Last week in Istanbul, I enjoyed a privilege that once belonged only to Ottoman Sultans. I was walking in Bebek, the wealthy Istanbul neighborhood on the European side of the city on the shores of the Bosphorus Strait, when I felt an urge to go to Kandilli, a neighborhood on the Asian side of the strait. I made a small, almost imperceptible gesture with my hand and within a few minutes found myself aboard an UberBOAT, skimming the blue-white waves of the Bosphorus from Europe to Asia, feeling a bit like a Sultan in his imperial caique. (“UberBOAT,” with its odd Germanic cadence, inescapably called to mind Wolfgang Petersen's Das Boot; I would whistle the film's kitsch theme throughout the day's journey.)
I am not a sultan; I am not rich; I don't own a boat or a caique. I am in a confusing 21st-century situation: I owe this experience—traveling from Europe to Asia on a speedboat that I hailed with my smartphone—to a San Francisco-based company known for its dubious labor practices. Here is global capitalism making a momentary emperor of a left-wing Turkish writer who can't help but enjoy the Uber experience despite something of a guilty conscience; among other things, it felt weird to ride an UberBOAT the same day Courtney Love was attacked in Paris by what she described as a “taxi driver mob" after she used an Uber-hired car to travel through the city
Provided you have enough cash on your debit card, Uber's fleet of boats in Istanbul offer you unlimited cross-continental rides on a writerly Sunday; you can even write on the boats themselves, where, I am happy to announce, complimentary beverages are offered to passengers from a fridge filled with a wide selection of soft drinks. Naturally, 20 percent of the captain's earnings are transferred directly from the cold waters of the Bosphorus to Uber's headquarters in San Francisco—thanks to which business model the Bosphorus serves the Istanbul visitor and the San Francisco entrepreneur simultaneously, though each in a different way.
Whether UberBOAT represents a passing novelty, or a sustainable mode of democratizing intercontinental travel, remains to be seen.
On the face of it, the UberBOAT gambit is based on a slightly mad idea: Let's allow Istanbul's luxurious speedboat captains to serve hipsters who want to sail on the Bosphorus for ludicrous amounts of money! But as you look closer, the idea comes to seem like a brilliant business model. No one before has dreamed of individualizing intercontinental travel across the Bosphorus journey, let alone doing it through a smartphone app. In simpler terms, there's a real market.
If you are not a Sultan, if you are not rich, and if you don't have a boat, you have basically three options to make your way through the Bosphorus Strait. You can jump into the water and swim. This is the dangerous option; it can leave you sick with numerous seaborne illnesses; also, the Bosphorus is infamous for its currents, which can reach up to eight knots and carry you all the way to the Black Sea.
A second, safer, and saner option is Deniz Taksi ("Sea Cab"), which charges 46 Turkish Lira (about 17 dollars) the moment you step onboard. Those cabs are a bit less glamorous than the luxuriously designed Beneteau Antares speedboats used by Uber, plus you pay Deniz Taksi an additional 29 lira for every sea mile you travel with them. Compared to Uber (which charges 50 lira for Bebek-Kandilli, a price that can be split between up to eight passengers), this seems expensive. But it is the method of hailing those sea cabs, more than their pricing, that make them the less attractive alternative: You have to telephone a "call center" to order your sea cab; you then hand the captain your credit card, and he gives you a sales slip in return. You need to make reservations way in advance. And, unless you cancel your reservation two hours before the agreed time, you pay a fine. Needless to say, the Uber way of doing things is far simpler. You tap your smartphone screen to locate the nearest boat, then tap it a second time to ping its captain, who tells you the exact point to wait for him. Then you pay for your journey directly through the Uber app. Then you go on with the rest of your day.
The third way of sailing the Bosphorus is the ferry, which has recently become a subject of intense political significance. Although not free, Istanbul's ferries are cheap to the point of being almost free. The standard ferry fare between the European and Asian sides is a mere four lira (about $1.50); if you have the Oyster-like Istanbulcard, the price falls down to two for adults and one for students. The pricing of the ferry thus complies with the Istanbul ideal described by the city's greatest poet Orhan Veli: "We live for free, for free / Air is free, the cloud is free / Brooks and hills, they are free / Rain is free and mud is free / Outside of cars / Doors of film theatres / Shop displays, they are all free."
By one calculation UberBOAT comes close to beating the ferry fare, which as I've said is almost free. Then again, according to this scheme, you need to travel everywhere with a small army to avoid over-paying for your trips.
Almost free, but a bit ugly, too. One month before Uber started its boat service, Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality introduced three new ships, all of them 100 percent Turkish-made, that were meant to make Istanbul residents proud. A Hürriyet Daily News piece from June quoted Mayor Kadir Topbaş who, during his inauguration ceremony, discussed his plans:
Sadly, water transportation is enjoyable but slow. Why? Because our ships can go from four to six nautical miles [per hour], on average; they are slow.... The new ferries reach speeds of up to 12 nautical miles. They are "double-ended, meaning they can travel from one port to the next without having to turn around, and save up to 25 percent in both fuel and time.”
The problem is that they are also ugly and, unlike old models, don't allow passengers to sit outside on the first floor. This is a hindrance if you wish to enjoy the coolness of waves while you travel; it also makes it much more difficult to feed the seagulls—and for the ferry riders of Istanbul, feeding birds is an important shared responsibility.
UberBOAT triumphs on many of these fronts. You can read the new Harper Lee novel on comfortable, white leather seats; you can feed any bird you like, even dipping your hand inside the cold waves as the boat moves to your desired continent or island. But then again, it is not cheap: Not everyday can one afford a 50-lira journey that takes about five minutes—I clocked it during my ride from Bebek to Kandilli. It feels expensive to pay 10 lira per minute for an experience, even if that experience is crossing continents with a super-cool speedboat. Whether UberBOAT represents a passing novelty, or a sustainable mode of democratizing intercontinental travel, remains to be seen.
Not long after my first trip with UberBOAT, I met Austin Kim, Uber's Istanbul operation manager, and together we took a lazy, hour-long trip on the Bosphorus. (Kim looks leisure-chic—informal shirt and trousers.) "Price-wise, from Bebek to Kandilli, the 50 lira you pay becomes very affordable when you split your fare," he tells me. "Let's say you are 10 people. You use our Split Fare feature and you end up paying just five lira per person." In Kim's calculation, UberBOAT comes close to beating the ferry fare, which as I've said is almost free. Then again, according to this scheme, you need to travel everywhere with your little army to avoid over-paying for your trips.
"Lots of tourists and visitors have used UberBOAT in its first two weeks” Kim tells me. As for locals, he says, so far the service has attracted high-end revelers headed to the nightclub Reina or to a restaurant by the water in Ortaköy.
Finding drivers with suitable watercraft was not difficult. None of the boats are owned by Uber; they are owned by what the company calls Uber Partners. Especially for speedboat owners, the deal looks good: Boats’ financing costs are quite hefty; employee salaries are expensive; there are lots of maintenance costs involved in running a boat service. Working with Uber helps boat companies increase profitability and earnings—all of which Kim notes as we glide along.
Kim tells me about the luckiest UberBOAT passengers, the residents of Istanbul's exquisite and extremely expensive yalı mansions, which are built at immediate waterside. Yalı residents can literally order a boat to their door, which can then bring them back there at the end of the day. "Those people have been using our boats, although they are not a big demographic," Kim admits, which is not surprising, given the total number of Istanbul yalıs, which is 600.
Kim is Korean. One week before we took the boat together, he was in the coastal Turkish holiday town of Bodrum to launch Uber Bodrum, which offers stylish, perfectly air-conditioned cars to holidaymakers who want to drive around that extremely hot city a bit more comfortably. As we spoke, Kim's team was also getting ready to launch Uber Çeşme, a new product aimed at another popular holiday resort town whose residents are likewise apparently ready to pay a bit more for comfort.
As for Istanbul, Kim is right that UberBOAT represents an alluring way to avoid the city's crowded roads. "Anybody who lives in Istanbul knows that the traffic is very painful here. If you live on one side of the city and commute to the other you can easily spend hours on the road to get to your house or work."
As we watch the passing yalıs, imperial palaces, parks, and trees aglow under the intense summer sun, I ask Kim whether riding his boats would be this appealing during winter when Istanbul is covered under a thick cloak of snow. The Bosphorus Strait was frozen famously twice, in 1929 and 1954. On both occasions, Istanbul residents could walk from one continent to the other, jumping from floe to floe, according to local legend.
"Given the weather conditions of winter, we might not be able to have this kind of nice conversation outside the boat, but the inside is pretty spacious, too," Kim responds. "We will definitely have people using the boat in winter, maybe not for the pleasure but for more the practical purpose of getting around the city."
I ask Kim a hypothetical question: What happens if I tell the captain to just keep going, without any destination—what if I tell him to just take me around the Bosphorus from dusk 'til dawn, without aim or purpose? "People do that with our UberXL service," he says. "Tourists get onto these vehicles and tell drivers things like, 'I want to cross the bridge; just take me around the city....' Whether they have a particular destination or not, we will be happy to take people anywhere they want to go."
Then again, not everyone can afford that purposeless car or boat drive. You still need aristocrat-level money if you want to ride a pleasure boat aimlessly across the Bosphorus, in the style and wake of Lord Byron.
The day after my meeting with Kim, I went to Istanbul's Naval Museum in Beşiktaş, which houses an extraordinary collection of imperial caiques used by Ottoman sultans. In those caiques Ottoman monarchs would sit in the small kiosks placed on the deck pavilion, which afforded them a view of the sea where dozens of rowers, dressed in traditional attire, made an orchestrated effort to propel those enormous vehicles across the Bosphorus.
Dozens of massive imperial caiques fill the entrance floor of the Naval Museum, with their the figurehead lions, their exquisitely ornamented bows, their floral scrolls, and imperial armorials. The centerpiece of the museum is the historic galley (Kadırga), which is 40 meters long and 5.7 meters wide. (Uber boats, by comparison, are eight to 10 meters long and three meters wide).
Built in late 16th century, Kadırga has 24 pairs of oars. As I stood in the museum peering at its inscription—embossed on a pearl-encrusted tortoise-shell plaque—Kadırga seemed like a reminder of the long naval tradition in which UberBOAT is the but the latest entry. "On land and sea," the inscription reads, "may His Majesty Sultan Mehmet, Khan of the ghazi warriors ... reign in the Kingdom of earth with the longevity of Noah."