The icy saga of the Pearson 26 sailboat that was frozen in the St. Croix River is over, thanks to a local do-gooder armed with a hunting knife, hammers, a tow strap and his own impatience.
Brennen Swanson said that ever since he first saw the stuck boat Nov. 1 from his house in Stillwater, something about the whole mess bothered him, day after day.
Until Tuesday morning.
“I woke up this morning and looked out at the water from my room and thought, ‘I’m going to go out there and get that sailboat,’ ” Swanson said.
And just like that, a rescue operation was underway.
Swanson wasn’t the first person stirred to action by the story of Mike Olson’s sailboat.
Ever since media coverage of his dilemma began, Olson, of Chisago City, had been offered help of some kind or another by people eager to bring his story to a happy resolution.
It’s not the tale Olson dreamed of when he bought the boat for $1,500 in September with plans to sail the river with his fiancée.
Health problems kept him off the water until the day a few weeks back when he got a call from the boat’s previous owner: The Pearson was trapped in ice.
At first Olson tried to pull the boat out himself. He donned a lifejacket, set a heavy-duty sled on the frozen river and, kneeling, pushed himself across the river channel.
Not only did he fail to nudge the boat, he learned it was probably resting on the river bottom. The sailboat’s 4-foot keel floats freely in the summer and fall, but water levels drop as winter approaches.
A story about Olson’s failed rescue effort caught the attention of Willmar tow truck operator Justin Butler, who said he could perhaps float the boat out of the river using the pontoon system he uses to rescue sunken cars and trucks. His plan required a few more inches of ice, and the hope was to greenlight the pontoon attempt sometime next month.
As he waited for temperatures to drop, Olson accepted an offer of free sailing lessons from the St. Croix Sailing School in Hudson, Wis. The hope was to make Olson a bona fide sailor next summer while connecting him to the local community.
“We get where he’s coming from,” wrote school director Collin Mueller in an e-mail. “The river is gorgeous yet it’s hard to know how to connect and be part of a boating culture.”
All of this was feeding Swanson’s social media sites, and by Tuesday he had had enough.
He first enlisted the help of William Gavic, who works with him at Bonsai Motors, a used-car dealer in Lakeland. Without notifying Olson, he and Gavic hopped into an Alumacraft riverboat equipped with a “mud motor” — an air-cooled engine that can push the boat over shallow water — and made their way out to the Pearson.
The sailboat sat in no more than 2 feet of water, Swanson said. He used his hunting knife and hammers to clear the thin ice around the hull. Then he and Gavic tied a tow strap onto the sailboat’s metal cleats and began working it out of the river bottom. The wind and river current helped, Swanson said.
About 30 minutes later they were towing the boat to a dock at the Ole Sawmill Marina in Stillwater, about a half-mile away.
A picture they shared on social media shows them standing on the dock with Olson’s powder-blue sailboat floating behind them.
Swanson, who said he would have done the same thing for any boat owner, added that his Alumacraft rescue craft is for sale. It’s at Bonsai Motors if anyone feels the need for a semifamous riverboat.
Feeling “very surprised and happy at the same time,” Olson said Tuesday that he was looking forward to meeting Swanson to thank him. And to find out exactly where the boat was parked.
“I’m still in shock,” he said.
Matt McKinney • 612-673-7329