Idlewild transits the Northwest Passage
The 57-foot George Buehler design is the first trawler
yacht to make the treacherous passage across the Canadian Arctic in a single season
Idlewild is stranded on an ice floe near the Tasmania Islands in the Arctic, drifting at the will of Mother Nature for 24 hours. Photo by Canadian Coast Guard.
Idlewild has succeeded in making the treacherous Northwest Passage across North America—the first trawler yacht to accomplish the feat in a single season.
That’s not the only reason she’ll likely be known as the Incredible Idlewild before her voyage ends. Already, the label Crazy Canucks is perfectly appropriate.
Skippered by Ben Gray, 66, a bison rancher from Alberta, the 57-foot George Buehler custom design was one of six boats attempting the passage in 2005. Only two boats made it, and Idlewild was the only one to succeed without being towed.
Since the men of the historic Franklin expedition died on the barren ice 150 years ago, only about 23 yachts have made the passage, almost all of them sailboats.
For Gray, the Northwest Passage was only one chapter in an ongoing adventure that he hopes will conclude in a successful circumnavigation of the world. (As this report was being written, Idlewild was in the Canary Islands after calling at Greenland and the Azores since leaving the Arctic in late September 2005.)
If he is successful, Gray will be the first to circumnavigate—under sail or power—starting inland and using portages!
Gray's adventure on the high seas actually started 2,100 nautical miles from the ocean, near Grande Prairie, Alberta, where he owned a bison ranch until retiring in 2003. Prior to ranching for 15 years, Gray worked the oil patch for three decades. A drilling tool he invented for the oil industry is what financed the construction of Idlewild and the circumnavigation.
Departing on May 24, 2005, Idlewild followed the Peace River system—where twice the 15-ton boat had to be portaged—to Great Slave Lake and then rode the Mackenzie River to the Beaufort Sea and Arctic Ocean.
Idlewild had eight wheels temporarily welded on for the portages, 10 miles on the Peace River around the Vermillion Chutes and 13 miles on the Slave River.
Before Idlewild was pushed onto the ice, the 57-foot trawler yacht was packed in well and good. Photo by Kevin Gray from on board the CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier.
Aboard Idlewild, it’s a family affair
During the Northwest Passage, the cowboy-hat-topped Gray’s two sons, Brad, 38, and Kevin, 35, served as crew, together with family friends. Among the crew for the 1,100-mile Mackenzie were four grandchildren aged five to eightyears.
With an ever-present Stetson on his head, Ben Gray, is shown with sons Brad and Kevin who sailed with him through the Northwest Passage.
The narrow and shallow yacht designed by George Buehler and built byReyse Marine in Surrey, British Columbia. Here are the particulars:
LWL: 54’ 8”
Draft at DWL: 3’ 6”
Displacement: 30,248 lb
Finding a route through pack ice is a daunting task, with the ice grinding loudly against the aluminum hull. Photo by Troy Fimrite
Near the conclusion of the Northwest Passage, Idlewild did follow a Canadian Coast Guard ice breaker through a difficult stretch of ice. Earlier during the 51-day transit, when Idlewild was beached like an aluminum whale on a large ice floe, she accepted assistance from another CGG vessel to get back into the arctic water.
The assistance was neither requested or necessary, Gray wrote on his website, but he was grateful for it:
“We had based our plan of going into the ice on sound information of ice conditions, how the ice was changing and a favorable weather forecast. In hindsight ,we think there was a good likelihood of making it through unassisted, but it would have been foolhardy to turn down the offer of help.”
A folding chair on top of the wheelhouse is the best vantage point for Troy Fimrite to watch for open water ahead of Idlewild. Photo by Ben Gray
For the record, if Ben Gray’s circumnavigation succeeds, Idlewild will not be the first power yacht to circumnavigate the world via the Northwest Passage. That honor belongs to David Scott Cowper with Mabel E. Holland, a 42-foot converted lifeboat, who circumnavigated via the Northwest Passage in 1986-1990—singlehanded. Scott Cowper had already become the first singlehanded circumnavigator under power in 1984-85 with the same boat.
As background information on the Idlewild Expedition, click here to read the first post to Passagemaking Under Power List.
After clearing the Northwest Passage, Idlewild encounters one of many icebergs sailing in Baffin Bay. Photo by Kevin Gray from on board the tender Sidekick.