Ahmet Ustunel lost his eyesight when he was three years old. But he decided to make kayaking his hobby and then went on to do what many thought was impossible.
One morning in mid-July, as the sun was beating down, Ahmet Ustunel ran a last-minute check on his kayaking gear. He was in Istanbul's sleepy town of Beykoz, located on the northern fringe of the city, preparing for a practice run in the Bosphorus Strait, which divides Istanbul between the Asian and European continents.
He tightened the straps on his life jacket, used his hands to feel his way around the kayak and adjusted the rudder. He then pushed some buttons on a handheld GPS device.
He stacked his personal belongings — a water bottle, a cell phone wrapped in a plastic bag, and a long white cane — in the front compartment of a blue-coloured kayak.
Before settling in the seat, and sliding into the clear water that shone like a million floating pearls, he put on a U2 song on a small stereo that was fixed on his trainer’s kayak. For someone who is blind music is the white cane in the sea.
Ustunel was three years old when doctors diagnosed him with retinoblastoma, a cancer that left him completely blind.
A blind man feels more disadvantaged on water, he says.
“On the ground you have physical contact with the street constantly. You can find little things to orient yourself, like maybe a crack on the sidewalk It gives you an idea of where you are.
“But on the water you don't have anything. It's all open. You don't have your cane. You don't have any kind of contact with the surroundings,” he told TRT World.
Ustunel, who grew up in Istanbul, and then went on to become a school teacher for visually impaired kids in the United States, wants to paddle a kayak across the strait all by himself.
While blind people have kayaked before, and in far more dangerous places, most of them have been athletes. They also had someone’s help: someone guiding them over bluetooth or giving verbal cues of where to turn or what to avoid.
Ustunel, on the other hand, is depending on a navigational system, which he has conceived for the blind who want to row on their own, he says.
“People put obstacles in their mind and that becomes a really big problem. Not seeing is not an obstacle for Ahmet which makes things easier,” said Seda Tunca, his trainer, a few days before he made the attempt.
“He can't see, but he is definitely one of the best students I have ever had.”
What makes Ustunel so determined to achieve this target has a lifelong story.
Stubborn as a goat
When you are blind, Ustunel says, you learn to do things differently. It's a matter of patience and, in few cases, obstinacy.
"I was very stubborn. If someone said I couldn't do this or that, I would do exactly that. You know as they say, I was stubborn as a goat."
Take the bicycle.
When he was growing up, he says, there weren't many tandem bikes around. His cousins would ride their own bicycles in a little town of Turkey’s Samsun province, and Ustunel always wanted to ride beside them. And so he memorised the details of his surrounding environment.
"There was a street, with not much traffic, in the middle of which there was gravel and on the sides there was grass, and as long as you kept in the middle you felt different texture and I used to get close to the grass as much as I can so if I fall there I don’t hurt myself."
But there were of course many bruises and cuts, when he fell while running or climbing trees.
It wasn’t easy or fun all the time.
He was taught how to use the long cane early on. "I knew the theoretical side of it but not the practical application. I was dependent on someone to take me to school."
When he was around 13 he heard from friends about an institution where blind kids learned how to go out on their own.
His parents hesitated in the beginning, saying he was too young to step out independently. But he kept insisting until he was enrolled in a training school in the mid-1990s.
"I didn't have enough self confidence to cross the street. So one time I was crossing a busy street in Kadikoy with my instructor and he just disappeared. I was holding his arm and he just disappears."
Ustunel stood by himself on a side-street amid a crowd of strangers.
"I waited for 10 minutes and then just asked around if it was safe to cross the street and then from the sidewalk I kept asking until I reached the building."
His instructor was inside having tea, Ustunel says. "I said 'what the hell man' and he was like that's the last lesson …now you have the confidence."
After that experience Ustunel ventured out of his home on his own for the first time, on a trip from Kadikoy to Bostanci. It was only years later, however, that he found out his mother had quietly followed him all the way to make sure nothing happened to him.
"I have been very lucky with this project," Ustunel said, about his solo cross-Bosphorus kayaking attempt.
“I have been able to find all the right people." Or maybe all the right people found him.
Love is blind
For as long as he can remember, Ustunel had been close to water. His father owned a small boat, and Ustunel would often go out in the Bosphorus with him to fish near the shores of the Marmara Sea.
As a kid he wanted to grow up to become a construction worker. The other option was to take up fishing as a profession.
"It was only later I realised that both of them were unpractical for me. I can still fish and catch something for myself though," he says.
"Sometimes when I go fishing my wife calls and asks if I'll bring any fish for dinner or should she order pizza," he says with a laugh.
Judging Ustunel’s mood from his facial expressions can be difficult for someone who doesn't know him intimately – he always appears to be cheerful or happy even when he's serious or emotional.
That’s a trait which helped him confront many problems as a young man.
By the time he was at the Bogazici University studying psychology, he had learned to find his way around obstacles blind people face on a daily basis.
If he couldn't find a braille book on any subject – there weren’t many available at the time – he would ask friends to read chapters so he could record them on audio cassette tapes.
"I had hundreds of cassette tapes, and I used braille notes to mark which were for science, geography etcetera,” he said.
Dilara, his future wife, came into his life around the same time. They had known each other for few months from study groups. But they fell in love one night outside a pop concert, which they both wanted to attend but didn't have money to buy tickets for.
“We ended up talking to each other … and we didn’t stop till the sun was up. After that we started dating,” says Dilara, who has a Turkish background but had come to Turkey as an exchange student from the US.
"He's my favorite person in the world," she tells TRT World. "He's someone very kind and empathetic. He's also very brave and open-minded.”
Dilara and Ustunel now live in San Francisco, where Dilara teaches criminal justice at a university.
Kayaking has been an important part of Ustunel's life for a couple of years now.
"Every weekend, we would get up at 5am, and he would take the bus and meet his friends, and they would practice in the Pacific Ocean. They went no matter what, be it rainy or sunny,” says Dilara.
The day of reckoning
One thing that has bothered Ustunel all his life is the reluctance of some people to see what he’s capable of doing.
His high school initially rejected him because “the principal said they were using videos to teach some lessons and I wouldn’t be able to see.” It was only after a lot of hassle that Ustunel was allowed to enroll there.
Dilara says that discrimination hadn’t stopped even in the US.
“I have seen people think blind people can’t go up and down stairs, I have seen people think blind people can’t teach,” she says.
Ustunel has felt frustrated at times.
Once after a routine training in San Francisco, he was waiting for the bus in a wealthy neighbourhood. He had his kayak and other equipment with him.
“Someone called the police thinking Ustunel looked suspicious. Also this is probably a case of racial profiling, maybe he had a big sack and they thought he was homeless or something. That made him angry and motivated him even more to push back against denial of public space,” she said.
Last year, Ustunel won a small grant from San Francisco-based NGO Lighthouse for the Blind which rewards visually impaired people who come up with ways to make their lives better.
He proposed to put together a portable navigation system to help blind people boat on the water.
While he had the idea, he needed someone with technical know-how. He ended up meeting Marty Stone, an AT&T engineer who is also part of Hacemos, an organization that works with underprivileged children.
To have an electronic aid that lets a blind person maneuver on water meant putting a GPS, a sophisticated electronic compass, and voice processing device into a small box.
It wasn't easy, but Stone and his colleagues were able to come up with a system.
So it was on July 21 that all eyes were on Ustunel as he was getting ready to make the three-mile-long crossing. After a year of training, he was hoping to paddle across the Bosphorus in 40 minutes.
The coast guard briefed him that he had a half an hour window before the strait would be filled by cargos, boats and ferries.
And so Ustunel jumped in with his kayak and paddled across in just 20 minutes – showing everyone that nothing is impossible against a human will.