"How nice," Ismail Kurtoglu said into the phone at his ear. "I'm on a boat. You're on a boat.

"Which boat are you on?"

The salesman listened, on a bench at the stern of the H/M Besiktas I. The sun shone. The water lapped. Still moored to a dock on the European side of Istanbul's gloriously divided downtown, the city ferry was taking on the last of its passengers for the shortest of intercontinental voyages, 20 minutes across the Bosporus Strait to Asia.

"It's going to Kadikoy now," Kurtoglu said, naming the ferry station on the far shore. Then down to business. "How much are they? What are you saying? They used to be 50 million a month ago!"

The boat had three decks, and on the two that were not fitted out with padded chairs and potted plants -- the two that were not the wheelhouse -- passengers scurried for favorite seats. At 1:42 on a sunny weekday afternoon in November, the atmosphere was that of an outing.

"You're taking me up, then you're taking me down," a young man with greasy blond hair told the friend he followed back down metal steps. "Decide."

"No," a teenage girl told her friend, flouncing into a seat by the window, "we don't want to get ill. We should sit inside."

On the stern deck, five boys settled into the rows of wooden benches facing the sea and immediately regretted their choice. A matronly woman on the next bench lectured them for not wiping clean the lip of their canned sodas before sipping. One of the boys headed back to the concession stand for straws.

At 1:52, two minutes late, the sea behind the boat boiled green and white as the twin props pushed the Besiktas into the bustling strait. Viewed from far overhead, from the vantage point of wheeled traffic crawling across the two suspension bridges that span the Bosporous, the waterway might be a gorgeous petri dish, two dozen vessels plowing wakes in every direction.

At sea level, it's all glide. The greatest mosques of the Ottoman Empire slid past in silhouette. Fishermen cast from the banks below Topkapi Palace. Off starboard, a car ferry shaped like a turtle. A man put down his newspaper to watch.

In the main shipping lane, the Besiktas swung almost 90 degrees to avoid the Zim Novorossiysk, a freighter out of Valletta, Malta, stacked with steel containers towering six stories over its deck. Then it's a straight line to the massive railway station named Haydar Pasha, the only stop before Kadikoy. At 3:13, passengers leapt the last six inches to Asia and hurried toward the terminal.

Upstairs, on the bridge made homey by the crew that sometimes works for days at a time, a young man reached for the meaty hand of Capt. Ismet Coskun, kissed it, and pressed it to his own forehead. Can Sumbuloglu was an intern on the Besiktas a year ago. For old time's sake he would steer the vessel back to Europe.

That put him not at the classic spoked wheel of wood and brass, now used only for backup, but at a rubber-coated joystick on a console with arrows labeled port and starboard. The captain stood a few feet to the right, his hands on the classic U-shaped levers that run the props forward, backward or neutral. Every shift was answered with a hiss, like air brakes.

"Don't go too close," the captain said as the boat neared a barge anchored near the middle of the strait. Hundreds of feet below, Japanese contractors were digging a tunnel for the subway that in two or three years will let people cross the Bosporous without seeing it.

Coskun held his arms out from his side. "You can feel the pull of the water," he said.

Another docking, another run to Asia. As the light dimmed, Ugur Ozkan, an accountant riding the ferry for the first time in a month, stood on the bottom deck and lifted his camera phone to eye level. It framed a view of palace, sea and white clouds in wisps like horse tails. He took the picture.

The mood descended with the sun. In the warmth of the forward cabin, languor hung in silence broken now by the chirp of a cell phone, now by a girl asking her friend whether her hat came too low on her brow -- "It looks fine." The Besiktas idled as well, awaiting a place at a pier slowly filling for the evening rush.

A woman and a man leaned into each other on a brown bench. A businessman cradled his leather case on his lap and his head against the window, asleep. Beyond the glass was a railing thick with white paint, then a patch of gray water, then another waiting ferry with the entire scene in obverse.

Viewed from a ferry deck, a Turkish police boat maneuvers near pier on European side of Istanbul.