According to news reports (here and here), a Turkish passenger ferry has collided with a Ukrainian-flagged cargo ship in the Marmara Sea, off the coast of Istanbul. Passengers sustained minor injuries, and according to Turkish authorities, maritime traffic in the nearby Bosporus Straight was unaffected. End of story? Not quite.
I traveled to Istanbul in 2005, in part to investigate the growing weight of international maritime shipping through the Bosporus, which runs through the heart of the city and divides it between Europe and Asia. Whatever might be said of today's accident in the Marmara, we should expect worse.
The Bosporus, which connects the Marmara Sea in the south to the Black Sea in the north, is among the most difficult stretches of water in the world for ship captains to navigate. During any given passage, they must execute about a dozen significant changes of course to avoid slamming into Istanbul's heavily populated shores. Strong and unpredictable currents can push and pull ships off course. Sudden dense fog and blinding rains are common.
The tankers that face these hazards are some of the oldest and worst maintained currently afloat. Recent oil spills off the coasts of France and Spain have caused European countries to tighten their controls. Many of the older ships that cannot meet the new standards have been shunted off to poorer, less developed countries, like those that line the shores of the Black Sea. The average oil tanker based there is now over twenty years old, more than twice the average age of similar vessels working out of European and American ports.
As these tankers pass the Bosporus, they are forced to play dangerous games of chicken with countless numbers of smaller merchant ships, passenger ferries, commercial fishing boats, naval and coast guard vessels, and leisure craft that crowd the Bosporus on a typical day. To many of the people of Istanbul, the constant presence of crude-laden tankers just offshore is barely worth a second thought. To be sure, there are occasional protests, including an annual demonstration by local environmental groups that fills the strait with small boats and prevents tankers from passing for a few hours. But overall, the city seems fairly resigned to its fate, placing its trust in the hands of foreign captains working for foreign companies under foreign flags. To visitors, too, the ships are less objects of concern than part of Istanbul's exotic charm, a constant reminder of the city's unique place in the world.
But tankers are not decorations; they are complex machines, and like all such things, they are prone to failure, often catastrophic failure. They explode. They run aground. They collide with other ships. They lose their steering and strike businesses and houses on the tightly crowded shore, killing or maiming the people inside. Or they do some combination of these things. The list of possible failures doubles as a virtual catalogue of accidents that have actually occurred on the Bosporus in recent years. As traffic grows more intense, so too does the risk of more and perhaps more serious accidents.