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August Men In Motion | Ahmet Ustunel

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MEN IN MOTION

Editor’s Note:

Bold Blind Beauty, home of Beyond Sight Magazine, is an empowering online community that connects blind and sighted people while eradicating misconceptions about blindness and sight loss. We’ve found that when we are open to the idea of limitless possibilities our preconceived notions dissipate. The people we feature aren’t extraordinary because they are living with sight loss, however, they’ve worked hard to adapt to a new way of living. Today, in our August Men In Motion, you’ll meet Ahmet Ustunel known as The Blind Captain. Ahmet is the first blind person to kayak solo from Asia to Europe, crossing the Bosphorous Strait. We’ve also provided a transcript of the YouTube audio below. Enjoy!

Transcript

Nasreen Bhutta:

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Welcome to Bold Blind Beauty and Beyond Sight magazine, an online community where real beauty transcends barriers. Bold Blind Beauty’s 2020 A Year Of Vision campaign also celebrates blind and visually impaired men. I am your host, Nasreen. For our August segment of Men In Motion, our featured guest is The Blind Captain himself, Ahmet Ustunel. With an adventurous spirit, he was able to kayak solo. Yes, kayak solo via the Bosphorus Strait, a 3.5-mile route. Let’s all give a warm welcome to Captain Ahmet. Hey, Ahmet.

Ahmet Ustunel:

Ahoy, everyone. This is Ahmet, The Blind Captain. Thanks for having me.

Nasreen Bhutta:

Thank you for joining us. What inspired you to become an ocean lover and to be known as The Blind Captain?

Ahmet Ustunel:

I grew up by the ocean, so I spend a lot of time swimming, fishing, doing all sorts water activities when I was a kid. Since then, since I was very little, three, four years old, water was my favorite place, and I continue to do sports, water sports, even after I moved to US. And then I became The Blind Captain around 2018 by crossing the Bosphorus solo.

Nasreen Bhutta:

You went on a kayak, which incidentally is called or known as a smart kayak. What does that mean?

Ahmet Ustunel:

Smart kayak, when I first started thinking about it, it was a kayak that can, pretty much similar to self-driving cars. I was actually inspired by self-driving cars, seeing them around on the street in San Francisco. I thought, wow if cars can navigate around the city, densely populated and a lot of traffic, it could be much easier, it should be much easier on the water. That’s how I started. It was just an idea. I was planning to do something in the future. This was probably the early 2000s when self-driving cars were just starting. And then in 2017, there was an award given by the Lighthouse For The Blind called Holman Prize named after James Holman, which was a British Navy officer and an adventurer, a traveler. He was the most traveled person in the world at his time, and he wrote some bestsellers book. And then for some reason after a while, he was forgotten.

To honor him, Lighthouse started this award program called Holman Prize. I applied with my project and I got the Holman Prize in 2017, and then the design process started. I start putting a whole bunch of technologies together to create this smart kayak. The smart kayak, again, means a kayak with all the technologies that allow a blind person paddle solo.

Nasreen Bhutta:

First of all, I just want to backtrack a little bit here. For those who don’t know where the Bosphorus Strait is, can you share that information with us?

Ahmet Ustunel:

Bosphorus Strait is a body of water between Europe and Asia. It is located in Turkey. It’s a geographical border separating Europe and Asia. It’s a symbolic place. I did my crossing there because that’s the area I grew up around, and I used to sit around Bosphorus when I was in middle school, high school, and imagine one day I should be able to paddle, or sail, or use a fishing boat around here. I remember then, we were studying Greek mythology in high school. There was a Greek hero called King Phineas. He was blind. He used to guide sailors through Bosphorus from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. Although he’s blind, he was able to do this. I was really inspired by reading those Greek mythologies because usually blindness or blind people are portrayed not as heroes, not that often.

Nasreen Bhutta:

That’s so true.

Ahmet Ustunel:

That’s why I was thinking, I will be King Phineas one day. Even if I cannot guide other sailors, I will just guide myself.

Nasreen Bhutta:

You were talking a few minutes about the smart kayak and certain technologies. Can you tell us a little bit about those certain technologies?

Ahmet Ustunel:

For an autonomous, or let’s say semi autonomous kayak or any vehicle, a couple of things are must. The first one is a navigation system. It is pretty available and simple. It is a GPS system that will tell you how to get from point A to point B. That was the first system we put together by using some satellite GPS systems and something similar to autopilot. We recorded different plots on the Bosphorus or around my training sites. It actually kind of creates a geo-fence around the route you are going to take. If you deviate from your course, it lets you know by saying, “Oh, you are five degrees off to the West, so come back to East a little bit until you get back.” It keeps warning you. It’s basically very similar to autopilot.

The other system you need is an obstacle avoidance to avoid any kind of collision on the water, which-

Nasreen Bhutta:

Absolutely.

Ahmet Ustunel:

… which we tried whole bunch of things and hacks. This is a lot more complicated and expensive area of autonomous vehicles, especially on the water. You are using a lot of sensors, which cannot be as accurate as on the land because light reflects from the water and you have a constant motion up and down with the waves. So the sensors are not very reliable. That was the hard part. The third one is also getting to know the traffic. The area I was crossing is one of the busiest water channels in the world, so there are a lot of huge tankers and freighters are coming back and forth from Black Sea to Mediterranean. It was like crossing a highway, so I need to know which freighters are coming and how long they are going to take to reach me all that stuff. And then for that, we used Marine Data System.

And so, those were the three main technologies we focused on. But depending on the area you are working or depending on the watercraft you are going to adapt, these technologies might slightly differ. But I would say the three main things you need are navigation, obstacle avoidance, and the traffic control. So-

Nasreen Bhutta:

Being completely blind, how did you train for this solo journey?

Ahmet Ustunel:

How did I train? Well, the training also had a couple of different areas I needed to train for. First of all, I need physical training to be able to cross. Well, it was not a very long distance, but it could be very choppy and it has a strong current. So even if it is not a long distance, it requires a certain physical stamina. I also need to cross it quickly without getting caught in the traffic, right?

Nasreen Bhutta:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Ahmet Ustunel:

That’s why I needed some physical training. I put a goal for myself. I said, “Before the crossing, I’m going to paddle 500 miles in eight months.” I get up at 5:00 AM every Saturday, Sunday morning, I went to my training site, paddled 20, 25 miles a day. And then before the crossing, actually I exceeded my goal. I paddle about 650 miles or so. That was the easy part, physical training. Rain or shine, I get up and do my paddling, and I was in good shape. And then I also needed training with the technology because we were … remember, this technology, I didn’t have. We were developing it at the same time. Whenever we have a new software or hardware, I used to take it with me to my training site and try it on the water and give a report back to the engineers. “This works, this doesn’t work, let’s change this, let’s add this feature.” It was constantly changing. That required a lot of tech training. And also, I feel like I trained myself emotionally as well because there were a lot of ups and downs during those eight, nine months.

Well, the basic, the easiest thing was the challenge with technology. Something fails and then we say, “Oh, this doesn’t work and we don’t have that much time. We have like three months, what are we going to do? We need to find a plan B or replace this technology with something else.” And then that is the type of thing I can deal better because it was a troubleshooting issue, and I like problem solving and working on that kind of stuff. That didn’t affect me that much. But more than that, there were times people were discouraging or my project almost stopped by the Coast Guard and they didn’t allow me to do this and people were like, “Oh, why are you going to do this solo? You can just sit on a tandem kayak and paddle with a sighted person. Why are you even trying this?” That kind of stuff took more energy for me to deal with. That’s why I need to train myself also emotionally, just close my ears and not to listen to people. That was-

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Nasreen Bhutta:

It’s a good thing you didn’t listen to them.

Ahmet Ustunel:

… a hard part of the training. Yeah.

Nasreen Bhutta:

Good thing you did close your ears. I’ve been actually on a paddle boat which is kind of like a kayak, and you do have to paddle. Yeah, I could see you having to really physically train that paddle, sitting in a position in such a manner just on top of the water like that. What-

Ahmet Ustunel:

Exactly, but that was the fun part because for me, any time on the water is fine. I love it, so I didn’t regret any second of it.

Nasreen Bhutta:

Ahmet, can you share some of the challenges that you encountered during your trip?

Ahmet Ustunel:

Well, challenges, I mentioned a little bit about the challenges. Most challenges were actually easy to handle, like dealing with technology. We had a lot of trial and error with the technology because everything was new. The team working with me were all volunteers, so they were professional engineers, but they were just spending their own personal time on this. It was kind of hard to finish things quickly, so things were taking time and we were constantly changing things. But as I said, that kind of challenge was easy to handle because I like working on tech. The biggest challenge, as I said, was dealing with people and the negative ideas about the projects. The other stuff I don’t see as challenge. I capsized multiple times in the winter in 45 degree water.

Nasreen Bhutta:

Cold.

Ahmet Ustunel:

I got pneumonia. I don’t know, I got caught in 30, 35 mile wind, had to wait six hours to be able to get back to the land. All that stuff I don’t see as challenge. They were mishaps, yes. It could happen to anyone, any time. But I was prepared. I was prepared for that kind of-

Nasreen Bhutta:

Yeah, you absolutely were. One other thing I wanted to ask you is, did you have any sponsorship behind you? You keep mentioning a team. Was there any company sponsoring it?

Ahmet Ustunel:

Oh, yeah. I had a lot of sponsors. The main sponsor of course, was the Lighthouse For The Blind Holman Prize. They paid for all the equipment, expenses, and travel and all that stuff.

Nasreen Bhutta:

Oh, great.

Ahmet Ustunel:

Other than that, I had Hobie Kayaks was one of my sponsors. The volunteer engineer team was from AT&T. Although the company didn’t sponsor the engineers, that’s organized and created a workforce group for this project. Those were the main sponsors.

Nasreen Bhutta:

A lot of folks in our community are actually still applying for Holman Prize. It seems to be a big thing each year. Let’s see what other amazing things come out of that venture from Holman Prize.

Ahmet Ustunel:

I definitely encourage anyone to apply for the next round because it’s not only gives you the opportunity to realize your dreams by sponsoring you, and also it helps you to connect with other prize winners and other people with great ideas. Now, this will be the fifth year, I think. Next year will be the fifth year. That’ll be a big group of people helping each other and giving ideas and exchanging great projects.

Nasreen Bhutta:

One quote that I absolutely love from your bio is when you’re talking about blindness as a characteristic rather than being a limitation for a person. What does this mean? Why is this important to you? Because I’ve never heard it spun like that before.

Ahmet Ustunel:

Well, this is the approach or philosophy I grew up with, I would say, learning from other blind mentors, blind people I met when I was younger. But it means briefly, we have a lot of adjectives, a lot of characteristics that define us. I am Turkish, I am blind. I am medium height, I am 40 years old, I have black hair. You know?

Nasreen Bhutta:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Ahmet Ustunel:

I can count hundreds of characteristics about myself, and blindness is just one of them.

Nasreen Bhutta:

One of them, yes.

Ahmet Ustunel:

It doesn’t have to be the most important one. It doesn’t have to be a negative one. Each characteristics actually has brought negative, positive or neutral implications. But how we define it is because of the physical environment or the social prejudice, or negative perceptions, it could be negative or positive. Blindness, unfortunately, because of the prejudice and the social barriers, it could perceive as a negative characteristic, but it doesn’t have to be. It doesn’t have to be. So that’s why I just see it as a characteristic, not a defining underlining aspect of myself.

Nasreen Bhutta:

Who is your major influencer?

Ahmet Ustunel:

I don’t have one person I can tell I was looking up for this person. But when I was younger at around 14, 15, I start thinking about kind of like my future as a blind person, where I am and where I was, and what I’m going to do in the future. And around that time, I didn’t have really good cane skills. I was about to start high school and I was thinking, I cannot rely on my friends all the time to go places. I need to do my own thing. And then I convinced my parents to take me to this organization, a blindness organization in Turkey. I met some blind university students, blind college students. They were just ordinary blind people doing their own thing, studying and having an independent life. They had girlfriends, they were partying, they were doing cool stuff. I was like, okay, that is how I am going to be. I will just be a normal person, do normal things as a blind person. After seeing those people around 14, 15, I felt like cool, so I will be one of those people, just do ordinary stuff, regular stuff, and don’t worry about it that much. I think meeting other blind people doing ordinary things and being successful was a big influence on me. I cannot say just one person, but the event, just meeting other mentors.

Nasreen Bhutta:

Finally, if you can describe yourself in one word, what would that be?

Ahmet Ustunel:

I would say adventure. I love trying new things, being adventurous. That keeps me going. I always have a new idea and something new to try.

Nasreen Bhutta:

Captain, how can we all reach you?

Ahmet Ustunel:

All right, you guys can find me online on social media. You can check my Facebook page Ahmet, A-H-M-E-T, Blind Captain. And also my website, http://www.theblindcaptain.com. And my email, you can shoot me an email, again, my name A-H-M-E-T at theblindcaptain.com. If you guys have an idea to share or if you’re a kayaker or sailor or rower, any person who is interested in water sports and learn about the techniques or the technology, you can just shoot me an email. Yeah, hope to hear from you guys.

Nasreen Bhutta:

Thanks, Ahmet, for sharing your incredible journey with us and being our man in motion for August, 2020. You can find Ahmet’s journey and so much more in Beyond Sight magazine at http://www.boldblindbeauty.com. Thanks for listening.

Connecting With Ahmet:

Bio:

Ahmet Ustunel AKA The Blind Captain is a Teacher of the Visually Impaired at the San Francisco Unified School District. He enjoys teaching Braille, Assistive Technology and life skills to support blind and visually impaired students in achieving their dreams. 

Originally from Turkey, Ahmet won the Holman Prize in 2017 and was the first blind person to kayak solo from Asia to Europe, crossing the Bosphorous Strait. In 2019 he founded an outdoor adventure club for the Blind in Turkey called Sports for Everyone because he believes in the power of nature and physical activity to create opportunities for Blind communities and transform public perception of blindness. 

You can read more about him and his upcoming projects at www.theblindcaptain.com.

Image Descriptions:

  1. Featured image is the Beyond Sight Magazine cover. Ahmet trains for his crossing of the Bosphorus Strait. He stares ahead determinedly as a large wave on his left catches the sunlight and lifts his kayak. In the distance, a bridge connects Europe and Asia. Green trees surround the Hisar castle on the European shore. The masthead is teal with “Beyond Sight Magazine” in black text. The dot on the ‘i’ in ‘sight’ is the eye used for our 2020 Year of Vision Campaign (described HERE). There are 3 lines of text that say “Ahmet Ustunel The Blind Captain From Asia To Europe.” In the bottom left corner is a teal circle with an illustration of a blind man in motion with his white cane and “Men In Motion” is in yellow text under the circle.
  2. Ahmet smiles as he paddles in the Bosphorus Strait of Istanbul, Turkey in a specially equipped kayak with the words “Ahmet Ustunel The Blind Captain” emblazoned on the side. He paddles the Hobie kayak with his feet resting on foot pedals that move through the water, and a traditional kayak paddle in his hands.
  3. Ahmet kayaks in Tomales Bay, USA. He smiles as he lifts his paddle and moves over calm waters. Green hills dot the landscape in the background.
  4. YouTube thumbnail is a closeup photo of a ship’s wheel with ropes, sails, water, and another boat in the background.
CREDITS:

2 thoughts on “August Men In Motion | Ahmet Ustunel

  1. amazing post!!!

    1. Thank you!!

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