Honoring Swanson in Dunnell Minnesota.

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June 27, 2011
Lee Smith – Staff Writer , Fairmont Sentinel
DUNNELL – Life-changing. People who spend time sailing with Roger Swanson of rural Dunnell describe their experiences that way.

They are talking about two things: Time spent on the open ocean and in special places around the world. And time spent with the benevolent dictator they call captain.

Swanson has been sailing, and taking friends on adventures, since the early 1950s. You can collect a lot of shipmates in 60 years, as evidenced Saturday on his rural Dunnell farm. He and his wife, Gaynelle Templin, hosted 129 people who have sailed with Swanson over the decades on three different boats.
Roger Swanson, middle, in blue shirt, stands amid family and friends at his rural Dunnell farm on Saturday. The gathering, to help mark his 80th birthday, brought together more than 120 people who have sailed all over the world with Swanson.

“It’s the largest gathering of saltwater sailors in Minnesota, as far as I know,” Swanson said with a smile.

He understood the irony of inviting all these folks to a Minnesota farmstead. While landlubbers may shake their heads, those in attendance didn’t seem to mind. Swanson has been bringing people to odd locations for a very long time.

This was attested to Saturday, as people described long flights to remote airfields, followed by bus and cab rides to get to the anchorages where Swanson awaited them. Why did they go? Swanson would ask: Why not?

“The difference between an adventure and an ordeal is attitude,” he says.

Saturday’s reunion doubled as an 80th birthday party for Swanson, who is also coming off the remarkable feat of having sailed through the Northwest Passage, from eastern Canada through to Alaska, in 2007. No other American sailor had ever done this. The 6,600-mile voyage took 73 days aboard the 57-foot boat, Cloud Nine.

“We just happened to hit it at the right time, I guess,” Swanson said. He had made two previous tries at the passage.

Swanson also has sailed around the world three times. His trips with friends have included every continent, even Antarctica. His last sailing trip was in April, and he says he is now ready to sell Cloud Nine.

But the memories remain strong.

Bill Kronschnabel of St. Paul served as master of ceremonies Saturday as people shared their tales of the sea. Kronschnabel said he was glad all Swanson’s shipmates got a chance to gather in one place, because they did not all sail together, but probably have heard stories about each other.

“These are people living in very close confines (aboard boat),” he said. “Then, as life happens, we go our separate ways.”

Kronschnabel and others described “Rogerisms,” or trends on voyages. Such as putting up a sail, even though everyone knows it will have to be taken down in 45 minutes. Or being the boat out in the furthest anchorage. Or being the first boat to sail in the morning. Or seeing Swanson’s tail in the air and head below deck as he works on the engine. Or getting strict instructions from him on toilet paper rations. Or getting their kitchen assignment. Or only putting on classical music.

“But there are good reasons for it all,” Kronschnabel said. “Good lessons. It’s about seamanship. It’s about getting along with people.”

Sue McNab of Seattle described a little test Swanson gave her. She said he told her that if she could take Cloud Nine through a narrow breach in a reef, he would let her go to the arctic with him. She passed the test, and so began her adventures with Swanson.

“It’s been an incredible ride,” she said.

One of Swanson’s oldest friends, Wampy Friel – the two went to kindergarten and high school together – says he remembers a voyage near Fiji during which the boat was tossed by huge waves and heavy winds. It was Friel’s first time in a sailboat. He recalls going up on deck and seeing Swanson, calm as could be, taking a reading with a sextant.

Dr. Scott Nickerson, who grew up in Fairmont, remembered Swanson taking sailing lessons from Nickerson’s father. When Scott Nickerson finally sailed with Swanson in 1989, his profession came in handy. Swanson was having chest pains, and the doctor finally convinced him to leave the trip to seek medical attention. Swanson recalled the event well. He said it took him 40 hours of flying to get back home. And while he worried about leaving behind his boat to his wife and crew, they worried about him. It took two weeks for both sides to find out the other was OK.

It’s that kind of caring – back and forth – that Saturday was all about. Swanson reiterated the point.

“The most important thing about [time spent sailing] is the people I meet,” he said. “It’s people that make the whole thing great.”

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