Willmar tow truck operator offers to come to the rescue of man whose sailboat is frozen into the St. Croix

City Line Towing of Willmar, owned by Jason Butler, has offered to help the owner of a sailboat that is stuck in the ice on the St. Croix River. For Butler and his friends in the towing business, fishing vehicles of all sorts of vehicles out of lakes is part of the fun of winter.

Jason Butler, owner of City Line Towing of Willmar, traveled Wednesday to survey the scene of a 26-foot sailboat frozen in the ice on the St. Croix River. Butler and a friend, Josh Schafer, division manager of Pulver Towing in Marshall, said they plan to assemble a team to remove the boat in the next few weeks.

ST. PAUL — Jason Butler, owner of City Line Towing of Willmar, has seen his share of unusual jobs.

He has fished pickup trucks out of frozen lakes, pulled snow-covered semitrailers out of ditches and once rescued a capsized double-decker pontoon boat.

Now, he’s offered to do something he’s never attempted before — pull a 26-foot sailboat from the ice on the St. Croix River.

When he read about about Mike Olson’s plight, he knew he could help. He offered his towing services and expertise — free of charge.

Olson, of Chisago City, owns the white-and-blue fiberglass 1977 Pearson sailboat that has been frozen in the St. Croix since Nov. 1.


Butler and a friend, Josh Schafer, division manager of Pulver Towing in Marshall, said they plan to assemble a team to remove the boat in the next few weeks.

Butler drove to Stillwater to assess the situation Wednesday morning. On his way back to Willmar, he said the removal would have to wait a few weeks because there’s not enough ice yet to work safely.

“We hope to have it out, weather permitting, by the middle of December,” he said in a phone interview Wednesday afternoon with the West Central Tribune.

The job won’t be easy, he said. The boat has a 4-foot keel on the bottom, so it will have to be lifted about 5 feet above the ice before it can be moved.

This effort, “a little out of the ordinary,” is a huge undertaking and will be a group effort with Pulver Towing and others, Butler said.

His plan for now — “We’re going to probably hand-build a lifting system to extract it from the water and then winch the skid to the shoreline.”

There are other options possible if the first doesn’t work out, he said.

“I can guarantee we’re going to figure it out one way or another,” he said.


A few inches of good ice is needed, he said. Tow trucks are not driven on the ice, and most of his retrieval equipment floats, but “I don’t want to spend a lot of time recovering my own equipment.”

River ice is different from lake ice, and Butler said he expects to see a learning curve as the team prepares for the extraction.

“It’s going to take us all of a complete day from start to finish,” he said. “I hope we can do it in one day; we’ve never recovered a sailboat out of ice before.”

Earlier this week, Schafer told the St. Paul Pioneer Press, “It’s definitely doable. It will be fun. I can’t wait.”

Ice recoveries are a specialty for Butler and Schafer.

“We try to do as many as possible,” Butler told the Pioneer Press. “That’s what we get excited about.”

Last year, Butler, Schafer and Matt Maloney, owner of Maloney Enterprises in Madelia, led an effort to pull an ice fisherman’s 7,000-pound pickup truck from the bottom of Lake Shetek near Slayton.

“It’s a challenge for us, especially because it’s on a river,” Butler said. “That’s not in our neck of the woods. … It will be a good training for us.”


“I really, really appreciate what they are doing,” Olson told the Pioneer Press. “I was running out of options. He even told me that the boat shouldn’t be damaged when he’s done with it.”

Olson, who doesn’t have insurance, was told the recovery effort could cost about $20,000, which he couldn’t afford. “It’s extremely nice of them,” he said.

“I won’t say we’d do this every day for free … but this is a special circumstance,” Butler said. “He seems like he’s in dire need of some help.”

Schafer’s family has owned Rochester-based Pulver Towing since 1922. The company workers jumped at the chance to help.

“Hey, this guy’s struggling. Of course we’ll do whatever it takes,” he said. “Everybody in the towing industry is friends. It’s like a brotherhood.”

Plus, he added, “It’s that time of the year.”

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