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Around the world by wheel and keel

Ben Gray and his sons complete a circumnavigation aboard the uniquely configured Idlewild

Ben Gray and his sons complete a circumnavigation aboard the uniquely configured Idlewild

Ben Gray and his sons this summer completed a circumnavigation via the Northwest Passage, and in addition to chalking up some firsts, they did just about everything they could with their 57-foot passagemaker except fly it.

They rode rapids and portaged around falls in Canada’s Northwest Territories. They broke through ice in Arctic fiords and slid down 30-foot seas in a North Atlantic gale. Now the three are home in Alberta, Canada, where they began this improbable adventure.

On May 23, 2005, they set out on their George Buehler-designed aluminum-hulled passagemaker, Idlewild, near Grande Prairie, Alberta, 2,000 miles from the sea. They motored down the Peace, Slave and Mackenzie rivers to the Beaufort Sea, and transited the Arctic Circle east from the Bering Strait to Greenland. Their Northwest Passage completed, the Canadians headed down the Atlantic, rounded the Cape of Good Hope and went on around the world, returning home Aug. 12, 2006.

Grande Prairie is in Alberta’s heartland, Canada’s version of Big Sky Country. The big skies inspire big dreams. “I always planned to build my own boat,” says Gray, 67. “Idlewild is all we hoped it would be.”

As was their grand adventure.

“The trip was more difficult, more dangerous and more expensive than I expected, but that only made it better,” Gray writes in an e-mail from home. There were some hairy parts. “Twice, on different days in different places in the Arctic, we dragged anchor at night in blinding snowstorms in uncharted bays. Both times we had zero visibility and could reference direction only by radar.”

Overcoming the challenges was satisfying, yet Gray says the best part of cruising around the world and logging 38,410 miles over 14 months was “completing the expedition with family and friends, and pretty much as planned and scheduled.” It was an enormous accomplishment for a novice boatman who had never been to sea before.

Gray was a wildcat oilman for 35 years, a bison rancher for 15. He says it had been his dream for 25 years to take a boat around the world. He approached Freedland, Wash., designer Buehler with a detailed conception of the vessel he wanted. It would have to make a 2,000-mile inland passage, portage around two falls along the way, navigate through ice across the frozen Northwest Passage, and motor around the world on open ocean. A tall order. A big dream.

Buehler, known for his cruising version of a Pacific salmon-trolling boat, built Gray an efficient, narrow-beam voyager similar in design to a commercial fishing vessel that trolls long distances with hook-and-line. It is a much different vessel than a trawler, which is built wide to carry a lot of fish or provide a lot of living space.

Idlewild measures 57 feet, with a slim 11-foot beam for efficient long-range cruising. Yet the boat sleeps four below and another in a sea berth in the wheelhouse — ample room for Gray, his sons Brad, 38, and Kevin, 35, and friends who joined them along the way.

She draws a modest 42 inches for running rivers, and a low center of gravity enables her to cross oceans. The aluminum hull — 1/4-inch on the sides, 5/16-inch on the bottom — is stout enough to take a beating as it bangs through Arctic ice. A 55-hp Kubota diesel pushes her at a cruising speed of 6.4 knots and a top speed of 10 knots. The engine burns 1.39 gallons per hour cruising, which translates to 4.57 miles per gallon.

Idlewild normally carries 1,000 gallons of fuel for a range of almost 5,000 miles. She made the longest known non-stop power-cruiser passage during the circumnavigation: 4,495 miles from South Africa to Australia. She arrived in Australia with just 25 gallons of fuel left in the tanks, though Gray had stored reserve fuel.

A unique feature is the eight wheels bolted and braced to the keel before launching on the Peace River. Idlewild rode the rivers through the second portage with wheels to keep the keel from banging bottom in shallows and rapids. A tractor hauled the 30,000-pound vessel out on its wheels at the portages, pulled it around the falls on trails or roads, and relaunched it downstream.

The boat works, and Buehler credits that to Gray, who had the vision to draw up a boat to do all he wanted it to do and the courage to challenge the conventional wisdom that his idea for such a boat was impractical.

“The only thing that’s stopping most people from doing something is that they’re afraid to try,” Buehler says. “That doesn’t stop Ben.”

Gray, who has designed and manufactured equipment for oil fields and holds numerous patents, designed the undercarriage and wheels himself. They may have saved Idlewild from devastating hull damage on the uncharted Peace River, which he thought was deeper at the Boyer Rapids than it is because of reports years ago of barges transiting them during spring flooding. But a dam built upriver had left the Peace shallower, so Idlewild grounded in the rapids and spent several days on the rocks. Gray managed to get the boat off with the help of spring rains and a crane and support vessel, which he lost in a tricky maneuver.

“This provided a very serious challenge, and we were lucky to get through in the time we did,” he writes in an e-mail from the Pacific.

Over the last three years, the Northwest Passage has been packed with ice in spring and summer, making the transit difficult and risky, Gray says. Idlewild had to pick her way through the ice, navigating between ice pans — sheets 6 to 10 feet thick — and sometimes pushing pans 100 feet across out of the way to clear a path. Idlewild was making the passage west to east with three other boats: soloist Gary Ramos’ Arctic Wanderer from Sitka, Alaska; an Australian boat, Fine Tolerance; and Minke 1, which had tried to complete the passage each summer since 2003. Arctic Wanderer had to stop for repairs and wintered in the Arctic in Cambridge Bay, and Minke 1 was stymied yet again, as well. Only Idlewild and Fine Tolerance finished the passage during the 2005 thaw, and they probably wouldn’t have made it without help from the Canadian icebreaker Sir Wilfred Laurier.

Gray describes how the boats were squeezed and pushed up onto ice that drifted down on them. “Yesterday continued to tighten ice around us,” he writes in one log entry. “We got squeezed up on top a couple times and slowly fell off. No exaggerated list at any time, but as the boat would slide up each time it would do it in jerks that sounded very loud as though someone was pounding on the hull with a very large hammer. … At 1400 yesterday our friends in Fine Tolerance decided to temporarily abandon their ship and come to ours, as their boat was listing seriously and they didn’t want to spend the night.”

Gray also tells of their anchor dragging one night in a rocky fiord during a blinding snowstorm. Using GPS, radar and a depth sounder, they identified a series of safe waypoints in the shape of a circle and spent the night motoring round and round and round.

All “landlubbers,” the Grays learned navigation, communications and seamanship from Ben Gray’s brother, Dale, a one-time commercial fisherman and offshore sailor, on a shakedown cruise off California. Gray says he was a quick study in navigation and boat handling, but getting the communications gear to work right and figuring out the vagaries of weather were “a challenge.”

The North Atlantic in October is just plain “bad,” he says. They sat out two hurricane-force storms in Greenland and the Azores. During one 45-knot gale, Idlewild surfed down 30-foot seas at 18 to 24 knots, convincing them they needed a second drogue to slow them down.

As if the weather weren’t enough to contend with, Idlewild encountered what Gray is pretty sure were pirates in Indonesia’s Banda Islands. They spotted a drifting boat 12 miles away on their radar. Alert to the danger in Indonesia’s pirate-infested waters, they kept their distance. But when they came just about abeam of the boat a mile away, it suddenly powered up, circled round and came straight toward them, as if to cut them off. Idlewild powered up to its top speed: 10 knots. Meanwhile, Kevin Gray went below, loaded a firearm and stationed himself very visibly on deck with gun prominently displayed as the boat crossed their bow about 100 yards away and kept on going.

“We felt they had definite intentions to bully us at the least and board us at the worst,” Gray says. He thought the gun and the military look of Idlewild’s unpainted aluminum hull may have scared them off.

The Grays stopped in Greenland, the Azores, South Africa and Australia, as well as some Pacific isles, Japan and Russia — where they were detained briefly over a Customs snafu — before making their way back to the Bering Strait, the starting point of their circumnavigation.

“We’ve been to some wonderful places and met some wonderful people,” Gray wrote in an e-mail while still in the Pacific. “Everywhere we go, we get questions: Where are you going? What are you doing? And they’ve been very helpful. We have a lot of friends along the trail.”

Gray says it’s nice to be home again, though “we always felt comfortable and were living normally [on Idlewild]. … I do miss the sea but have no plans to go back.” The boat, which now is in Vancouver, British Columbia, is for sale for $500,000 (Canadian), or about $440,000 (U.S.).

The Grays are the first circumnavigators to start inland, portage two rivers and transit the Northwest Passage. They also are the first to circumnavigate (from the Bering Strait) via the Northwest Passage in less than a year and first to make the Arctic passage west to east in a power yacht. (David Scott Cowper completed a single-handed east-to-west circumnavigation via the Northwest Passage from 1986 to 1990.)

Gray sold his ranch before setting off on this adventure and plans to spend time with his family now. But he’s already mulling another project, one he has had in mind for 20 years: to explore North America’s rivers. Details are still under wraps, but Gray doesn’t dream small. Count on it: This adventure will be another big one.