The long, dark voyage of the Fram

In today’s era of satellite imagery, it’s hard to imagine how vast and unknown the world was just a century ago. In November 1893, Grocott’s published a long article on the fate of Fridtjof Nansen’s Fram expedition, which was attempting to establish whether there were any large land masses in the Arctic Ocean. Nobody had ever successfully sailed across the Arctic Ocean in winter, and even in summer the risks were extreme.

In the 1890s, nobody knew for sure what lay in the Arctic Ocean. There were certainly islands; but were there any continents? Was the North Pole, like the South Pole, on a large landmass? Could there be a path through the ice? An American ship, the Jeanette, had been crushed and sunk by pack ice off the northern Siberian coast in 1881, but some of its wreckage was found washed up on south-western coast of Greenland. The theory, then, was that a current moved across the Arctic Ocean from east to west.

Fridtjof Nansen, a Norwegian explorer, had the idea to confirm this theory. His first step was to commission a special ship, the Fram, that was could withstand the pressure of Arctic pack ice. He would then sail north and deliberately get the ship frozen into the winter sea-ice in the region of the New Siberian Islands, and use the natural east-west current of the Arctic Sea to carry ice and the ship towards the true North Pole. Hopefully, then, the ship would escape the ice and sail out into the northern Atlantic Ocean. The expedition set off from Christiana (now Oslo) in Norway on 24 June 1893. By 22 September, the ship had reached the ice.

After that, there wasn’t much news. Newspapers all over the world waited for dispatches from the expedition, but not many were forthcoming – the ship was in such a remote region that few travellers saw it, and even fewer could report back.

Grocott’s, like many publications, became quite pessimistic about the Fram’s survival. An expert quoted on 24 November 1893 said that people who had seen the ship thought it was “too deeply loaded and cumbersome” to survive the sailing conditions. Commentators were equally uncertain about Nansen himself: “He seemed to have become vacillating and even melancholy at times,” the article said, “He did not seem to assured of success and so collected as formerly. He was restless, verging on feverishness. From early morn till late night he was here, there and everywhere, now in the rigging testing some rope, then in the crow’s nest, scanning the sea with an anxious mien, and now out reconnoitring in the petroleum launch, etc. His former calmness and assurance had disappeared.”

A certain degree of misgiving would have been natural. Even though Nansen was an experienced sailor and explorer, he was proposing to go north into uncharted territory, with a less-than-certain prospect of survival. On top of that, the Arctic winter would soon plunge the expedition into constant darkness, and when this happened in late October, the only light was provided by electric lamps powered by a wind-driven generator on board. The Fram’s experimental design, however, was sound: the ice formed no grip on the hull, and did not damage it. Nevertheless, the crew was becoming fractious, with severe cabin fever.

At the end of November 1893, when Grocott’s article was published, the Fram was drifting in the pack ice. The movement was not steadily northward, or westward. Nansen became concerned that they were trapped in a secondary current, and by January 1894 he had decided to reach the North Pole by ski and sled if the Fram didn’t get far enough north in time. On 14 March 1895, Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen left the Fram and took a dog sled north. This was a surer way of reaching the Pole, but not assured of success, as they were skiing north on ice that was moving in a different direction, and often had to cross gaps between ice floes.

On 7 April 1895, Nansen and Johansen gave up on reaching the Pole, and headed for the Franz Josef Land archipelago instead. There they eventually met Frederick Jackson, another explorer, on Cape Flora on 17 June 1896. This must have been slightly awkward, as Nansen had rejected Jackson’s application to join the Fram expedition some years earlier. Meanwhile, the Fram and remaining crew moved no further north but steadily west, and emerged into open water in the northern Atlantic at Svalbard, on 13 August 1896. On the same day, Nansen and Johansen reached Vardø in northeastern Norway.

Even today, the journey would be arduous. There are airports in Oslo, Vardø and Longyearbyen on Svalbard, and a Russian military base in Franz Josef Land. But the sea still freezes and it is still gets dark for three months in winter.

Queries, suggestions, tips and corrections to nervousflamingo@gmail.com.

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