In the late 19th century, the Arctic Basin was a mystery to many, destroying ships and explorers with its fierce ice. The Fram was a revolutionary ship designed to solve this problem, built to latch on to, and float with, the Arctic ice.
Commissioned by the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen, the Fram was made to help prove that the Arctic currents brought ice from east to west across the arctic basin. Throughout its life, the Fram went on several epic explorations and eventually helped Roald Amundsen win the famous race to the South Pole.
Charles Johnson, a former state naturalist, coast guard veteran and boat builder, has been enamored with the Fram from childhood and recently wrote a book, Ice Ship: The Epic Voyages of the Polar Adventurer, all about the ship’s expeditions in the Arctic.
Johnson says that at the time, ships were getting crushed by the relentless polar ice and Nansen had the brilliant idea to create a boat that could withstand the ice. He explains that the boat was built like a bathtub. “When the ice came to bear on the side, which is the most lethal approach, the ship would be squeezed up like a watermelon seed being squeezed up between the thumb and forefinger, so it would rest up on top of the ice rather than being caught,” says Johnson.
Nansen’s mission on the Fram was inspired by a recent failed attempt to get to the pole by the Jeanette, an American ship. Bits and pieces of the ship turned up 3,000 miles away in southern Greenland. “Nenson said, ‘Well, how in the world could these pieces make it that far over a three-year period?’ That’s when he formed his theory that the Arctic was an ocean with drifting ice,” Johnson says. He explains that the only way for Nenson to prove his theory was to float along the Arctic ice.
“He was an amazing guy,” Johnson says. “He was brilliant, he was charismatic and he was handsome. He was the first man to cross Greenland on skis. He was a Ph.D. zoologist and his motto was, ‘Go forward, don’t look back.’” Johnson says Nansen hoped to freeze the ship to the ice and then drift until it ended up on the other side, which would prove that the currents brought the ice from east to west.
Nansen thought the journey might take up to five years and was joined by 12 men who volunteered their services. “One of the things they did, which was unique, was they took a cue from the Inuits and shot and ate as much fresh food as they could along the way,” says Johnson. He explains they hunted polar bears, seals, walruses and birds. “The Lucky Thirteen, they called them, sailed out from Norway in 1983 and made their way almost to the Bering Strait and intentionally froze themselves in.”
Three years later, just as Nansen had predicted, the Fram popped out of the ice east of Greenland. But Nansen was no longer with the ship to celebrate his findings.
Johnson explains, “Halfway through the voyage, Nansen realized that the ship was not going to make it over the pole, some 400 to 500 miles away, so he had this crazy idea that he and one other man would take sledges loaded with kayaks, hauled by dogs, and try to make it to the pole."
Nansen and his colleague, Johansson, set out on a somewhat unbelievable journey, hoping to reach the edge of the ice by summer to be able to jump in their kayaks and make it back to civilization. Things didn’t go as planned, Johnson explains. “He realized that he couldn’t make it to the pole in time. [So they] made it to the edge and had to look for a place to spend the winter. They found an island, made a cave covered in walrus hide, and in this cave, they mostly slept for nine months in a single sleeping bag for warmth. They made it through this long polar night alive and, well, and actually gained weight from all the blubber and meat they had eaten.”
The following summer, they made it to another island where they happened upon a British polar expedition and met Frederick Jackson. Jackson and his supply ship took Nansen and Johansson back to Norway, where they arrived six days before the Fram popped out of the ice.
Regardless of his crazy adventures, did Nansen contribute to the world of science? Johnson says yes, in a big way. “Nansen made a lot of discoveries. For one, that the Arctic Ocean was very deep, over 10,000 feet deep, as opposed to what they thought at the time, which was that it was very shallow. They also confirmed his theory about Arctic currents and proved his theory that the Arctic was not a land mass or an open ocean,” Johnson says. He explains that before the Fram, there was a long-held myth that the Arctic was open ocean and Nansen helped put the myths to rest by leading the first thorough study of the Arctic Basin.
The Fram had a long, adventurous career after its maiden voyage. Two years after, it set out on a four-year expedition to the Canadian Arctic to help map unknown land. Its third expedition was to the South Pole, carrying the now-famous Roald Amundsen, who became the first undisputed man to reach that pole.
But that wasn’t always Amundsen’s plan. “His idea was to take the Fram and do what Nansen failed to do – take it over the North Pole. So he convinced Nansen to loan him the Fram to do that,” Johnson says. But as he left, Amundsen heard news of two American explorers who had already reached the North Pole. “So, he decided on his own that he was going to take the Fram to Antarctica to claim the South Pole, because he couldn’t claim the North Pole anymore,” explains Johnson. “But he didn’t tell anyone this, except the captain of his ship. So with the men and 1,000 dogs he took off.” (The explorers used the dogs to pull sleds, and also eventually ate them.) It was only after they had sailed 1,000 miles that Amundsen told his crew they were headed for the South Pole.
Amundsen’s journey to the South Pole became a famous race between his ship and another explorer’s. He arrived to the pole on Dec. 13, 1911, just over a month before Robert Falcon Scott, who ended up tragically dying with his crew on the way back.
Johnson digs deeper into the amazing adventures of the Fram in his book, Ice Ship, which took him over four years to research and write. So what drew him to the Fram? “[My dad] spent a lot of time in the Arctic working with Canadian troops and their survival rations. I always remember, ever since I was a kid, him talking about this ship, the Fram, and how oddly built it was but how incredible a story it told. And he had an autographed copy of Farthest North, which is Nansen’s story of his trip. I would take it out and leaf through it and be taken away,” Johnson reflects.
When Johnson retired, he began making trips to Norway, crawling through the Fram and exploring its amazing history. He leafed through thousands of photos at the National Library and did extensive research for the book. “It was very pleasurable and brought a lot of the fantasy to reality,” says Johnson.
Could another ship capture Johnson’s interest like the Fram? “There’s so much history and imagination wrapped up in that ship, I would find it very hard to think I’d have that same affection of a ship built of steel of a much younger age,” Johnson says. “But, you never know.”