By Handan Kazanci and Nilay Kar Onum
ISTANBUL (AA) - A decades-old warship-turned-passenger ferry will again link the continents of Europe and Asia, fostering laughter and friendships along the way, thanks to a drive to restore the legendary vessel to its former glory.
The Pasabahce Ferry was born in 1952 in Taranto, southern Italy, as a warship, and was later refitted into a ferry for the Turkish metropolis straddling the famous Bosphorus waterway.
For 58 years the iconic ship shuttled between the two sides of the Bosphorus, including the Princes' Islands, but in 2010 the Pasabahce was finally retired, with over a half-century of service under its belt.
In 2017, however, journalist Adil Bali paid the vessel a visit and decided that idle retirement was not a fitting fate for such an iconic ship. He posted a petition on change.org calling for the ferry to be saved, and fully 6,500 people signed in support.
When he first saw the disused ferry, "I felt a pang of sorrow in my heart," he said. "It was covered all over with grass and moss, and everything was run down."
To save the Pasabahce, Bali teamed up with Deniz Yilmazisler Kogacioglu, a woman who actually came into this world on board the historic ship.
Kogacioglu was born on the ferry in 1972, in the middle of the Sea of Marmara, just after the ship left Heybeliada, one of the distinctive Princes' Islands.
On Dec. 9, 1972, Turkish daily Hurriyet trumpeted her birth with the headline "Impatient baby born on ferry," reporting that the pilothouse was specially fitted out for the delivery and a midwife was luckily found among the passengers to aid in the process.
Ahmet Ayten, the Pasabahce’s captain, appropriately named the newborn babe Deniz, meaning sea in Turkish.
"I’m the only child of a 67-year-old ferry that gave birth at age 20, with my name written in the ship’s log," Kogacioglu told Anadolu Agency in front of the ferry, which has been anchored on the shore of Beykoz on Istanbul’s Asian side since 2010.
The ship, which boasts a strong engine and advanced structure, arrived in the Turkish metropolis after a two-day journey from Taranto, according to the Istanbul city government.
During its years in retirement, it was used as a wedding venue for a short period, while a proposal to turn it into a museum went nowhere.
Now, in the wake of the successful petition campaign, next month the Pasabahce will be taken to Halic Shipyard to start the repair and restoration process, which is expected to be finished within two years.
"I’m very excited to see the Pasabahce going back to the water," said Kogacioglu, now 47, her voice full of emotion.
"I was a kind of a spokesperson for the Pasabahce during the two-year campaign," she added.
People from all walks of life, and all corners of the globe, signed onto the petition, according to Bali.
"A U.S.-based Armenian who once rode the ferry supported the campaign, as did a Jewish person living in Paris and a Greek who now lives in Athens."
The city of Istanbul took over the ferry earlier this year, following the successful campaign, said Bali.
Bali, who was born on Buyukada (Big Island), the largest of the Princes' Islands, said that he traveled regularly on the Pasabahce Ferry for several years, sometimes for school, sometimes for work.
The ferry was important for the islanders, Bali said. "It has a powerful engine, and saved the locals from southwestern winds as well as storms."
"It could comfortably reach a speed of 18 knots. Among the city ferries, no other boat could go that fast," said Cengiz Gunay, who served as a captain of the Pasabahce from 1998 to 2000.
Bilgehan Murat Minic, another captain who began his career on the Pasabahce in 1992, praised the "strong" ship and especially its ability to weather bad winds.
"The Pasabahce would be able to sail at times when no other ferry could," he said.
In its passenger interior, he added, the ship was “quite well arranged, with seats facing opposite each other, with a table in the middle."
- Lots of talk and laughter
"We admired the ferry," Bali said, adding: "It had beige seats, its halls were beautiful, it had a bar inside."
Minic also recalled the journeys from Istanbul’s Eminonu district to Yalova in the eastern Marmara Sea via the Princes' Islands.
"During journeys to the islands, passengers were playing darbukas [goblet drums] and clarinets, and people would start their picnics on the ferry," he said.
Gunay said the Pasabahce enjoyed a kind of culture in which "laughter and conversations were very intense," and where Turkish tea – one of the key elements of Turkish culture – played a leading role.
"While some women on board were knitting, others were reading books and telling each other what they were reading,” he related.
“Young people on the other side of the ship would tell each other funny stories about what happened at work.”
Many passengers even had their own favorite seats to spend the journey.
Prominent Istanbulites also used to travel on the Pasabahce, from lawmakers and athletes to authors and singers.
Actor/comedian Levent Kirca was one such famous passenger, said Gunay. Others who favored the ferry were actor Mujdat Gezen, news anchor Orhan Ayhan, and mayors of the islands.
In a city of 15 million, with many Muslims, but also Christians and Jews, the ship was also multifaith.
"Church patriarchs made the journey sometimes. During times of church services, clerics used it a lot," Gunay said.
At the end of the two-year restoration process, Kogacioglu said he dreams of "a magnificent launch ceremony for the Pasabahce both for our beautiful country and our beautiful Istanbul."
Touting the Pasabahce as a "legendary ship of the Bosphorus," Minic said he longs to see the ship in the waters of Bosphorus again, in its original form.
"We believe that every ship has a soul. The Pasabahce also has a soul. We want this restoration to be done without damaging its soul," he said.
Asked if he would like again to take the Pasabahce’s wheel as a captain for the restored ferry, Minic said eagerly, "I would very much like that."