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ahmet ustunel

To get to the other side: The Blind Captain makes his mark

If you picked up a newspaper, turned on the TV or navigated any Istanbul-based news site last weekend, you probably came across the story of 2017 Holman Prizewinner Ahmet Ustunel. It took two technical failures, three last-minute schedule changes, and a whole lot of training and improvisation – but we are pleased to share that, at just before 11 a.m. on Saturday, July 21, Ahmet The Blind Captain successfully navigated a hardshell ocean kayak solo, across the Bosphorus Strait, crossing from Asia to Europe without any visual cues.

A clipping of a Turkish newspaper shows Ahmet paddling out on the water with a headline in the Turkish language.
A clipping of a Turkish newspaper shows Ahmet paddling out on the water with a headline in the Turkish language.

For those who tried to view the historic event online: reality and ingenuity caused Ahmet to scrap the anticipated webcast in order to take advantage of an unanticipated time window.

Ahmet jumped into his kayak ahead of schedule, at 9:45 a.m. on Saturday, July 21. Ditching the original plan on the advice of the coast guard, Ahmet aimed to take advantage of a window when shipping traffic was calm. He was told that the window was only a half an hour; a bit of a shock considering that he was originally planning on taking 90 minutes to make the 3-mile crossing. Suddenly, he had one third of the time he expected to get across the 3-mile expanse.

In the lead-up to the crossing, things had become more and more hectic. Ahmet had a few crucial bits of tech bite the dust just fifteen minutes before getting in the boat – the result of water damage from a capsizing during one of Ahmet’s training sessions earlier in the week. So when the time came, Ahmet reached for old standby tools: namely the Ariadne GPS app, a Victor Stream Reader, and good ol’ Mister Beep, outfitted to give him vibrating compass feedback as he worked furiously to hit each waypoint across the daunting mid-Bosphorus shipping highway.

Ahmet embraces his wife, Dilara, after reaching the other side of the Bosphorus.
Ahmet embraces his wife, Dilara, after reaching the other side of the Bosphorus.

“The only thing I was thinking was about paddling,” he said last Sunday, still a little buzzed from the day. And it’s remarkable that he was able to focus. It was all he could do to keep coast guard, friends and journalists from crowding him on all sides, indicating for them to hang back as they eagerly trailed his progress at every turn. It wasn’t hard to know he had reached the other side, either:,100 meters from his destination, he heard the sounds of cheering: friends, family and TV news cameras, welcoming him back with an audible beacon that made it easy to find his final waypoint.

As he celebrated on the shore, overheated and overwhelmed, Ahmet rebelled, jumping back off the dock and into the water – to cool off – but maybe also to show one last display of independence and remind everyone that he was entirely at ease on his home shores.

The beautiful thing about Ahmet’s achievement is not so much one feat of strength or bravery: it’s the consistency, the team work, the flexible and improvisatory way that he adapted to the challenges that inevitably presented themselves, his insistence on staying the course and doing things on his own steam when everyone else would gladly step in to help.

This isn’t the end for Ahmet. His newfound confidence as a blind sailor and the support of the Holman Prize now make him feel able to take on yet more adventures. He assures us that he plans to cross the strait again next year – this time, when no one is paying attention. “If in 20 years, it’s still amazing for a blind person to navigate a kayak solo,” he always reminds us, “then we haven’t done our job.”

Ahmet will be on one of three Holman Prizewinners to present on his year-long adventures at the first-ever LightHouse Gala: A Celebration of Blind Ambition, on November 29, 2018. Get your gala tickets today.

For more updates about our other five Holman Prizewinners, follow us on Facebook and visit holmanprize.org.

Crossing the Bosphorus: Here’s how “the Blind Captain” will pull off his solo kayaking journey

Tune in to the livestream of Ahmet’s crossing!

Ahmet Ustunel won the Holman Prize for Blind Ambition in 2017, becoming one of the prize’s first three recipients. On July 21, he will complete his project in one great flourish: with a solo trip across one of the world’s busiest shipping channels, alone in a kayak. LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco announced the 2018 Holman Prizewinners this month, and we will continue to provide updates on the projects of our other two prizewinners from 2017, Penny Melville-Brown and Ojok Simon, as the summer continues.

In the hills of Istanbul, there aren’t always sidewalks. To get to where you’re going, you have to hug the sides of the busy streets, sharing the roads with the cars, bicycles and lifeforms of this city of 15 million. This is Ahmet Ustunel’s summer commute, a 90-minute trip that he takes each morning to the very Southeastern tip of Europe to the shores of the mid-city shipping channel known as the Bosphorus Strait, where he practices for his solo journey across the waterway at the end of the month.

Ahmet is starting to get a bit nervous. It’s early July, hot every day and this blind San Francisco schoolteacher has returned to his native ground to begin, quietly, the greatest adventure of his life. For the last seven months, he has lived on the water – venturing from his home back in San Francisco to seek out the Bay Area’s aquatic offerings nearly every week, sometimes with friends and sometimes, alone. He’s not nervous on the water. But he also knows that technology is a fickle friend. And with the devices he relies on to navigate, technical failure is a likelihood.

“I feel like I’m working full-time,” says Ahmet. “I’m pretty much working 16 hour days. Including the commute, my training takes eight to 10 hours. Then I take care of paperwork, permits so that we can film, logistics, finding a support boat.” Ahmet’s journey, it turns out, is more a test of planning and anticipating challenges than strength or skill.

Sound travels differently on the water. It slows down and dances lazily in the cool pocket of air just above the water’s surface. This can have an amplifying effect, making sound appear closer from great distances, but it comes with a price: sounds also stretch and bend, ricocheting off choppy breaks and skipping along with deceptive ease when the water is calm.

For a lone blind boater, this is a real consideration. “You can’t really pinpoint if something is going to hit you or pass by,” Ahmet tells me from Turkey earlier this week. It’s 10 p.m. there, but I can hear the sounds of the city behind him over the phone, like he’s out taking a stroll. “The sounds stretch out on the water. That’s the problem,” he says. “It’s not like listening to a car and realizing if you are in its way or not. And if it’s a big boat, most of them have their engines on the back so you hear the sound farther, but the boat is actually closer. You can have a 70 meter boat, like the size of a football field, but because the engine is on the back the boat is actually 70 meters closer than it sounds.”

Ahmet Ustunel pulls his kayak to shore while training for his solo journey across the Bosphorus Strait.
Ahmet Ustunel pulls his kayak to shore while training for his solo journey across the Bosphorus Strait. Photo courtesy of the Blind Captain.

One of the busiest waterways in the world, the Bosphorus is a highway for ships threading the needle between Europe and Asia. Ahmet was raised in this industrial landscape. Totally blind since age 3, Ahmet grew up on these shores, swam on these beaches, and most of all, dreamed of a day when he could captain a boat. Decades later and fully assimilated to life in America, wending his way through the bustling and at times chaotic infrastructure of Istanbul makes him feel a bit rusty.

When it comes to heavy traffic, the strait carries more than 40,000 boats and ships a year (approximately 110 a day). “I’m not afraid of capsizing or ending up in the water,” he says. “It’s fine. But the boats – they don’t pay attention. Most of the time they don’t look around. They assume that you are going to get out of their way, and that’s the only thing that scares me on the water.”

In an uncharacteristically theatrical move, Ahmet attaches his white cane to his kayak, sticking up right out of the stern. But the cane, which serves as a valuable navigation tool on the streets, is useless in water.

At 10 a.m. on Saturday, July 21 (12 a.m. on Friday night in Pacific Time), Ahmet will attempt the journey he’s been planning since applying to the Holman Prize in January 2017 – here’s how he’ll do it:

Ahmet’s vehicle of choice is a Hobie hard-shell kayak, with a foot-paddle system that allows him to power the craft by pedaling, like a bicycle. In his left hand, he’ll hold a lever that runs down to the kayak’s rudder and allows him to steer and keeping his right hand free to manage his navigational devices.

Ahmet shows his sonar navigation system to a fellow blind sailor named Ben.
Ahmet shows his sonar navigation system to a fellow blind sailor named Ben.

The tech, which Ahmet developed with a team of volunteer engineers (many of whom also work at AT&T, in Atlanta) is fairly simple, but comprised of a delicate orchestra of devices that weren’t necessarily made to work together. There’s a talking depth sensor that Ahmet has repurposed to identify objects at a horizontal rather than vertical distance; a non-visual compass of sorts called Mr. Beep (originally an aid for blind rowers), which Ahmet has hacked to send vibrating feedback to his left or right hands to show direction while keeping his ears free to listen to traffic; and of course his phone, which will mostly function to livestream his progress to the world.

Ahmet’s friends on land will help him scope out the strait the morning of the launch, settling on a time when there’s the least likelihood of him paddling straight into a nautical traffic jam. But once Ahmet sets his boat in the water, he’s on his own, first paddling out 20 or 30 meters by hand, then pedaling by foot. The current is strong on the straight, stronger than northern California’s Tomales Bay, where Ahmet has practiced on his own in the past.

When he reaches the shipping highway in the middle, he’ll have to decide if it’s safe to cross. That’s when things become a bit risky. In case of emergency, Ahmet has developed a three-tiered code system with his support team, who could radio him at danger level 3 to let him know he’s on a collision course with a ship. At that point it’s still his job to get out of the way, and the team won’t interfere with any navigational needs or warn him about stationary objects.

When I asked him what he’ll do when he reaches the other side, Ahmet is characteristically humble: “I don’t know, have a tea.” Then, assuming all is well, he’ll hop back in the kayak and return to the other side (an unassuming and unpublicized second crossing).

The support team trailing Ahmet in the distance (he’s told them to stay far enough away that he can’t hear their engine) will include Sarahbeth Maney, a Bay Area photojournalist who has followed Ahmet through his whole journey and is working on a documentary about Ahmet called “The Blind Captain”, and Dilara Yarbrough, Ahmet’s wife and a Criminal Justice professor at San Francisco State. On the shore, Ahmet will be greeted by a contingent of enthusiastic friends and Turkish journalists, including publications such as TRT World, who have taken interest in his endeavor.

The team won’t be the only ones following him, though. Ahmet’s crossing will be live streamed through his Blind Captain Facebook page, and sighted map enthusiasts should be able to track his GPS location at his engineering team’s tracker page. The map will give those who are following along visually a sense of how efficiently he moved across the water, and the Holman team at LightHouse will recap his progress on the LightHouse Facebook Page as well.

Finishing the journey won’t change the course of history or go straight into a Guinness book, but Ahmet knows that the symbolism of his solo trek is powerful for the general public and other blind would-be adventurers alike. He has visions of the modified Mr. Beep becoming a mainstay for blind navigation of all sorts. Late last year, in an interview with Red Bull, Ahmet suggested that the hacked tech he developed could also work for blind runners, surfers, cyclists and others who need intuitive non- visual guidance.

Returning to Turkey has become a tradition for Ahmet and his family, and he has a group of blind friends and colleagues there even bigger than the network he has in the states. Next summer, he hopes to return to do something “a bit more social,” such as passing on his kayaking skills and love for the outdoors to other blind children who are nursing the same dreams of piloting their own destiny.

About the Holman Prize

In 2017, San Francisco LightHouse for the Blind launched the Holman Prize to support the emerging adventurousness and can-do spirit of blind and low vision people worldwide. This endeavor celebrates people who want to shape their own future instead of having it laid out for them. In early July, we announced the 2018 Holman Prizewinners — congratulations to Stacy Cervenka, Conchita Hernández and Red Szell.

“We are thrilled to be able to continue the Holman Prize for a second year,” says LightHouse CEO Bryan Bashin. “These three new prizewinners represent a wide range of ambitions and life experience: from tackling social obstacles to to huge tests of physical and mental fortitude, they reflect the diversity and capability of blind people everywhere.”

Created specifically for legally blind individuals with a penchant for exploration of all types, the Holman Prize provides financial backing – up to $25,000 – for three individuals to explore the world and push their limits. Learn more at holmanprize.org.

A Blind Baker, Beekeeper and Kayaker Unite in San Francisco

Fourteen months ago, LightHouse CEO Bryan Bashin proposed a wild new idea: What if we create a prize to fund a blind person to do something ambitious? What if we fund their dreams ahead of time, to get them out in the world leading, creating, exploring and changing the face of blindness rather than simply rewarding them for past achievement?

Turns out dreaming big sometimes pays off, because in January this year we announced the very first Holman Prize for Blind Ambition, an annual set of awards – three in the first year – of up to $25,000 each financing and supporting blind people worldwide in pursuing an ambitious project of their design.

After a rigorous application process including a social media competition, multiple rounds of judging and a detailed project proposal, we found our inaugural Holman Prizewinners, an unlikely trio from vastly different walks of life. The three winners, kayaker Ahmet Ustunel, baker Penny Melville-Brown and beekeeper Ojok Simon each have one-of-a-kind projects that allow them to build and foster social impact in their immediate community.

Read what the San Francisco Chronicle has to say about the inaugural Holman Prizewinners.

This week, we hosted the prizewinners in San Francisco for a full week of trainings, meetings, skill-sharing and fun before they commence their projects starting October 1. It was a busy week, but was more than we could have ever hoped for.

We started out the week by heading to One Market Restaurant, where Penny baked with some of San Francisco’s top pastry chefs, exchanging tips and tricks, learning new methods, and even teaching them a few non-visual techniques. We want to extend a huge thank you to Michael Dellar for opening the restaurant to us and extending himself to give the blindness community such a warm welcome in the food and hospitality world. Watch this video of Penny and Mac folding a peach galette together.

Penny laughs in the One Market Restaurant kitchen with pastry chef Mac while plating a peach galette.
Penny laughs in the One Market Restaurant kitchen with pastry chef Mac while plating a peach galette.
Penny smiles with One Market pastry chefs Mac and Jan, who she just presented with the pewter medals she will give to all her baking partners along her journey.
Penny smiles with One Market pastry chefs Mac and Jan, who she just presented with the pewter medals she will give to all her baking partners along her journey.

Penny is finishing out her American adventure with three more major cooking stops: China Live in San Francisco, Cheeseboard in Berkeley, and Brown Sugar Kitchen in Oakland. She’s planning lots of updates and videos, which will be coming out weekly starting next week at Baking Blind.

Ahmet Ustunel, who actually lives in the same bustling SF downtown as LightHouse headquarters, was more of a tour guide than visitor this week. He took us to Lowell High School, where he teaches, and gave his fellow prizewinners a tour. Not only did Ahmet introduce us to some of his blind students, but also let Ojok climb up onto the roof of Lowell’s garden shed to investigate the beehive there!

Ojok and Lowell student Ellie show Ahmet the ropes as he feels a beehive box.
Ojok and Lowell student Ellie show Ahmet the ropes as he feels a beehive box.

We’ll be honest: For a minute there, we were a little worried Ojok almost wasn’t going to make here from Uganda due to a passport snafu, but with a lot of faith and a little luck, we welcomed him with open arms on Wednesday afternoon. He wasted no time – and within 12 hours he was running along Ocean beach and talking bees with fellow blind beekeeper Aerial Gilbert.

On Thursday the Holman crew headed over to the Arkansas Friendship Garden on Connecticut Street in the SF hills, where the journalist and author Meredith May keeps an active colony of bees regularly producing honey. Within minutes, Ojok had his hands in the hives – with no gloves, we might add – gently manipulating all the little worker bees without being stung once. At the end of the afternoon, everyone even got to dig their hands into some honeycomb and taste the sweet stuff right out of the hive.

Aerial Gilbert wears a protective hat and examines a wooden beehive frame.
Aerial Gilbert wears a protective hat and examines a wooden beehive frame.
Ojok holds up a beehive in a wooden frame for everyone to examine.
Ojok holds up a beehive in a wooden frame for everyone to examine.
Ojok smiles with his white bee hat and net catching the light, while bees fly around him.
Ojok smiles with his white bee hat and net catching the light, while bees fly around him.

Ojok then produced a small jar of honey that he had brought with him from Uganda, and the group got to taste the difference between the fruity, nectar-like honey of San Francisco’s Italian bees and the smoky, meaty honey made by Ojok’s Africanized “killer” bees. Ojok will return to Uganda next week and begin expanding the Hive Uganda program, which already has 38 blind and low vision sighted beekeepers, to teach honey farming to dozens more over the course of the next year.

On Friday, Ahmet took us out on the water – which, as he’s told us many times, is “his favorite place in the world.” The prizewinners and some documentary filmmakers hopped on a few sailboats with blind sailor Walt Raineri and the Bay Area Association of Disabled Sailors (BAADS), who took them all for a spin around McCovey Cove. Ahmet showed off some prototypes of the system he’ll use to autonomously navigate the Bosphorus Strait in Turkey next year, including directional and depth-sensing tools, all of which provide audible feedback. Learn more about his sonar technology from our livestream. As Ahmet’s project beings, you can follow him on Facebook and Instagram – and keep an eye out for him at your local waterway this fall while he trains for his big crossing, make sure to his page, he is the kind of guy that will buy instagram video views to motivate himself on social media!

Ahmet shows his sonar navigation system to a fellow blind sailor named Ben.
Ahmet shows his sonar navigation system to a fellow blind sailor named Ben.
Ahmet stands up in the boat while preparing to set out to McCovey Cove.
Ahmet stands up in the boat while preparing to set out to McCovey Cove.

If the live-streams, descriptions and photos weren’t enough, don’t worry: We had our cameras and microphones following along with the prizewinners all week long, and we’ll be soon bringing you scenes from the week.

Meet Ahmet Ustunel: Blind Kayaker and Holman Prizewinner

The Holman Prize will fund Ahmet Ustunel’s kayak training and the development of a non-visual guidance system for navigating the waters of the Bosphorus Strait.

Today Ahmet Ustunel, 37, a blind kayaker from San Francisco, was announced as one of the three inaugural winners of the Holman Prize for Blind Ambition – an unprecedented award for blind and low vision adventurers. The other winners are Penny Melville-Brown, an avid baker from the UK, and Ojok Simon, who is planning to build out a blind-led social enterprise for beekeepers in Uganda.

Ahmet, who is fully blind, is not a professional adventurer. A full-time teacher of the visually impaired, he began journeying into San Francisco Bay in a solo kayak shortly after moving to the United States from Turkey a decade ago. Yet with the $25,000 Holman Prize, he has a more ambitious goal: to paddle across the Bosphorus Strait, which divides the European region of Turkey from its Asian counterpart, completely alone.

Ahmet stands on the beach next to his kayak

In the months leading up to this daring crossing, Ahmet will practice regularly around the Bay Area, clocking in over 500 miles and building both physical endurance and mastering the technology that is a crucial element of his journey, demonstrating the autonomy and capability of blind people along the way. He will also develop of a non-visual guidance system for crossing the Strait.

In order to ensure a safe passage, Ahmet will use a wide variety of technology on-board his kayak, including ultrasonic sensors, a talking compass, an accessible depth finder and a tracking device that will guide him to his destination. “[My project] will educate the public about how blind people can operate a vehicle in an uncontrolled environment safely and independently,” he says.

The Bosphorus holds special significance for Ahmet, who grew up in Turkey: “It’s where I used to sit on a ferry dreaming about a time in the future when Blind captains and crew will roam through the Strait, and nobody will be surprised,” he says.

Ahmet Ustunel smiles holding a fishing pole

A risky and ambitious adventure, Ahmet’s crossing has the potential to change lives around the world, proving that with the right tools and a blind-positive attitude many adventures once thought impossible for blind people are well within their grasp.

Read about all three Holman Prizewinners in-depth.

Holman Honorees: Meet this year’s finalists.

Meet the blind judges who picked the winners.

Support The Holman Prize

The LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, which is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in San Francisco, is actively seeking sponsorships and support for the 2018 Holman Prize, including donations of equipment for the winner’s projects. To offer your support, contact holman@lighthouse-sf.org. Individuals may donate any amount using LightHouse’s secure form. For sponsorship inquiries, email us or call +1 (415) 694-7333.

For press inquiries, contact press@lighthouse-sf.org.

 

 

 

 

 

 

LightHouse Announces Three Inaugural Holman Prizewinners

This fall, three exceptional blind individuals will set off around the world on adventures they never imagined possible as winners of The Holman Prize for Blind Ambition. Today, we are pleased to share their names with the world.

The three winners, Ahmet Ustunel, Penny Melville-Brown, and Ojok Simon, were announced Thursday, June 29, 2017 after a rigorous judging process that narrowed down the applicants to eleven highly competitive finalists. Each winning project embodies its own sense of adventure and ambition – whether it takes the winners around the world or allows them to build and foster social impact in their immediate community.

Created to honor “blind ambition” in all its forms, the annual $25,000 awards will spring-board future generations of entrepreneurs, adventurers and ambassadors in the blindness community.

With over 200 applicants from 27 countries, The Holman Prize saw stiff competition in its first year. All applicants were required to upload 90-second YouTube videos to pitch their idea for a dream project with a $25,000 budget, and later asked to submit formal proposals.

Named after the 19th century explorer James Holman (known around the world as “the blind traveler”) The Holman Prize aims to launch worthy projects that will change the public perception of blindness for years to come.

“We are thrilled to support these three individuals,” LightHouse CEO Bryan Bashin noted Thursday with the announcement. “They are all incredibly ambitious in different ways, and their projects will have a real effect on the way blindness is perceived globally. I think about Ahmet’s determination, Penny’s cultural savvy, and Ojok’s entrepreneurial spirit – this is what blindness looks like today. These three will change minds about what blind people can accomplish.”

The 2017 Holman Prize Winners

The Three Holman Prizewinners will fly to San Francisco in September 2017 for a week-long orientation before starting their projects on October 1. Once they land in San Francisco, the winners will not only meet and learn from each other, but they will engage with other blind teachers, technologists and leaders from LightHouse’s extended network. The winners will also create comprehensive plans to document and share their experiences along the way through video, audio, writing and other storytelling mediums.

Ahmet Ustunel’s project has a clear, unprecedented goal: to kayak solo, without eyesight, from Europe to Asia. With potential for a dramatic climax and high stakes, Ustunel’s proposal to cross the 3-mile Bosphorus Strait caught the attention of the Holman Prize Committee and proved to be a compelling and unprecedented undertaking. By training in California and working to develop a suite of non-visual guidance technology to thrive on his own in the water, Ustunel hopes to join the ranks of other great blind outdoor heroes such as Erik Weihenmayer, Lonnie Bedwell and others.

Get to know Ahmet.

Penny Melville-Brown has a project with a universal focus: food. With a deep belief in the power of food to connect people, Penny’s project is a bid to claim a place at the stove for blind chefs everywhere. Penny’s intentions are less about competition and perfection and more about connecting with others through culture and shared experience. Maybe she’s the blind Julia Child – or the blind Anthony Bourdain – either way, as Penny documents her travels and successes in her series, “Baking Blind,” the world will follow along with her.

Get to know Penny.

Ojok Simon will take on a drastically different kind of project than his fellow winners. Simon seeks to raise employment rates for blind and partially sighted individuals in rural regions of his home country of Uganda. His method? Teach them a very specialized and somewhat unlikely skill: beekeeping. For decades, Simon has been a passionate beekeeper finding ways to tend bees in nontraditional and non visual ways. Simon wants to impart his warm attitude and entrepreneurial spirit on other blind individuals in Africa and abroad, rather than seeing them relegated to poverty and reliance on charity.

Get to know Ojok.

Holman Honorees: Meet the 2017 finalists.

Meet the blind judges who picked the winners. 

Support The Holman Prize.

The LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, which is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in San Francisco, is actively seeking sponsorships and support for the 2018 Holman Prize, including donations of equipment for the winner’s projects. To offer your support, contact holman@lighthouse-sf.org. Individuals may donate any amount using LightHouse’s secure form. For sponsorship inquiries, email us or call +1 (415) 694-7333.

For press inquiries, contact press@lighthouse-sf.org.