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A Conversation with Roger Swanson

Rare is the sailing resume that boasts 217,928 miles, three circumnavigations, multiple voyages through the Arctic and Antarctic and the first east-west crossing of the Northwest Passage by an American-flagged sailboat.

Rare is the sailing resume that boasts 217,928 miles, three circumnavigations, multiple voyages through the Arctic and Antarctic and the first east-west crossing of the Northwest Passage by an American-flagged sailboat. Pretty impressive for a Midwestern-born pig farmer-cum-electrical engineer-cum-entrepreneur, but no one ever accused Roger Swanson, of Dunnell, Minnesota, of mediocrity.

Swanson, who sadly passed away at the age of 81 on December 25, 2012 after a battle with cancer, became enamored with oceans during his three-year stint as a Navy officer; afterward, he raced Midwestern scows and began chartering in the Caribbean. In 1976 he bought a CSY 44 and five years later upgraded to Cloud Nine, a 1975 Bowman 57 cutter-rigged ketch. Swanson sailed 207,428 miles aboard Cloud Nine, including 80,000-plus miles with Gaynelle Templin, his second wife and consummate first mate. SAIL spoke with him shortly before his passing, and we extend our deepest condolences to his many friends and family. 

What were the hardest miles you’ve sailed?

My second trip to Antarctica…the goal was to cross the Antarctic Circle, and we got hammered on our way back, with a constant 35-75 knots on our nose. We were trying to re-enter the Antarctic Archipelago, but the high winds and constant ice forced us to remain hove-to for three days before the winds

subsided.

Have you ever been scared?

In an emergency, I never had time to be scared. One time we were sailing in about 35 knots, 250 miles from Land’s End, England, and at 0400 hours, we lost steerage—we had broken the quadrant casting. We struggled to fix it, but the winds increased to 55 to 60-plus knots. A rogue wave hit us and dropped us on our port side, shattering our portholes. We were at close to 90 degrees, and we took on 500 gallons of water before she righted herself. We used cabin locker covers, a hand drill and sheet-metal screws to cover the opening, drilling right into the fiberglass. Hypothermia was a problem, but in the morning we fixed the steering and continued on.

You were run down by a freighter while at anchor, no?

It was at Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. The incoming freighter failed to drop a stern anchor and couldn’t stop. She ran over our anchor rodes and dismasted us. It was a tangled mess, but we jury-rigged the boat—turning her into a schooner—and sailed 2,000 miles to New Zealand. We got a lot of interesting comments as we entered various ports en route!


What about ice?

On our first Northwest Passage attempt in 1994, a massive ice-pack started closing in on us. We tied up behind a huge grounded ice flow to protect ourselves from the closing pack, but for three or four days it was looking pretty grim, with the danger of both our ice barrier and ourselves being pushed ashore by increased pack pressure. We finally got a wind shift and escaped through five miles of five-tenths ice concentration. 

Was the NW Passage your Siren’s Song?

After our failed 2005 attempt, I said “never again,” but I’m a stubborn Swede from Minnesota. I got a call from Cambridge Bay [Canada] saying that [2007] might be a good ice year, so I called my 2005 crew and they were game. This time, we made it.

Is this your biggest sailing

achievement?

It’s probably more like my most unique experience, but completing my first circumnavigation with my sons was a pretty memorable accomplishment.

Any advice for other cruisers?

If you want to go cruising, do it. If I had waited until I had the time and could afford it, I wouldn’t have left Minnesota.

Photos courtesy of Roger Swanson

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