The Strait of Istanbul is one of the most congested and risky waterways in the world. Navigation patterns have been investigated using Automatic Indentification System (AIS) data collected over a long period. 1·5 billion AIS messages, gathered over a year from 309,000 moving vessels in the Strait were stored in a Structured Query Language (SQL) database. Grid-based analysis is used to track the time, number, position, type, dimension, heading, speed and course over ground of ships. Local traffic, whose effect on maritime risk has often been neglected, is found to dominate transit traffic by a ratio of eight to one. Vessel distributions indicate that the most common lengths of vessels are 100 m and 170 m. Draught analysis shows a net transfer of goods from north to south. Southbound vessels are more likely to exceed the enforced speed limit due to predominant currents. Courses indicate that the local traffic strongly affects navigation patterns, especially at sectors with sharp turns. All these results help to understand the navigation patterns of ships and give the necessary input to assist in predicting maritime risk.