Blind kayaker envisions voyage through Bosporus Strait

The sound of a distant radio guided 9-year-old Ahmet Ustunel back to his father’s fishing boat, which floated somewhere above the waters he swam in.

“I would put the loud radio on the boat, then jump off and swim as far as I could,” said Ustunel, reflecting on his upbringing Istanbul, Turkey. “Listening to the radio was my sound landmark. It was great until somebody forgot I was in the water and turned off the radio.”

Ustunel, who is blind, was not deterred as a child from jumping off the boat and continuing his relationship with water into adulthood. Now 37, Ustunel hopes to use advanced technology to design a nonvisual kayak that is customized for visually impaired people.

Inspired by self-driving vehicles, Ustunel plans to furnish his own kayak with navigational devices and cross the Bosphorus Strait, the second-busiest strait on the planet. The voyage has been a dream of Ustunel’s since childhood, but financial barriers to the necessary high-tech devices have placed that dream on hold for years.
But a sea change could now aid in Ustunel’s upstream battle.

This year, the Lighthouse for Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco launched its first-ever Holman Prize, named for the 19th century world traveler James Holman, the first blind person to circumnavigate the globe. In July, Ustunel was announced as one of three recipients from more than 200 applicants around the world to receive a $25,000 grant to fund his journey.

The grant is awarded each year to incentivize blind people to accomplish courageous goals, said Lighthouse CEO Bryan Bashin. “We want to encourage the next generation of idealists and explorers to do things we will be proud of in the future,” he said.

Ustunel, a San Francisco resident and full-time teacher of the visually impaired, began his training in October. He will log more than 500 miles on San Francisco Bay and Lake Merced using a Hobie Mirage i12s inflatable kayak.

“Finally, I have my kayak, and it feels real now,” Ustunel said after testing the bright yellow watercraft for the first time near Jack London Square in Oakland. “I have a great feeling about this.”

During the solo mission, technology will serve as Ustunel’s only guidance partner. While researching adaptive equipment, Ustunel realized that identifying the proper technology would be more difficult than actually using it.

“It’s not a big physical challenge,” he said, noting he contacted hundreds of professionals in search of updated devices. “It’s more about finding the right technology,”

Ahmet Ustunel prepares to use his course keeper device while sailing at McCovey Cove in San Francisco, Friday, Sept. 22, 2017. (Sarahbeth Maney/Special to S.F. Examiner)

During his training, Ustunel will sample various improved inventions and prototypes; his global positioning system, compass and depth finder are all voice-operative, and he has ultrasound sensors to avoid obstacles.

A hard-shell kayak will be modified to endure the Bosporus’ narrow S-shaped channel, which separates the neighboring continents of Europe and Asia. Foot pedals will substitute for traditional hand paddles to give Ustunel control over the hand-held devices.

One device, known as a “course keeper,” will assist Ustunel in maneuvering through areas with water traffic and blockages. With more than 132 vessels in transit daily, the course keeper will allow Ustunel to set and maintain a specific path.

By assembling off-the-shelf technology similarly used in drones and space ships, AT&T’s Employee Research Group HACEMOS in Atlanta, Ga., has created a prototype of a course keeper based on audio signals instead of visual indicators. The original 4-year-old device was not accessible for those with visual impairments, according to AT&T project manager Marty Stone, who contributed to the prototype.

“It was developed for people to race each other in a straight line,” Stone said. “It certainly wasn’t meant to cross the Bosporus, but the good news is our group in Georgia wants to improve on the device.”

Navigating a course to a particular includes the uncertainty of crossing vessels, changing currents and unexpected landmarks, but Ustunel’s colleagues trust his natural senses to do so.

“The Bosporus is a busy place, where shipping is quite heavy, but Ahmet is very good at sensing where the wind is coming from,” said Doug Shaw, who was Ustunel’s sailing companion in San Diego.

Diane Poslosky, executive director of Environmental Traveling Companions, said Ustunel has utilized his own ability to sense distant sound. She recalled her first “aha” moment with Ustunel on a boating trip in Baja.

“He kept saying, ‘Do you hear that? It’s like a roar,’ and the next thing I knew, there were around 300 dolphins coming our way,” Poslosky said. “He heard it long before I did.”

For Ustunel, blindness is just one of his many defining qualities. “I am a kayaker, I am a male and I just happen to be blind,” he said, “but that is just one thing about me.”

Specializing in technology, math and science, Ustunel teaches all subjects using braille and adaptive technology to students in the San Francisco Unified School District between ages of 3 and 19.

After working as an educator for more than a decade, Ustunel’s teaching strategies have evolved with the extinction of closed-circuit television and large-print books in the classroom. By using the latest laptops and iPads capable of transmitting braille display, students are able to use the same stimulating technology as their peers.

Ahmet Ustunel speaks with an employee at California Canoe and Kayak in Oakland, Calif. Thursday, August 14, 2017. (Sarahbeth Maney/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Ustunel said he first learned to read and write with plastic magnetic letters after he became blind at the age of 3. Ustunel’s parents, who had minimal knowledge about the disability, encouraged him to participate in the same activities as sighted children.

“Family plays a really important role of a child with a disability,” Ustunel said. “They did the right thing by not restricting me from doing regular things.”

But when the time came to enroll in his first years of schooling, Ustunel was denied. “I was doing things the right way, but was not accepted into mainstream school,” he said, noting he was placed on a wait list for two years.

According to a 2014 study by the National Federation of the Blind, 31.5 percent of people with visual disabilities between the ages of 21 and 64 receive a high school diploma or GED, and 14.4 percent receive a bachelor’s degree or higher.

The challenges surrounding education did not hinder Ustunel from receiving a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Bosporus University and a master’s degree in special education from San Francisco State University, where his wife Dilara Yarbrough teaches public affairs and civic engagement.

“Over 13 years I’ve known Ahmet. I’ve watched him confront prejudice and discrimination countless times without giving up,” Yarbrough said. “Even when people tell him he can’t do something, his determination never wavers.”

Ustunel’s journey through the Bosporous Strait is planned for the summer of 2018, but he has already begun brainstorming his next venture: He hopes to start a training program and share similar tools with blind people who are also interested in pursuing water sports.

With a long journey still ahead, Ustunel believes his dream is more feasible than ever.

“I’ve already passed the biggest challenge,” Ustunel said, “which was to make people think it is possible.”

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