Me sailing like a Turk through the ice: the incredible story of Erkan Gursoy


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P97B7597[1].JPGDo you remember Ernesto Tross‘s designs, his angular aluminum boats? They are nothing compared to Altan Girl, the aluminum boat self-built by Erkan Gursoy, the first Turkish sailor to have completed, solo, the Northwest Passage. More like an armored vehicle than a boat. “It’s definitely not a pretty boat to look at,” Gursoy is wont to repeat..

The boat under construction at Gursoy’s shipyard in Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada.

Gursoy, who was born in Burdur in 1948, left Turkey (where he worked as a blacksmith) in 1972 to reach British Columbia (Canada). He decided to return at age 67 to the homeland in the most daring way possible: by sailing across the Arctic and Atlantic on a boat he made with his own hands over the course of several years at the boatyard he founded in Nanaimo, the town where he lives, Aldura Boats. Patenting a new way of construction: theui defines the boat as non-deflatable, literally “non-inflatable.” That is, as in an airboat, the rigid hull is covered with an inner tube: but not of rubber, but of ultra-strong aluminum. A series of vinyl fenders has been placed to further protect the hull; the mast is easily lowered so that the boat can pass under the decks.

Altan girl stuck in the ice in Alaska

After departing last July, a sudden frost ran Altan Girl aground near Barrow, Alaska, forcing Erkan to spend ten days stuck in ice that warped the hull in the meantime before a U.S. icebreaker intervened to free him. The navigator also found himself having to ward off polar bears by beating a metal box with a stick.

Altan girl in the midst of hurricane Gonzalo

Three months later, while sailing from Greenland to Ireland, he found himself in the tail end of Hurricane Gonzalo (which killed three people in England last October). “It felt like flying and floating at the same time.”, Gursoy said in an interview. And he added that he spent most of the three-day storm squatting under a table with a portable stove and a jug of water. The Irish Coast Guard and Air Force kept a close eye on him and even photographed him in the middle of the hurricane (side photo) but did not have to intervene. Eventually the Turkish blacksmith-mariner managed to reach the Aran Islands (County Galway, Ireland).

Erkan Gursoy arrives in Turkey
Erkan Gursoy arrives in Turkey in February

From Ireland, Altan Girl then went down to Gibraltar, and from there she continued on to Malta, where her dented and battered hull screeched amidst the luxury yachts moored in Valletta. “Not only is it ugly,” Gursoy said, “but the aluminum inner tube makes it extremely noisy.” However, it is “super safe”. The boat is able to withstand waves, wind, and would need to be literally torn in two to sink. Altan Girl is not his first Turkish-built “non-deflatable” boat: his yard has churned out 122 aluminum tenders and motorboats over the years that look pneumatic but resist UV rays and do not puncture. One of these tenders was actually located at the stern of the boat. As an engine, Gursoy installed a 26-horsepower diesel he salvaged from a refrigerated trailer. The sailor arrived in Turkey welcomed as a hero in the port of Canakkale in February. Flowers, interviews, celebratory dinners and more.

Altan Girl

Erkan has always had a knack for navigation. After emigrating to Canada, while working as a “shop teacher” (the equivalent of our technical education) he spent seven years building a 53-foot steel boat, after which he and his family (wife and two children), then living in Fernie (also in British Columbia, but inland), brought the boat to the coast and began living aboard. In 1993, after the Gursoy’s had found “earthy” accommodations in Nanaimo, Erkan embarked on a solo round-the-world sailing trip. It took him two years, two months and two days to return to Nanaimo after circumnavigating the globe from east to west and crossing the Panama Strait. This gave him credibility in Canada and the opportunity to open his own shipbuilding business, but it was in Turkey that he became a celebrity. Gursoy’s portrait occupies a space in a commemorative monument in Istanbul, and while on the English version of wikipedia Erkan is not mentioned, in the Turkish one he is included in the very small circle (15) of local ocean navigators.

Erkan Gursoy (fourth from left) with his family in Canada

Now Gursoy is counting on using the moment in the spotlight to showcase his Altan Girl in a way that will create interest in the Mediterranean for his building technology, hoping to move his business to Turkey. “I will teach unemployed young people to build boats,” he said in an interview with the National Post, “I will give them a respectable life.” (Eugenio Ruocco)




1 thought on “Me sailing like a Turk through the ice: the incredible story of Erkan Gursoy”

  1. Willie Aglukkaq

    I helped Erkan get through the Northwest passage by giving him traditional knowledge of weather patterns that would blow away sea ice that was blocking parts of the passage North of Gjoa Haven, Nunavut where I live still today, Erkan was and I hope is still a very capable man I had the opportunity to meet, always welcome back my friend ….

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