Updated 3/26/2015: “I’ve been laughed at and ridiculed,” says the man who owns Yellowknife’s newest mode of transport.
Peter Basko is 67 years old, and has lived in Yellowknife for 25 years.
Formerly a mechanic, the German native wanted to retire. So he found what he calls a ‘hobby’: a 12-seater Canair 512 hovercraft.
“Technically, it’s an aircraft, but it’s registered as a boat,” he explains, with pride, as we take a tour.
The hovercraft is expected to make an appearance at this week’s Long John Jamboree – but, after months of work, Basko is not convinced it’s quite ready to take passengers this weekend. You can look, but you can’t ride.
Nancy MacNeill, the Jamboree’s executive director, can’t wait until it’s fully functional.
“Oh my gosh, it’s going to be so fun. We’re really excited,” she told Moose FM. “The 1980s kid in me is just losing my mind. I’m going to get to go on a hovercraft.
“It’s going to be such a cool, new way to check out Yellowknife.”
The orange beast arrived just after Christmas, following a months-long hunt by Basko for the perfect machine.
He had a very specific model in mind: one with twin engines, allowing it to crawl home safely if one engine has trouble. He doesn’t want to end up stranded in the dead of winter.
“I’d seen some on the net, smaller ones,” he told Moose FM. “So then I looked into the bigger, commercial ones and I found this.
“They’re built in northern Ontario, which is the same climate as here. I contacted the manufacturer, which had changed hands a few times, and I discovered they had produced seven of them.”
Find out more: Canair 512 hovercraft info
Getting a similar one, new, would cost more than $600,000 according to Basko. Any bigger than this, and new machines run into millions of dollars.
That meant tracking down a second-hand one.
“I found this one in Des Moines, Iowa,” says Basko, matter-of-factly. “So I went down there and did a test drive.”
He liked what he saw, but needed to find a little extra cash to meet the asking price. That’s where the laughter and ridicule came in.
“I was told, ‘It’s not going to work here,'” he recalls. “But I know it does.”
Eventually, he convinced someone to back him and managed to outbid a hovercraft operator in Manitoba, who had been looking to acquire this one as a backup.
The hovercraft, while large at 22 feet by 11 feet, was small enough to fit on the back of a truck once stripped down a little.
“It just cost the regular trucking costs to get it here,” says Basko. “I was trying to get a nine-seater situated in Turkey, but that would have cost $13,000 to bring over.”
So here it is. Bright orange and raring to go – almost.
Basko has endured three months, since it arrived, of trying to get the hovercraft to work reliably. It turned out, once it got here, that much work was needed. This hovercraft has not only seen service in Iowa – it has also, apparently, served some time in Australia, so it’s fair to say the machine has been around the block.
On top of that, the bitter cold of much of January and February meant Basko couldn’t persuade the machine to start, requiring yet more patience.
However, once up and running, he has grand plans to provide visitors with unique tours of Yellowknife Bay and Back Bay, year-round.
“It’ll be chartered, taking small groups,” he says. “I don’t want to just do trips with one or two people.
“We’ve already had requests from some companies which want their employees to have a ride in it.”
Off the top of his head, he imagines tickets might cost $50 for a half-hour ride, but that isn’t definite.
For Basko, the real source of pride is in giving a fun adventure or two back to the community which offered him a home.
“I came on a 30-day job and on my second day I just said, I’m home,” he remembers. “I felt like I belonged here. I’ve been on either coast, I’ve been living in many other places, and nowhere else did I feel at home. This is my home.
“But I didn’t want to continue working as a mechanic, so this is my retirement.
“You’re supposed to have a hobby. Many people don’t have a hobby – they work until they drop dead, till 70 or 75, and I don’t want to.
“This is a nice hobby… which also happens to make money.”