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Sailing legend passes away

December 29, 2012
Jenn Brookens - Staff Writer , Fairmont Sentinel

DUNNELL - Roger Swanson was a man who sailed his vessel until the river ran dry.

"He was proud of his list of accomplishments," said Gaynelle Templin, Swanson's wife. "But he probably had a longer list of things he wanted to accomplish."

Swanson, 81, passed away this week. He made a name for himself in the sailing world in 2007 when his boat, Cloud Nine, was the first American vessel to successfully travel from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific through the Northwest Passage, across the top of Canada. But Swanson had already accomplished much in his hometown area.

Article Photos

Roger Swanson and Gaynelle Templin at the helm of Cloud Nine.

"He was hard-working, always working and involving his family in holidays and travels," said Swanson's oldest son, Steven.

Born and raised in St. Paul, Swanson graduated first in his class from the University of Minnesota in 1953 with a degree in electrical engineering, and was commissioned as an Ensign in the U.S. Navy.

"I believe there was an interest [in sailing] before that, because his grandfather was a Swedish sailor," Steven said. "I think he was touched by the romance of that."

But Swanson's home port was always his family's century farm west of Dunnell.

"He never forgot," Templin said. "On the back of Cloud Nine, it listed home port as Dunnell, Minnesota. He was very proud he was from here."

After his discharge from the Navy, Swanson came back to the family farm. However, it wasn't long before he was looking to do something more.

"He had ambition and interests apart from farming," Steven said. "He liked the idea of manufacturing and making stuff ... He bought into a business in northern Minnesota, Erskine Manufacturing, in Erskine. He started another business in Sherburn, and he hired people from around here to build the things he wanted to build. He tapped the resources around here because he knew you didn't need to go far for good help."

Other business ventures included serving as president of the First National Bank in Dunnell and owning the Dunnell Insurance Agency. He also founded the businesses Innovar Industries in 1971, which led to the formation of the business now known as Glasstite Industries.

Even as he flourished in business and farming, he still was drawn to sailing.

"My very first memory is floating in the water next to a tipped-over sailboat in Hall Lake [in Fairmont]," Steven said. "I think I was one or two. It started early."

But the sailboats weren't tipped over for long, as Swanson learned to sail on Hall Lake first, and then Lake Okoboji.

"It was good training for what became his sailing career," Steven said. "He learned how to watch the wind and the subtleties on lakes that aren't as evident on the ocean."

But he made his way back to the ocean. In 1982, he and his two sons, along with 33 crew members staggered throughout the trip, traveled around the world on "Cloud Nine" in 28 months. There were two more trips around the world, along with voyages to the Antarctic and the Arctic, including three tries to sail through the Northwest Passage before finding success on the third trip.

It was also during his sailing adventures that he met Templin.

"We met in 1994 when I crewed with him," she said. "He always used friends and friends of friends as crew members. Through some friends, I knew it was safe to sail with him. I crewed for him on a trip from St. Thomas to Nova Scotia, and from England to Norway, and he crewed for me on Lake Superior. Then we got married."

One of the couple's favorite stories involved one of the agreements of getting married:?Swanson would take Templin around the world. They did that, even having the song, "Anchors Aweigh" as the recessional music at their wedding. Afterward, every voyage was taken together and both received awards and recognition from cruising clubs around the world. Their voyage through the Northwest Passage landed Swanson on the front page of the Wall Street Journal.

"He loved sailing and seeing new places, learning about different cultures," Templin said. "He usually made some acquaintances in all the places he went."

From every trip, Swanson had beautiful souvenirs and photos. This is evidenced in the couple's rural Dunnell farmhouse, where beautiful sculptures inspired by different cultures are displayed in the living room, and the full downstairs is dedicated to Swanson's "collection."

"He was a collector," Steven said. "He liked to bring things back from where he'd been."

"He liked to have them as a way to tell a story or begin a conversation," Templin said.

All roads eventually led back to Minnesota and Dunnell for Swanson. For his 80th birthday in the summer of 2011, a celebration was held that brought back many of his crew members over his years of sailing.

"We had 126 crew members show up plus their significant others," Templin said. "It was quite a gathering."

By that time, "Cloud Nine" was up for sale, and shortly after the celebration, Swanson was diagnosed with lung cancer. He was receiving treatment in Rochester, and was visiting family in Minneapolis for Christmas when he passed away.

Services will be held 11 a.m. Thursday at Immanuel Lutheran Church of Dunnell, a church where Swanson spent many years on the church council.

"He was very involved in this community," Templin said. "It was very important to him."



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