Roman and Mediaeval History, Illlustrated Travel Journals, Mediaeval Literature, Geology


14.6.11
  Forward, Drifting North on Ice - The Fram Museum in Oslo

And now for something completely different that's not Roman or Mediaeval, lol. After visiting the Viking Ship Museum and a stave church in Oslo, I had some time left and decided to take a jump to the late 19th / early 20th century and look at the Fram; Fridtjof Nansen's ship for polar expeditions. The ship is located inside a hall today, so I couldn't take a shot of the complete vessel; you'll get her in bits and pieces.

That's what the Fram 1 looked like. Fram means Forward, btw, thus the title of the post.

Model of the Fram-1

In the late 19th century, the poles were some of the few white spots left on the world map. One of the arctic explorers trying to tackle those white spots was the Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen. He liked cold, ice and snow, it seems, because he'd already done fun things like crossing Greenland on ski. Visiting the North Pole was another voyage no one had done before, and so he put it on his To Do List (which also included finishing his PhD in Zoology and participating in ski jumping competitions).

Nansen was convinced there must be a current flowing from Asia to a point between Greenland and Svalbard and maybe crossing the North Pole. Not many people believed him, so Nansen looked for a way to prove it. Sticking something into the ice near Siberia and watch it come out near Svalbard sounded like an idea. Nansen wanted to stick an entire ship into the ice, plus he could get a free ride to the pole that way. Now, the problem with ice is that it can crack a wooden ship like a nut. Nansen needed a special ship that would be pushed onto the ice instead of ending up as haggis between the ice blocks, and he needed money.

View from the bridge of the Fram to the quarterdeck

Nansen managed to convince the Norwegian National Assembly to grant him a fund, and he also found some private contributors (weren't that good times when people were willing to invest money in something that would not give them any profit but knowledge?). Nansen, Otto Sverdrup, another arctic explorer, and Colin Archer, a ship architect whose parents had imigrated from Scotland, put their heads together and designed the Fram.

The ship should be small and light, but sturdy, yet offer enough comfort for a dozen men to live onboard for what looked like years. What they came up with was a three mast schooner of 39 metres length, a beam of 11 metres, a draught of 5 metres (which makes her unusually wide and shallow) and a displacement of 800 tons. The hull was designed so it would be lifted onto the ice, plus the Fram has almost no keel; rudder and propeller could be retracted into the ship. The outer layer is made of extremely durable greenheart wood. Besides the sails, the Fram has a triple expansion steam engine, and could make a speed of 7 knots (13 km/h). There was also a windmill to generate electricity for the lamps (that would come handy during the polar nights).

Fram (with Sverdrup's changes), the hull

The Fram set out on her first expedition on June 24, 1893. Fridtjof Nansen as leader of the scientific part and Otto Sverdrup as captain were among the thirteen brave souls to participate in the adventure. They left Oslo and went along the Norwegian coast all the way do Vardø at the Barent Sea (that's an extended Hurtigruten tour there, lol). They stopped in Bergen, Trondheim and Tromsø where our explorers were celebrated and banquetted even before they had explored anything. On July 21, they departed for the route to Novaya Semlya and some other Russian harbours where they took in dogs, and further to the North Siberian Islands. They reached the ice on September 22 and the long journey back to somewhere near Svalbard began.

A few days later, the rudder and propeller were taken in, the dogs moved to kennels on the ice, and the men made themselves comfortable.The ship rose and fell with the ice pressure but didn't suffer any damage. Polar night set in on October 25.

Boredom seems to have been one of the biggest problems (I think the men would have loved the idea or e-readers and Netflix; the piano on board only went so far, obviously). The drift was about 1 mile per day (1.6 km/h; which is still better than the speed in a London rush hour). Only once, in January 1895, the pressure of the ice became so dangerous that the men put the equipment out onto the ice and prepared for abandoning the ship, but the Fram held and was pushed out of the trap.

View from the bridge to the bow (the bowsprit is visible close to the wall)

During the summer 1894, Nansen realised that the Fram would drift quite a bit away from the pole. He had planned to reach the North Pole on an excursion if the ship wouldn't touch it, and now began preparations for a nice little walk on the ice. Sledges and Inuit style kayaks were built; Nansen started to learn the job of a musher and had the men train skiing. It soon turned out that a combination of the men skiing and the dogs dragging the sleds with proviant and equipment was the best way to proceed.

Nansen intended to reach the pole, then continue to the Franz Josef Land archipelago and further to Svalbard on the pack ice, using kayaks to cross open waters, and get a hike back home from there (he must have been quite an optimist; that island isn't exactly located on a main shipping route). He had no illusions about ever again finding his little ship drifting in a vast desert of ice without GPS.

Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen, a world championship athlete with a fondness for adventure and, as it turned out, a good hand with dogs, who had hired on the Fram as stoker, set off on March 14, 1895, with the ship at 84°4'N. They had their skies and three dog sleds with equipment and food.

The diesel engine added by Amundsen in 1910

At first, the men made good progress, but eventually, the terrain became more difficult to traverse, with "a veritable chaos of ice blocks stretching as far as the horizon," as Nansen noted in his diary with half-frozen fingers. They also hit a southerly drift that carried them off, and began to run low on food if they wanted it to last for the retour pass to Franz Josef Land. On April 7, Nansen decided they would turn back. They had reached 86°14'N, the closest to the North Pole anyone had ever gotten by then.

The journey to Franz Josef Land was a difficult and dangerous one. Since it was summer, the ice broke up and forced the men to cross open water and floes. Provisions ran even lower, and they had to kill most of the dogs. Once the men had to camp on a floe for a month (July), though by that time they could add seals and birds to the diet.

Soon thereafter they reached the end of the pack ice and sailed over to Franz Josef Land on a catamaran which they had created by lashing the two kayaks together, fixing the sleds on top, and setting up a makeshift sail.

The crankshaft

Futher progress to Svalbard was hindered by the approaching arctic winter - the first ice began to form again - and on August 28, Nansen decided they would spend the winter on the archipelago. They built a pit house style hut of stone, moss and walrus skins. Food was less of an issue at the coast; there was plenty of polar bear, walrus and fish to stock up on. It would later turn out that the men had gained some weight despite their privations and exercise. Walrus blubber does that to you, obviously. Walrus oil also provided for lamps.

Nansen and Johansen spent eight months there, being pretty bored (not even a piano around this time). On May 19, 1896, they set off along the coast in search of a spot to cross over to Svalbard. That trip surely was not boring. They were attacked by a walrus, Nansen had to swim after the eloping kayaks in barely liquid water, and other fun. But they had some luck this time. Before they set out for Svalbard on that questionable catamaran, the men met with another expedition at Cape Flora in the south of the achipelago. The British explorer Frederick G. Jackson picked them up, gave them a bath and a haircut, and ride back on his supply ship, the Windward. Nansen and Johansen arrived in Vardø on August 13, 1896.

Fram, view to the stern

Meanwhile, the Fram, under command of Otto Sverdrup, continued to drift in the ice. Boredom was still an issue, so Sverdrup orderd all sorts of programs to keep people busy, from spring cleaning the ship to skiing practice. Research was also going on; the Fram had developed into a biological, oceanographic, and meteorological laboratory. They data the men collected would take years to evaluate and publish.

The ship reached open waters again pretty much at the spot near Svalbard which Nansen had predicted the same day Nansen arrived in Vardø, August 13, 1896, and on August 20, the Fram arrived in the little harbour of Skjervøy in Norway. Six days later, Sverdrup and the crew of the Fram met with Nansen and Johansen in Tromsø where they were celebrated. The way back along the coast to Oslo (then still named Christiania) likened a triumphal parade with a lot more stops and banquets than three years ago. In Oslo the explorers were received by the king and invited to an extra big banquet (I bet the guys stayed away from any scale those weeks).

Foredeck with anchor chain

Nansen's successful expedition - the first into the polar zones from which all members returned safely - started a wave of interest in Arctic explorations. Otto Sverdrup was to lead the Fram north again to chart and explore the northern fjords of Greenland and the Canadian Arctic Islands. It would be the most scientific of the ship's journeys, taking place from June 1898 to September 1902. The material brought back was even more extensive than that gathered during the first expedition; it was published in 5 volumes between 1919 - 1930 (and that's not counting the 2000 glass containers with samples).

Sverdrup had altered the Fram a bit, raising the freeboard by 6 feet and adding a new deck that extended from the engine and could hold six more cabins - his team had 16 members instead of 13, and more space was welcome. This is the version we can see today.

Steering wheel on the quarterdeck

On Sverdrup's return, the Fram was laid up, but it was not the end of her voyages. Roald Amundsen would take her to the Antarctic on his South Pole expedition (1910-1912) but I'll leave that for another post, together with some photos of the interior of the Fram and the museum exhibits.

Though I'll probably post something Roman in between, or my Roman interested readers may de-follow my blog because it's full of castles and steam engines. ;)


Sources:
'Fram: Norsk Polarhistorie'; a booklet avaliable at the museum
 
Comments:
Gabriele

WOW! That is cool ship.

And a good story of a great adventure.
 
That was an interesting read! Thanks for the 'different' post. :)
 
Amazing story. Those guys must have been tough; the astronauts of their day. It must have been pretty scary when they thought the ship might be crushed in the ice.

GPS wouldn't have helped, would it, since the ship would have drifted to an unknown location while they were away skiing to the Pole? Maybe one of those radio transmitter tracking things that are used to track the movements of migratory birds, if you had one of those mounted on the ship and could pick up the signal maybe you could use it as a homing beacon to ski to the ship wherever it had drifted to. (Bad news if the batteries ever ran out, though...)
 
Thank you, Hank and Constance.

Carla, yep, they were some tough guys. Spending an arctic winter in a stone hut sounds almost Neanderthalic. :)
I think GPS can track moving targets if they send out a signal. After all, guides in airport towers and ship captains stare a lot more at their screens with lots of little blinking dots than the actual air or water. :) Modern technology, all the way from lightweight sledges to Goretex jackets and satellite supported tracking devices would have made those explorations a lot easier than seal skin boots and a compass, but even today such journeys are not without risk. An arctic storm and -60°C may still win. ;)
 
Yes, if the moving target is transmitting a signal saying 'My GPS position is....' then you could pick up the signal, compare its GPS position with your own, and work out how to navigate to it. Still a tricky proposition to actually ski/kayak to it, even if you knew exactly where to head, with ice drift, unstable ice pack, storms etc etc. You have to hand it to those guys.
 
Yeah, reaching Franz Josef archipelago (which is considerably bigger than a ship and stays put) was not an easy task, either.
 
The rôle of luck in the early Arctic expeditions always seems huge to me. Quite a lot of people ran out of luck, and the successful ones could very easily have done so too at times (escaping kayaks...). One of the abiding questions of polar exploration thus becomes: why were the Norwegians so often luckier than anyone else? :-)

This is a really cool post, anyway.
 
Maybe the Norwegians had a good connection with luck, because the Vikings believed in it. :)
 
Lovers of steam punk will love this post.

Um...yeah...that would be me...
 
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Miscellaneous musings of an aspiring Historical Fiction author. Illustrated essays on Roman, Dark Age and Mediaeval history, Mediaeval literature, and Geology. Some poetry translations and writing stuff. And lots of photos of old castles, cathedrals, Roman remains, and beautiful landscapes from Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, and the Baltic States.

All texts (except comments by guests) and photos (if no other copyright is noted) on this blog are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.

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I'm a writer of Historical Fiction living in Germany. I got a MA in Literature, Scandinavian Studies, Linguistics and History, I'm interested in Archaeology and everything Roman and Mediaeval, an avid reader, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, and photographer.


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