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gulets in a boatyard in Bozburun, Turkey

A shipyard near Bozburun

If you have travelled on a Turkish gulet, perhaps 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 how they are maintained.

Every winter, after the travel season, we always visit a number of the boatyards along the south coast of Turkey, typically between Bodrum and Fethiye. Such trips are an evident necessity: we need to keep abreast of which gulets 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.

gulets in one of the Bodrum boatyards

Gulet boatyards (this one is near Bodrum) are fascinating places

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 Fethiye 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, such as the many areas devoted to shipbuilding and maintenance that are tucked away in the coves around Bozburun or Fethiye.

climbing up a ladder to a gulet in a Turkish boatyard

Climbing up to the deck of a gulet when it's been taken out of the water requires a head for heights.

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.

Peter in particular personally conducts gulet inspection trips in Croatia, Greece and Turkey each year during the winter or early spring. These recces are almost always fascinating and occasionally adventurous, involving much climbing up and down precarious ladders - rather hair-raising - and trying to imagine what a gulet will look like when finished in all its splendour, rather hard at times when wandering through a stripped back building site of a boat, devoid of soft furnishings and everything topsy turvy.

If you ever find yourself in southwest Turkey in spring, you should certainly try to have a look at one of the gulet boatyards (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.

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