I spend my first days back in Istanbul walking the city looking for the boat shapes I had previously overlooked, and about which I have only read bits and pieces online.
It will be explained to me not more than a week later that boats with transoms* are relatively new and may only have been designed to accommodate the extra burden of cannon used in sea battles. I am unable to verify this and it seems that transoms were present on the great ships of the Ming Dynasty’s Zhen He when he embarked on the first of seven westward expeditions in 1405, as well as the re-rigged caravela latina Nina, which Columbus sailed eighty-seven years later.
Beginning at the boat supply shops of Karakoy, I cross the Golden Horn on a small wooden ferry powered by a loud two-stroke engine that bobs wildly in the wake of the low cruisers that crowd the river-like estuary. Nonetheless the boat seems surprisingly stable and I wonder if, with its symmetrically pointed bow and stern, it shares a common ancestor with the tirhandil, the search for which has brought me to Turkey.
I make my way along the shoreline from the Old City to the cafes of Bebek.
Walking back toward the bustle of Besiktas, men roll long lines dotted with tiny hooks into bready balls before casting them far into the fast-moving, blue-green water of the Bosporus. Moored along this stretch is a mix of speedboats; yachts sailing under the flags of many nations; and hulky boats done up to look like Ottoman and Byzantine ships, rented by the hour for pleasure cruises, birthdays and weddings. Among these are the small wooden boats used for fishing and other waterbourne work.
A group of men pull one of these boats out of the water using a winch attached to a cable slung under and around the hull. As it jerks onto dry land I notice the sturdiness and bulk of the keel on which it now stands.
I am looking for what has been described as the characteristic double-ended hull of the tirhandil, but in the half day I spend looking at boats it seems that almost all traditional boats come to some sort of point at both ends.
Obviously overlooking some finer subtlety, I give up my search for evidence of tirhandil. They are not native to Istanbul. Taking the ferry across the Bosporus to the Asian side of the city, I continue my walk back up the opposite bank of the strait. The same scene of fishing lines being cast and small boats at anchor plays out. It seems equally useless to ask about boats and their shapes using the one nautical term I know in Turkish. To my surprise, the only shop whose sign I can decipher seems like a promising place to begin a less anecdotal approach to my search.
Unfortunately the store is closed and when I return the next day the shopkeeper directs me to a publisher of nautical posters who may have more information.
I spend my last day in Istanbul following this and other fruitless leads. That night in a bit of a panic I email Prof. George Bass of Texas A&M University.