Minnesota Public Radio

Of Sea Legs and Solid Ground
By Cara Hetland
January 30, 2001

A retired pig farmer from a land-locked state receives one of the most prestigious international awards in the world of sailing. Roger Swanson is receiving the “Blue Water Medal” from the Cruising Club of America. The medal is awarded to yachtsmen and women who compile impressive long-distance sailing records. Swanson still owns farmland in southern Minnesota, but his circumnavigations aboard a 57-foot sailboat mean Roger Swanson is more familiar with ‘sea legs’ than solid ground.

(Photo courtesy of Roger Swanson)

FARM FIELDS AND WIND BREAKS, not water, make up the horizon in Dunnell, Minnesota. The town of less than 200 hugs the Iowa border in western Minnesota. The Swanson farmstead offers a familiar array: homes for several generations and outbuildings. But stepping through the front door is startling.
African masks, world maps and exotic plants fill the entry way. Near the piano, a hand-woven Afghani rug picturing patterns of war tanks and hand grenades.

The Swanson basement is a museum of sorts, filled with items from journeys representing nearly every culture in every corner of the world. Each item has a story; there’s a hand-carved wooden bowl gotten in trade for a pair of shorts; on another table, a ceremonial wedding belt used by African tribes as a reverse dowry. Swanson points to a photograph of two women holding out hands with missing fingers. In remote New Guinea, Swanson says tradition calls for women to cut off a finger as a way to show grief when a family member dies. The tool they use, sits on a table.

“This is just a stone that’s been ground somehow to a not-very-sharp edge and it’s wrapped in a combination of weaving and braiding to hold it,” Swanson says. “They’ll put the woman’s finger on a block and whack it off and it probably doesn’t come off very cleanly.”

Roger Swanson says when he sails, he sees a view of life unfiltered by the tourism industry. He’s acquired a matter-of-fact, nonjudgmental attitude about what he sees.

Swanson started out as a hobby sailor; using a time-share boat four weeks out of the year to cruise the Caribbean. Then, mid-life hit.

“A rather funny thing happened on my 50th birthday,” he says.

He didn’t take turning 50 well.

“My daughter, who was 17 at the time, rather flippantly said, ‘Well Dad, when are you going to sail around the world?’ She was just trying to be smart, but she kind of caught me on that. So I made the decision that night.”

Swanson, leaving his seasick-proned daughter behind, took his two sons – one 13 and the other 24 – on what would be a 28-month trip around the world.

“We started in Miami and we just kept going west. We went through both canals and kept going west until we hit Miami again,” Swanson says.

Swanson has also sailed to Antarctica twice and attempted the Northwest Passage, reaching the village of Resolute before being stopped by solid, impenetrable pack ice. His 57-foot, double-masted ketch-style boat named Cloud Nine was the first sailing vessel under a U.S. flag to ever reach Resolute.

He’s been around Cape Horn three times and his most recent trip toured abandoned Pacific islands used as World War II battle grounds.

“My wife would ask what they want to trade for? They’d say soap or shampoo. We left that area with no soap on the boat because we traded it all.”

– Roger Swanson

Swanson doesn’t take traditional routes. Iowa native David Thorson has sailed with Roger Swanson several times. Thorson says a typical circumnavigation is about 27,000 nautical miles.
“Roger’s typical circumnavigation would be 80,000 nautical miles or 100,000 nautical miles, because he doesn’t take the traditional route and that’s what makes his cruising so interesting and that’s why he’s being recognized. He’ll do a circumnavigation by way of Antarctica and Alaska and South Africa and he just trots all over the world.

“He enjoys the sailing but he rally enjoys the stopping and exploring and doing some inland traveling and collecting and talking to the inland people where ever they are, and he loves to trade,” says Thorson.

Since his first trip in 1982, Swanson has settled into an unusual schedule for a former farmer. He sails for three months and returns to the farm for three months.

Gaynelle Templin sails with her husband as well as a permanent crewman; they rotate other crew and visitors. Cloud Nine sleeps six with a full kitchen and meeting area. They buy food in local markets but make the most of their time in port talking and trading with locals.

“Particularly little girls; they have a papaya or a pineapple. They just sit along side the boat and wouldn’t say a word. My wife would come out and ask if they want to trade and they would smile and nod their heads and get a big smile on their face. Then my wife would ask what they want to trade for. They’d say soap or shampoo. We left that area with no soap on the boat because we traded it all,” Swanson says.

They stock the boat with fishing hooks, baseball caps and extra soap – items that are better than gold in the world of bartering. Swanson will return to Cloud Nine to finish his third circumnavigation next month; leaving San Francisco and heading to Gibraltar. From there Swanson says he’s not sure which direction he’ll head.

Cara Hetland covers South Dakota and southwest Minnesota for Minnesota Public Radio’s Mainstreet unit. Reach her via e-mail at chetland@mpr.org.

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