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Rice Lake man's dream voyage begins

Bruce Solem spends a quiet moment at the bow of his 47-foot steel trawler with his sister, Kitten Hutchings of Duluth. Solem and his fiancee left Duluth on Saturday for a voyage that will take them down the East Coast of the United States, through the Panama Canal and to the Pacific Northwest. (Sam Cook / Forum News Service)1 / 4
Bruce Solem (right) offers a salute to his father Saturday as he and his fiancee, Laura Davidson, pass through the Duluth Ship Canal on the boat Solem built. Driving is their friend Jon Bendz. (Sam Cook / Forum News Service)2 / 4
Bruce Solem of Rice Lake scans the St. Louis River through the window of his 47-foot boat, the "Sarah J," as he heads for Lake Superior on Saturday morning. Solem spent 13 years building the boat from scratch. He and his fiancee, Laura Davidson, left Duluth on the boat Saturday and plan to spend their future sailing and living on the boat. (Sam Cook / Forum News Service)3 / 4
Don Solem (left) of Rice Lake and his son Bruce Solem of Rice Lake say an emotional good-bye Saturday morning at Barker's Island in Superior. Bruce Solem and his fiancee, Laura Davidson, left Saturday for a multi-year voyage aboard the 47-foot steel trawler that Bruce Solem has spent 13 years building. (Sam Cook / Forum News Service)4 / 4

DULUTH — Before dawn on Saturday, Sept. 9, mist hovered over the water at the Spirit Lake Marina in Duluth. Most of the boats in the marina remained dark, but aboard the Sarah J. Bruce Solem moved about under a single light in the boat's cabin.

This was the day Solem, 64, of Rice Lake had been waiting 14 years for. It was the day that he and his fiancee, Laura Davidson, 46, of Rice Lake would guide the 47-foot steel trawler under Duluth's Aerial Lift Bridge and into the rest of their lives.

"It's been a whirlwind few days," Solem said, hauling excess gear from the boat to his pickup on shore Saturday morning.

Solem, a Vietnam veteran and a welder by trade, had built the Sarah J from scratch. He built every bit of it, from the steel hull to the 33-foot mast. He did all of the construction in a Quonset-style shelter made from a wooden frame and plastic sheeting in his dad's backyard in Rice Lake.

Solem and Davidson had launched the boat in July last year at the Knife River Marina. The plan was to head for the East Coast, down to Florida, through the Panama Canal and up to the Pacific Northwest. They plan not just a long cruise. They hope to spend most of the rest of their lives living on the boat.

"We wanted to take off last fall, but everything just kind of snowballed," Solem said.

The boat's diesel engine was overheating, and the problem proved difficult to solve. By the time Solem figured out the solution, it was too late in the season to leave.

"We got another season with the family, another season at the deer shack with my dad," Solem said.

Don Solem, Bruce's dad, is 90. A World War II veteran, he had served on the USS Saratoga, an aircraft carrier, in the South Pacific. He was there at Spirit Lake Marina before dawn on Saturday, along with Bruce's sisters Laura Solem and Kitten Hutchings and their husbands. Solem's sisters and dad would be on board for the short run to Barker's Island Marina in Superior, where the Sarah J would take on fuel.

Also on board was Solem's long-time boat-building friend Jon Bendz of Lafayette, Calif., who plans to be part of the crew for several segments of the voyage.

Under way

A little after 7 a.m., Solem fired up the John Deere diesel. It purred at idle. The Sarah J, named for a granddaughter of Solem's who died in a house fire, eased away from the dock and onto Spirit Lake.

As with any major voyage, preparations always come down to the wire. Solem had felt the pressure.

"It isn't a fear or anxiety," said Solem, a soft-spoken man. "It's just trying to think of everything. When you're finally leaving, it's a mix of relief and excitement."

On the river, Solem guided the Sarah J down the shipping channel, past squealing gulls and honking geese. Bendz took the wheel for a time, and Solem had a little one-on-one time with his dad and sisters.

Davidson, who has spent time on other boats in the Pacific Northwest with Solem, is looking forward to reaching Florida, where the couple might spend New Year's Eve on Key West.

"I'm hoping Hemingway's home will still be there," she said, alluding to potential hurricane damage.

On the boat, she plans to keep separate journals for each of her three grandchildren.

Final hugs

It was a solemn and tearful good-bye on the dock at Barker's Island. Solem and his dad embraced, then stood back and looked each other in the eye.

"It's been a wonderful 13 years," Don Solem told his son.

"I couldn't have done it without you," his son said.

Half an hour later, the Sarah J came churning under the lift bridge, its prow generating white froth. Bendz was at the wheel, Solem and Davidson riding the bow, waving at assembled family members on the South Pier.

Solem quit waving just long enough to snap off a salute to his dad.

On shore, Don Solem looked on, waving.

"If I was younger, I'd have made this trip with 'em," the former seaman said. "I hope I stay healthy enough in two years to go see 'em out on the coast."

The Sarah J cleared the canal and angled east, past an anchored saltie waiting to take on grain. Cornucopia tonight. Maybe Bayfield.


Read an earlier report about Bruce Solem's journey building a 47-foot boat at