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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.

Video: What it takes to win the Holman Prize

One year ago, we launched the first annual Holman Prize for Blind Ambition, and embarked on a journey to change the public face of blindness and empower people worldwide to challenge the status quo and reject naysaying narratives around blindness. It’s been an incredible year getting to know and following along with our 2017 prizewinners, Penny Melville-Brown, Ahmet Ustunel and Ojok Simon.

Just last week, Holman Prize judging committee member Sheri Well-Jensen wrote a warm and compelling essay about the prize in NFB’s monthly publication, the Braille Monitor, which we are crossposting below. As we approach our second annual Holman Prize application period (January 16 to February 28), we hope the new essay and its accompanying video will get to the very heart of what this prize is all about and set your gears in motion brainstorming possible projects and ways to contribute:

James Holman was not your average nineteenth-century blind explorer. Safe to say, “nineteenth-century blind explorers” is not really a reliable dataset. Traveling the world alone is not unusual for blind people today, so today we view James Holman as an outlier—a sign that we’ve made some progress in these couple hundred years. In the future, the strivings of today’s outliers will seem similarly achievable, and we will thank them for breaking the mold. This year, we saw the launch of The Holman Prize, dedicated to pursuing and promoting the passions of blind people everywhere, and it’s my pleasure to introduce you to the prize’s first three winners. First, though, you need to know a bit about James Holman.

James Holman was born an unremarkable middle-class baby in Exeter, England, in 1786. The second son of a local merchant, he was more or less expected to lead an unsurprising life, making himself a career in the British Navy, and like a dutiful second son of the time, he eventually set about doing just that. That was just about the last unsurprising event of his life. He first surprised himself in 1812 by becoming very ill and later going blind. Later, he surprised the rest of England (and possibly himself again) by ignoring the usual sorts of restrictive expectations placed on blind people and setting out to do marvelous things. After recovering from his illness, he wriggled out of a stultifying religious order for disabled military men (which was supposed to keep him safely at home and out of trouble) and set forth on a series of solo adventures. He began by booking passage for himself on a ship, not worrying much about where it went. From there, in a time before paved roads and reliable vehicles, he traveled alone through Europe, was run out of Russia (suspected of being an international spy), and returned to England to publish his first set of detailed books describing his adventures. He later circumnavigated the globe, noticing everything, restlessly trying to be everywhere and to do all there was to do. Holman’s fame spread; eventually Charles Darwin himself referenced observations of the natural world made by the “blind traveler.”

You can (and should) read about him in the exquisitely detailed biography by Jason Roberts (available on both NLS and BookShare). I sincerely promise that it will reshape your assumptions about what blind people could accomplish in the early nineteenth century.

So when the Lighthouse for the Blind in San Francisco announced a competition for the first annual Holman Prize at the beginning of this year, they must have known they were setting a pretty high bar.

It was a prize clearly intended to reward the doing of splendid things: audacious things that startle, delight, and challenge.

As hoped, the announcement brought forth a glorious deluge of entries literally from around the globe. Asked to submit ninety-second YouTube videos describing an ambitious project on which they would like to spend $25,000, over 200 blind people responded with entries which ranged from the adorable to the impressive and from the truly beautiful to the unapologetically weird.

Once you finish reading the Holman biography, I heartily recommend that you spend a long, fascinating evening streaming some of those videos. We are, it turns out, a pretty audacious group of people.

But, in the end, only three could be chosen: the “Holmanest” of this year’s “Holmanesque” entries, if you will. It is my delight to introduce them to you here:

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.

Let’s begin with Penny Melville-Brown. You would know immediately if you were in a room with Penny, the mastermind behind the “Baking Blind” project, because you would hear her signature laugh. Gregarious and confident, Penny has no doubt about what she wants to do. Like James Holman, she is a native of Great Britain, and like James Holman, Penny went blind while serving in the British Navy. She also shares Holman’s urge to travel. Penny intends to conquer the world kitchen by kitchen, exploring the cuisine from Costa Rica to China and filming cooking shows with local chefs as she goes. But this isn’t only about, maybe isn’t even mostly about, adaptive cooking techniques.

Penny’s project is about community and about the generous and welcoming spaces that open out when people share food. Penny’s positive nature and her humor draw people around the dining table where she presides, and the gastronomic wonders she creates make them sit down and stay put. As people break bread together, (and such bread you have rarely tasted) barriers fall, and they talk. With her recipes in hand, (and perhaps wielding a wooden spoon if necessary) Penny will weave these communities together as she goes. The chefs will learn from the blind cook, the blind cook will learn from the chefs, and everyone at table and watching on the videos will learn to trust one another just a little bit more.

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 Simon is a gracious, dignified man from Uganda whose gentleness and soft-spoken demeanor at first seem strangely at odds with his project. Ojok is a bee keeper: not just any keeper . . . Ojok Simon is a keeper of Africanized bees. Where many of us skitter anxiously away at the near approach of even a single honeybee, Ojok regularly sinks his hands and arms into billowing swarms of them, moving them about, adjusting their hives, and deftly making off with quantities of their honey. When I asked (admittedly in some alarm) about how this was done, another blind bee keeper from Northern California, Aerial Gilbert, helped make sense of it for me. Bee keeping, she explained, is a gentle endeavor; the keeper becomes known to his bees and learns to move deliberately and easily among them. It’s not a contest; it’s a dance. Ojok does wear protective gear and he does get stung, but he explains that he is not afraid of his bees because they have no desire to hurt anyone. If approached calmly, they will react calmly. This is remarkable enough, but Ojok’s Holman Prize was not awarded because of how handy he himself is around an apiary.

In a country where jobs are hard for blind people to find, Ojok’s project is to teach other blind Ugandans what he knows. At this writing, he has thirty-eight blind students ready and willing to learn from him, and he has established a small foundation to help purchase the startup gear each will need to become his or her own boss, selling beeswax and honey. Ojok nimbly avoids the problem of convincing Ugandan employers to hire blind people by setting these blind people up as their own bosses. In what has become the Holman tradition, his method is both startling and extraordinarily clever.

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.

The third Holman prize winner, originally from Turkey but now living in San Francisco, is a special education teacher named Ahmet Ustunel. Ahmet is that high school teacher who wins the kids over with a combination of steady confidence and a touch of playfulness: the kind of teacher who’s cool without making too much of it. He exudes an insuppressible, quiet joyfulness. Still, because he is actually a little bit shy, you might walk right by him at a party without knowing he’s there. If you want to draw him out though, I suggest leaning over and whispering “ocean!” or “fishing boat” or better still “pirate,” and you’ll have his full attention.

He becomes very animated quickly, and will delight you with his stories about his times on, beside, in, and (sometimes temporarily) underneath various kinds of boats. Ahmet happily tells the story that his first career choice as a child was to become a pirate. When his parents described the standard eye-patch-sporting pirate to him, he was delighted; to quote four-year-old Ahmet: “If this is a successful pirate, and he has one blind eye, I’m going to be the best pirate ever . . .because I have two blind eyes!”

Ahmet’s project involves a kayak, a ton of very cool high tech equipment, and the Bosphorus Strait: a narrow body of water that separates Europe (on the west) from Asia, on the east. Ahmet plans to paddle his kayak solo across the strait: no mean feat when you consider the currents, the wildlife, the traffic buoys and, not to put too fine a point on it, but also the merchant ships (which are larger than most houses) that thunder along the Bosphorus on their way to the Black Sea. Ninety percent of his project, he says, undaunted, is in the preparation: the physical training, the testing of the technology, and working out logistics.

His kayak will be outfitted with all the cool gear a geek could dream of: GPS, radio, and all manner of obstacle detectors. That along with his sense of the sea, his hands in the current, and his knowledge of the wind direction will guide him safely across. And, if our own cool tech doesn’t let us down, we’ll get to follow along when he makes the crossing in July 2018.

The thing that distinguishes this first set of Holman Prizewinners is not their jobs or mastery of blindness techniques or their eloquence in discussing philosophy of blindness. Like all the rest of us, they sometimes drop things or come up short when a stranger on the street asks them some ridiculous blindness-related question. The spark that they all share is their conscious, enduring belief in blind people and their willingness to share that belief as part of their community, offering and accepting strength along the way. They reminded me that we all have a bit of James Holman in us. Over the next few months, we’ll cheer them on as they embark on their adventures. Next time, it will be someone else.

So, heads up, all blind adventurers, inventors, dreamers, artists, musicians, scientists, builders, healers, troublemakers, and all the rest of you daring, merry, audacious believers: it’s not too early to start thinking about next year. Applications for the 2018 Holman Prize open on January 16, 2018. Visit www.holmanprize.org to learn how to apply.

Sheri Wells-Jensen is a linguistics professor at Bowling Green State University, a curious connoisseur of insuppressible blind living, who served on the judging committee for the inaugural Holman Prize for Blind Ambition, held in San Francisco in June 2017. The Holman Award is granted to those who have an idea that, if funded, will expand the possibilities for blind people. Submit your pitch video starting January 16

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.