Obituary: Roger Swanson sailed around the world -- 3 times

Roger Swanson was a world-famous sailor but called a Minnesota farm his home.

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Most Minnesotans have never heard of Roger Swanson. But among voyagers around the globe, he's known as the man who circled the world not once -- but three times -- on a 57-foot sailboat whose home port is listed as "Dunnell, MN.''

His travels carried him from the tip of South Africa to the Arctic, winning international honors along the way. He also happened to launch a half-dozen manufacturing businesses in rural Minnesota, overseeing production of everything from snowblowers to farm equipment.

Swanson is being remembered this week as an extraordinary adventurer who lived an otherwise ordinary life in southwestern Minnesota.

"Roger Swanson was one of the greatest long-distance voyagers of this era or any other era,'' said Herb McCormick, senior editor of Cruising World magazine. "Few sailors have gone from the Arctic to the Antarctic and everywhere in between. He was one of a kind.''

Swanson's death on Dec. 25 "is a great loss to the sailing world,'' he said.

Swanson, 81, gathered global admirers, in part, because of the spectacular number of miles he sailed the high seas -- roughly 217,000 nautical miles. He also became the first skipper of an American sailboat to cross the fabled Northwest Passage from east to west in a single year. It was a feat that landed him on the front page of the Wall Street Journal in 2007.

"Roger was known around the world, not just for the scope of his sailing but as a guy who sailed well,'' said McCormick. "He was a great seaman, known as a careful navigator.''

Engineer farmer

Swanson was an unlikely global adventurer. He grew up in St. Paul and graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1953 with a degree in electrical engineering. He later served three years in the Navy aboard the destroyer USS Henley. He then moved to the family farm outside Dunnell, Minn., that was settled years before by his Swedish ancestors. It became his lifelong home.

In the decades ahead, Swanson carved a career in manufacturing, focusing on companies in rural Minnesota, said his son Steven Swanson, of Minneapolis. He was principal owner of Erskine Manufacturing in Erskine, which manufactures snowblowers and other equipment. He founded RC Industries in Sherburn, which made tractor cabs and agricultural devices. In 1971, he founded Innovar Industries, which manufactured snowmobiles. Later, he formed the Glasstite company in Dunnell, which makes fiberglass toppers for pickup trucks.

All the while, he enjoyed sailing in the small lakes in southern Minnesota, said Steven Swanson. Eventually he began chartering boats in the Caribbean.

In 1982, Swanson and his two sons, Steven and Philip, and four friends left Miami aboard their sailboat, Cloud Nine, to sail around the world. It was the beginning of nearly three decades of remarkable adventures. But he never forgot Minnesota or his roots, regardless of whether he was docked in Mozambique or El Salvador.

"Whenever anyone would ask Roger what he did, he said he owned a farm, or raised pigs, in Minnesota'' said David Thoreson, a longtime friend and photographer who accompanied him on many voyages.

Those Minnesota roots came in handy. When Swanson made his first trip to the Arctic in the early 1990s, he brought snowmobile treads from home just in case the boat needed to break out of some ice, Thorson said.

"It typifies his thinking,'' Thoreson said. "He could fix anything on the spot.''

Swanson was a different kind of sailor, said his wife, Gaynelle. He enjoyed learning about the culture and people along the way as much as the sailing. And he made countless friends.

"I remember him in Yemen, of all places,'' said his wife, a sailer who accompanied him on his journeys. "The taxi driver said, 'Do you know how long I've waited for you to come back?'''

Besides his wife and sons, Swanson is survived by daughter Lynne, a sister and grandchildren.

The funeral will be at 11 a.m. Thursday at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Dunnell.

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511

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