If you have travelled on a Turkish gulet, perhaps even on one of our cultural gulet cruises, you may well have wondered where these beautiful handcrafted wooden boats come from - where they are built and maintained.
Last week, I was given a very hands-on approach to answering that question. Peter Sommer, Michael Metcalfe and I spent a few days in Western Turkey to inspect several of the shipyards in the area. We were accompanied by our local logistics expert Cem Yücesoy, and Alper Akbay, our partner at Almira Travel.
Such trips are an evident necessity: We need to keep abreast of which boats are available for scheduled tours or gulet charters, what trends are developing in boat-building in the area, what alterations, renovations or upgrades are made to the boats we use, and so on. At the same time, they provide an ideal opportunity to meet our local friends, colleagues and partners, the boat builders, owners and captains who add so much to the experience of our gulet cruises.
Visiting the area in summer, one is often surprised by the sheer number of gulets cruising up and down the coast and filling busy harbours, most famously that of Bodrum, by the hundreds. It is all the harder to imagine that between winter and spring virtually every one of them is taken out of the water for maintenance. Doing this annually is cumbersome, but by no means extravagant.
Like an old house or a fine garden, a wooden boat is a constant work in progress. And while some of that work takes place throughout the year, much of it has to wait for the cold season, when the Turkish gulets are not operating. The hulls need to be repaired and repainted; any parts that have been affected by the elements or the usual wear and tear during the sailing season have to be fixed or replaced; internal fittings require maintenance and upgrades; the wooden surfaces of decks, railings and furniture are revarnished in multiple layers.
As all these jobs have to take place on all the gulets during a relatively short period, the area between Bodrum and Marmaris is dotted with many shipyards. Some are enormous and nearly industrial in nature, first and foremost among them the best-known of all, just east of Bodrum, where the modern gulet was first conceived. Others rather resemble a cottage industry, e.g. the many areas devoted to shipbuilding and maintenance that are tucked away in the coves around Bozburun in southern Caria.
What they all have in common is that they are fascinating places to visit. They are permeated by an atmosphere of industrious activity, with a sometimes surreal mix of modern technology and the time-honoured traditional tasks that once dominated all major harbours and wharves, being performed all around. The visual impression of walking around between the many hulls of the gulets, propped up by wooden posts, surrounded by scaffoldings and entered via tall ladders, one boat nearly touching another, is breath-taking. It is matched by a unique soundscape of generators, power tools, and the varied noises of planing, hammering, brushing, and sweeping, all constantly accompanied by the sound of sea and wind - the lapping of the waves, the clanging of the masts and the cracking of the ropes.
So, we had a fascinating few days, spending long hours visiting many boats throughout the days, and enjoying great Turkish hospitality - with fantastic food and the occasional glass of Rakı - in the evenings. It is too soon to discuss the results in detail here, but before long you may find them here on our website.
If you ever find yourself in southwest Turkey in spring, you should certainly try to have a look at one of the gulet shipyards (but do ask someone for advice - they can be hazardous places while work is going on). Quite different from the usual tourist activities, it will make for an unusual and highly interesting experience, and offer you a very authentic insight into a most important aspect of life in that beautiful region.