently rising up and down. In contrast to the constant bustle of the water, the back streets have the atmosphere of a sleepy wild-west frontier town - little wooden houses along unmade roads, no parked cars and piles of firewood. We had to keep pinching ourselves to remember that this river was in fact the Danube – so different was it to the image ingrained in our minds of the Danube of Vienna, Strauss waltzes etc. For the record, it was not blue.

Keen to progress further into the delta, we motored 42 miles upstream to the larger town of Tulcea - against the current this meant 56 miles through the water. We passed several small villages with wooden houses and little metal turreted roofs, and innumerable fishermen. The river was partly canalised and well marked - busy not only with large ships but all the types of small craft we had seen in Sulina. Evidently very few yachts pass this way – judging by the attention we attracted – particularly from the large ferries. After a night at anchor in the river we arrived in Tulcea the next morning to find it full. We motored up and down the waterfront – no solid quay but a series of pontoon landings – increasingly despairingly until welcomed by the research vessel Istros to raft alongside. The town was sadly utilitarian - but highly significant for us in marking the furthest point in this direction of our voyaging. After 2 years of battling into the prevailing wind, we will now have wind behind us and, at least in the river, favourable current – yippee!

What Tulcea lacks in architectural charm was made up for by its celebration of the Feast of the Assumption, which is coupled with Romanian Navy Day. The waterfront was busy with food stalls and a concert stage. A long religious ceremony culminated with an anchor wreath being thrown into the water and bobbing gently downstream followed by the appearance of Neptune, complete with trident, arriving on a whale! There followed a long parade of boats from navy and water-based services, all demonstrating what they do – letting off depth charges, firing guns, spraying water from fire hoses, etc. With their crews standing solemnly to attention as they passed, it was all a little reminiscent of communist era May Day parades. There followed a tug of war tournament between the services – something we had thought a quintessentially English pursuit! After the excitement we set off back down river, with the current now in our favour, to settle down for another night at anchor – tranquil bliss once the trip boats speeding alongside us for a closer look had finished for the night.

Back in Sulina for a few days, we took a day trip in small boat through the narrow waterways and lakes of the delta, observing reeds and waterlilies of different varieties, numerous species of birds, plus the odd black turtle and water-snake. Very wonderful and gentle. The laid back ambience of Sfantu Gheorghe at the seaward end of one of the other arms of the Danube made Sulina seem a sophisticated metropolis. Here we enjoyed a meal of fish soup – a delta speciality for which this village has a big reputation.

Time to move on. After waiting out a day for stronger winds, we set off again out through the channel into the Black Sea. This was a mill pond and Chris was disappointed not to be riding the standing waves we had heard about. The passage of 253 miles was an easy one with the huge bonus of a full moon and multiple sightings of bottlenose dolphins. We were a little concerned about shipping in the Black Sea – not just the amount of it, but also the fact that merchant vessels here would probably not be expecting to encounter a yacht – yachts being such a rarity in these waters. We crossed two main shipping routes. During the first night we encountered shipping to-ing and fro-ing from the large Romanian ports up to Ukraine and Russia, and down towards the Bosphorus. During our second night, as we drew closer to the north Turkish coast, we encountered a busy stream of vessels heading to/from the Bosphorus, mainly to ports in Russia and Georgia we have never heard of - Kavkaz, Taganrog, Novossiysk, Tuapse.

After 48 hours we arrived on the Turkish coast into the very spacious harbour of Eregli where we anchored off the friendly sailing club. The club was most hospitable and we were taken by the commodore and another (good English speaking) member for a convivial meal out with their families. Eregli is a very pleasant town of around 100,000 people. Medium rise residential blocks in gentle warm colours rise up an amphitheatre of hills around the harbour. At its southern end is the largest steel works in Turkey – still in full production. The town felt prosperous with a good community feel; we particularly admired the 2 km long waterfront gardens, beautifully landscaped and including a cycle path and springy running track. The town’s main ‘sight’ is a set of 3 caves including the mythological location of the entrance to Hades, where the final quest of Heracles was to capture its guardian, the three-headed dog Cerberus. However, the underwhelming sight failed to convey any atmosphere of peril, and we doubted it could possibly be the entrance to Hades!

Most of our time in Eregli was spent on domestic chores in preparation for the final part of this summer’s cruise. However, we had first to face the joys of Turkish immigration procedures, which dominated our first day, taking several hours of traipsing around various offices in town patiently waiting for our papers to scrutinised, discussed in numerous phone calls, and entered on to computers – all under the benevolent gaze of Ataturk whose portrait seemed mandatory. The offer of çay is a charming and hospitable custom, but does not inspire the hope that anything is going to happen any time soon. Possibly the ‘highlight’ was the revelation that we had to pay an unexpected fee for being in port. Having somewhat ungraciously agreed to pay this, and then feeling stupid when it turned out to be the equivalent of about £3, the twist was that it can only be paid by someone with a Turkish Social Security number! Oh joy! The day was made eminently more bearable by our being taken under the wing of the charming and helpful Port Control Officer overhearing our difficulties from his office. Speaking perfect English he invited us to wait in his office where we engaged in conversation ranging from engineering aspects of the British canal system to the author Orhan Pamuk – whose works we have both been reading.

With history going back to the voyage of Jason and the Argonauts, the north coast of Turkey was by far the most scenic of the three Black Sea coasts we have travelled, increasingly high mountains going east, densely forested with very little development. However, given the prevailing northerly winds, it is one long lee shore and dogged by swell. The much quoted saying that Turkey has only 4 safe ports: Samsun, Trabazon, July and August - is no longer quite fair in that in recent years many safe fishing harbours have been created – their mighty breakwaters giving some clue about winter storms here. The Turkish fishing industry is the largest in the Black Sea. At the time we arrived the only fishing activity was in the form of myriads of tiny boats dotted out to the horizon, often in considerable swell. The boats, with slender ‘outriggers’ on each side, trolling lines, were driven from a standing position – whether as a consequence of or in spite of the swell we couldn’t find out – but either way, their core body strength must be phenomenal. From 1 September the big boat fishing season starts and from mid-August the fishing harbours were bustling with preparations. It is a serious business involving modern well-equipped steel trawlers 30-40 metres long. Fish we enjoyed eating were ‘hamsi’ – anchovies served like whitebait and ‘palamut’ – a type of bonito.

The main current along this coast flows eastwards, but there is plenty of counter-current inshore to assist passages west-going passages. Dolphins (common) were plentiful – with several sightings on most days – unlike yachts. We encountered no other cruising boats at all along this coast. Typically when ashore in small harbours, people would recognise us as coming from the yacht they’d noticed and greet us enthusiastically. The language problem sadly thwarted our desire to learn more – especially about fishing practices. Though no English is spoken in the small and very basic harbours where we were the only visitors, the welcome was unmistakable. Such hospitable people – çay is offered at the drop of a hat, and we were given fish on several occasions. Someone even turned up at the boat to give us a bag of quinces!

From Eregli we set off eastwards along the coast as far as time allowed before turning back towards Istanbul. Our eastern-most point was Gideros Limani - a tiny natural harbour well hidden amongst the rocks – one of the very few of the Black Sea. It is mentioned in the Iliad, but although Tim Severin’s 1983 Jason voyage found refuge there, there is no mention of it being used by the Argonauts. It is an idyllic spot and - at 41? 51.6N’ 32? 51.5’E – marked our turning point – and probably the furthest east that Aremiti will get. Wistfully observing the scenic coast stretching enticingly away eastwards, we turned back west.

Kurucasile is a very basic little town famed for its traditional wooden boat-building. Visiting a couple of sheds was one occasion we really wished for better communication – though we did gather they were using chestnut and oak. We found the town itself in a very bedraggled state having been subject to a heavy flood a couple of weeks earlier.

Amasra situated on a peninsular with a harbour on each side and the ruins of a Byzantine/Genoese castle reached by a series of vaulted gateways, is the most picturesque town on this part of the coast. Crowded with holidaymakers it is the closest seaside town for the population of Ankara. The chants of the muezzin here seemed particularly inspired and passionate.

Kozlu Zonguldak, which gets the prize for the silliest name, is a new fishing harbour where, with only a few days to go, crews were in the thick of preparations for the start of the season with a great sense of purpose – as we observed on the boat we were rafted to. We spent a night of strong winds in the isolated harbour of Kefken Adasi – the tiny island where the Argonauts experienced a vision of Apollo. One of the very few islands in the Black Sea, the only other vessel there was the lifeboat which, given the conditions, was very reassuring. We had gone there rather than to the mainland fishing harbour of Kefken to avoid getting tangled up in what we speculated would be a mass exodus of boats early the following day – the start of the season. However, moving across the following morning, we found the large fleet still in port – thwarted by the wind and swell. Anchored in the middle of the harbour we were somewhat shaken by the arrival and departure of 2 huge boats the following night, proving that action had started.

We arrived in Sile to the sound of two muezzins – competing or dueting we couldn’t say. Overlooked by its heavily restored castle (prompting comparisons with Minecraft images) this was another major fishing port alive with activity and boats arriving and leaving all the time. The town is known for Sile cloth – a crimped cotton fabric woven here. The main street was lined with garment shops and restaurants – the latter busy with customers from Istanbul – less than an hour’s drive away.

Poyraz – our last Black Sea harbour was a surprisingly scruffy and low key little village, given its iconic position, with spectacular views northwards out into Black Sea and southwards down the Bosphorus. It is now dominated by the Yavuz Sultan Selim bridge – opened only 10 days before and has already suffered its first fatal car crash – too many people taking selfies. We spent our first evening there sitting in the cockpit celebrating the end of our Black Sea adventure, watching in wonderment as the bridge became a surreal red as darkness fell.

Our passage down the Bosphorus was a very different trip to the stresses of the passage north. This time we had current with us and had done our homework. The timing for the direction of shipping changes every day – the website indicated a stream coming northwards all that day. We had plenty of time to enjoy the sheer magic of this waterway as the scene changed from wooded hills, villages and beaches to more solidly built up shores dotted with palaces, gracious Ottoman mansions, domes and minarets, backed on the European side by the awesome banks of skyscrapers that are modern Istanbul – a spellbinding experience!

Now, after 1392 miles, we are in Yalova, where we will be leaving the boat hauled out of the water over winter. Yalova is a very ordinary town minding its own business – so although only an hour’s ferry ride from Istanbul across the Sea of Marmara, it seems unlikely to be a political hotspot. We visited the marina earlier in the summer en route to the Black Sea and it feels a safe and friendly place. At the end of a fascinating summer we’re feeling both sad and glad - the conflict we always feel at the end of our summer cruising – sad to be leaving the boat and this lifestyle, glad to be returning to our home lifestyle, family and friends.