Belek Öztürkcan-Captain of the Seas

Belek Öztürkcan, formerly a dive instructor for BT, is a ship captain who sails the oceans of the world.

Capesize ship (Supramax)

Capesize ship (Supramax)

Over the years he has worn many caps besides that of captain of an ocean going vessel. He has endured difficult diving course students and the threat of pirates off the coast of Africa. He is a an intelligent and well-educated man who is so soft-spoken we often had to strain to hear his fantastic story. Come along with us and let us see where Belek came from, how and why he came to Kaş, and hear some of his experiences on the high seas.

Belek was born and raised in İstanbul. He has a sister who now live in Kaş and a brother in İstanbul who is a physician and works to rehabilitate drug addicts. Belek’s father had many different jobs including owner of a shoe shop and a tourist guide. Belek’s mother stayed home with the children as they were growing up.

After high school Belek studied at İstanbul Technical University and graduated from the Maritime Faculty (ITUMF) in 1991. The path to becoming a ship’s captain is through a series of officer ranks. Belek’s first rank was as Deck Officer 1st Level. His first job as a maritime officer was with Zodiac Maritime. He was a 3rd officer at the start and worked his way through 2nd officer and eventually attained the rank of Chief Officer. When he did his military service, he gathered experience as a navigation officer and was also in charge of buoy maintenance. On board a ship there are deck hands or ratings, engineers and officers; the Captain, whose formal name is Master, is truly the supreme master of the ship while sailing.

Belek first visited Kaş in 1985 while on a holiday. After 1991 he started coming to Kaş more frequently and by 1997, he realised he was spending most of his time in Kaş. He decided to move permanently to the Kaş area in 1999. He first lived in Üçağız but later moved into Kaş itself. He said he likes Kaş because it is small and quiet, he “feels comfortable here” and he said “I’m at home.”

Belek Öztürkcan professional diving instructor, Kaş, Turkey

Belek Öztürkcan professional diving instructor

Belek first started diving in 1998.He completed a PADI course with Bougainville Diving (BT) under the training of a dive instructor called Ercan. He continued to dive, increasing his capabilities, experience and advancing to PADI instructor on his own merit. He then started to work at BT as a dive instructor in 2001. He worked for BT for four years as a divemaster and instructor. During that time, it was often heard that Belek would be called “melek” or angel for his kind and patient ways with students. His ability to calm a nervous or anxious student was truly something to see. It is fair to say that many students may not have completed their scuba diving courses if Belek had not been their instructor.

During his time as a dive instructor he had many interesting experiences. One of his more interesting challenges was a foreign lady who came to BT to take a PADI Open Water Course. This lady was very, very large, she was so large that the crew had to find a special wet suit to fit her. She was very nervous and scared when she came on the boat for the first time but she said she was determined to successfully finish the course. Belek knew he had a challenge ahead of him with this lady because she was very afraid and more than twice his size! Normally he might have talked her out of taking the course because of her fear but he saw in her a determination that he thought he should try to encourage. She had several very demanding days underwater during her course, she drank a lot of sea water and sometimes would come on the boat wondering if she was doing the right thing. With the encouragement and soft and calm guidance of her “melek” however, the lady finally prevailed and was able to accomplish all the skills necessary to become a certified open water diver. When she came out of the water on her qualifying dive she told us “I made it.” We were all proud of her on that day. Seeing her smile of accomplishment was worth all the time and effort, thanks to Belek and his patience.

Belek eventually decided he would go back to the sea as a ship’s mate on an ocean going vessel but he still assists on the BT boat whenever he is not working the ocean lanes.

His first trip was to Ghent, Belgium and then to Rotterdam. Since then Belek has sailed into many ports around the world, he named off a couple in the United States including Houston, Texas, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He said he likes Charleston, South Carolina, because it has a “small town feeling” to it and New Orleans, Louisiana which he likes to visit “because of the many Jazz clubs.” Further abroad he mentioned Durbin, South Africa which he likes a lot because he has visited it many times and has many friends there, it is almost “like a home.”

Amazon River Cargo vessel

Amazon River Cargo vessel

Belek says that river navigation is very challenging because the depths change and also because of the currents. He has navigated into river ports such as Portland and Seattle and has been on the Amazon twice. He recollected his memory of his first passage through the Panama Canal, he said that was truly amazing because of the fantastic forests on both sides of the canal as well as that there are three locks that have to be navigated which take the ship up to 33 metres above sea level! Pilots accompany the big ships on the rivers but that does not mean the captain can relax for even a moment. Fishing boats can be a hazard and the crew must keep a sharp eye out for them. He said his first time was “like a nightmare, but I did it.” He said he felt a great rush of relief when he finished. He said that river locks serve the function of keeping the harbours at a constant tide level, so they, in effect, protect the harbours.
Map of the Bosphorus Strait (İstanbul Boğazı), İstanbul, Turkey

Map of the Bosphorus Strait (İstanbul Boğazı)

We asked him about navigating the Bosphorus or İstanbul Boğazı in Turkish. This waterway splits İstanbul between two continents, Europe and Asia, the only city in the world with this distinction. Belek believes the Turkish pilots and the Turkish Straits Vessel Traffic Service (TSVTS) with their sea navigation radar systems make Bosphorus travel as safe as it can possibly be.
A ship navigating a turn on the Bosphorus (İstanbul Boğazı) at Yenikoy

A ship navigating a turn on the Bosphorus (İstanbul Boğazı) at Yenikoy

He also said a captain must be constantly on the alert until his ship passes through. The currents change on every turn and there are several turns on the Bosphorus. In one turn, the current may be coming from the port or left side of the boat and the captain must compensate for the very strong current. At the next turn, the current might be coming from the starboard or right side. “The basic current is due to the difference in density between the Aegean Sea and the Black Sea. The surface current is the consequence of the difference in level between these two seas, and can reach 6 to 8 knots. This reduces as much the rate of water flow on the rudder for a ship navigating with the current, and affects widely its manoeuvrability.(Source: )Turkish Straits Vessel Traffic Service (TSVTS)

The official web site of the Turkish Straits Vessel Traffic Service is called Kıyı Emniyeti Genel Müdürlüğü, Turkish version and this version, Kıyı Emniyeti Genel Müdürlüğü is in English.

TVTS Navigational Tower on the Bosphorus (İstanbul Boğazı)

TVTS Navigational Tower on the Bosphorus (İstanbul Boğazı)

Belek told us that ship captains cannot, by law, be compelled to use a pilot on the Bosphorus but it is strongly recommended. He usually uses one and most captains who travel the Bosphorus are friends with the pilots. When an oil super tanker goes through the Bosphorus, ship traffic in both directions is stopped before the tanker is allowed to pass. When ordinary traffic is moving, each ship is 15 minutes behind the other. A ship is not allowed to overtake another without permission from VTS. If a ship comes from the Marmara side, they must port first. They then contact an agent for registration at least one day before they wish to navigate the strait.

The Turkish Straits Vessel Traffic Service (TSVTS) regulate Bosphorus traffic according to the Montreux Treaty of 1936. “This Convention lays down the rules of passage for the warships, subjected to a preliminary declaration and several restrictions, and stipulates, in its first article that the signatories parts recognize and affirm the principle of freedom of passage and navigation in the straits” and in its second article it states that “in peacetime, the trading ships of all states have the complete freedom of navigation in the straits, day and night, and that pilot and tug remain optional.”

The web site of Cerrahogullari T.A.S (CTAS) claims the organisation to be “one of the oldest and most experienced privately owned shipping companies in Turkey.” Their web site says “It is an established fact that the Turkish Straits are one of the most hazardous, crowded, difficult and potentially dangerous, waterways in the world for marines. All the dangers and obstacles characteristic of narrow waterways are present and acute in this critical sea lane.

There are different classes of ships that Belek sails or has sailed. There is the Handysize Vessel which is between 25 and 45 thousand tonnes dead weight and between 180 and 200 metres in length.

Handysize Vessel navigating a canal

Handysize Vessel navigating a canal

The Panamax Ship is 250 metres long and can weigh up to 70 thousand tonnes. It is the biggest ship that can sail the Panama Canal. “Panamax ships are vessels designed to fit in the Panama canal’s locks–hence the name…
Panamax ship navigating a Panama Canal Lock

Panamax ship navigating a Panama Canal Lock

Then there is the Cape Size Vessel which is 150 thousand tonnes and 300 metres long. It cannot pass through the Suez Canal and must pass around the tip of Africa.
Capesize ship (Supramax)

Capesize ship (Supramax)

The Captain of a ship has a great responsibility. One of the worries a captain might have to deal with are pirates, especially off the coasts of Somalia and Kenya and the Gulf of Aden. Some ships have been boarded by pirates some 600 nautical miles off shore! When ships approach these areas they try to travel in convoys, they keep an especially sharp lookout and put razor wire around the railings of the ship.

Storms are always a potential problem and special care and watchfulness must be taken during one. Other problems can be sickness, injury or family emergencies. When a ship is far out to sea, even though the captain has GPS and satellite communication, there is no possibility of immediate evacuation, so the captain and officers have to assume responsiblity in this event. All personnel on board have medical training and through satellite the captain can ask for medical life support until a port can be reached or until the ship approaches shore close enough for a medical evacuation. Mechanical problems can occur, for example, a generator failure is considered a big problem, especially on newer ships which rely on electronic navigation and communication devices. Fortunately the crew are trained to take care of replacing or repairing ship parts and can usually handle any mechanical failures.

Personnel offices for shipping companies pick the crew for a voyage and unless a captain has previous negative experience with a crew member, they will accept the people that are sent to them. The crew have to be able to live for many weeks or months away from family and friends. There can be a personality conflict, although they are not common, and these have to be managed carefully. The personality type who are usually successful are crew members who are strong in their self awareness and ability. A crew complement is around 30 persons for older ships and approximately 20 members for newer vessels. Technology has replaced some crew members. For example, the position of Radio Officer no longer is needed on vessels with current GPS and satellite communication devices which everyone on board is trained to use and manage.

On board ship the crew have to prepare and do everything for themselves from baking their own bread to welding and manufacturing new parts from pieces at hand. Belek says this is one aspect of the job he likes because “you can touch the job.” He also likes that it is not a 9 to 5 job, the crew works when necessary and it is an action job with a great deal of responsibility, challenge and, when done well, professional pride.

Because of Belek and his crew, many items that make modern living more enjoyable are carried with care and diligence. The captain and his crew hazard the stormy seas, pirates, illness and injury to bring you a more comfortable and modern life style. If you see Belek walking around the next time he has returned from a voyage, tell him how much you appreciate what he does.

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