Bison Ranchers head for Indonesia’s Pirate Waters

Bison bull
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Running a bison ranch in Alberta Canada does not, on the face of it, seem a likely preparation for undertaking a world circumnavigation, especially not via the pretty scary North West Passage.

But that’s what Jim Farrell reported for the Edmonton Journal last week, when he caught up with the ‘quixotic’ cruiser as he left Darwin, Australia on the home stretch of the round world cruise. The boat is now headed for Indonesian waters - where the reports of piracy are high every year – waters they must pass on the way to Palau Island and Japan, their next ports of call.

Read Jim’s account:

Its bottom freshly painted, a boat captained by a 67-year-old retired Alberta bison rancher is on the home stretch of a quixotic round-the-world cruise via the Northwest Passage.

The 11-metre-long, 3.3-metre-wide Idlewild would have impressed few weekend yachtsmen as it chugged out of the northern Australian port of Darwin last week. Its workaday lines and blocky wheelhouse lack the style and panache of yachting's stylish 'gin palaces.'

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(Photo, left:Ben Gray, centre, and sons Brad, left, and Kevin stand in front of their 57-foot boat which has just received a fresh coat of anti-fouling paint, courtesy of Canadian ex-pat George LaSette who runs a small boatyard in Darwin, Australia.)

People more accustomed to recreational boats might have wondered why Ben Gray and sons Brad and Kevin seemed only to idle their engine as they headed northeast into the waters of Indonesia on their way to the Micronesian island of Palau.

'This is cruising speed,' Gray explained to a Journal reporter earlier as they headed out for a day of fishing. That trip landed three small sharks and one tiny mullet. The sharks were thrown back. The mullet became bait.

The distances and the difficulties encountered by the $500,000 purpose-built Idlewild would stagger any weekend boater.

To date, the boat's 55-horsepower diesel has pushed it 46,000 kilometres, mostly at a leisurely but economical 12 km/h.


Bison ranch
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The voyage began last May 24 when Idlewild left dockside beneath the Dunvegan Bridge in Peace River country. The Grays sailed and portaged their way to the Arctic Ocean, establishing a 'furthest west' point in the Bering Strait.

It turned east to battle the ice of the Northwest Passage, escaping into the Atlantic thanks in large part to a Canadian icebreaker that pushed it off a huge ice floe and into clear water.

Idlewild made it to Greenland in early October and refilled its 3,800-litre fuel tank before motoring south to Capetown, South Africa, and east across 9,000 kilometres of open sea to Australia.

'What are you guys doing here?' Canadian expatriate George LaSette called out to Gray as Idlewild docked in Darwin on March 28 after a relaxing cruise up the west coast of Australia. LaSette had spotted the large Canadian flag waving from Idlewild's bow and a smaller Alberta flag at its stern.


LaSette was a lucky find. A native of the Queen Charlotte Islands, he has lived in Australia for the past 38 years and now owns a small Darwin boatyard.

Gray told LaSette he was concerned about the vegetation and coral that covered Idlewild's bottom, slowing it down and burning up precious fuel. LaSette offered to hoist the boat out of the water and have a worker blast the gunk off with a high-pressure washer.

When much of Idlewild's anti-fouling paint came off in the wash, LaSette offered to have his workers apply a fresh coat. That happened Monday, during a brief, six-hour lull in the monsoon rains that lash the northern Australian coast at this time of year.

LaSette charged nothing for his services.

'I just want to help out this great adventure,' he said.

Australian waters weren't so kind. Monsoon season is also cyclone season. Two weeks ago, 300 km/h winds levelled houses and orchards on the northeast coast of Australia.

Click Heresame to write to Sail-World’s Cruising Editor about this article