Sailor. Adventurer. Noble Peace Prize winner. Fridtjof Nansen was a trailblazer in his time.
Born in Store Frøen, Norway, Oct. 10, 1861, Nansen grew up in an athletic family, learning at a young age to ski and swim. He attended the University of Oslo, where he majored in zoology and earned a doctorate in 1888. He had
voyaged to Greenland in 1882, developing a fascination for the sea and ice of the region while observing seals and polar bears. In 1893, Nansen embarked on an expedition to become the first person to reach the North Pole on the theory that a current carried polar ice from east to west.
He commissioned Colin Archer to design a 128-foot, three-masted wooden topsail schooner that could withstand being frozen for long periods of time in the arctic ice. Archer designed a double-ended hull with smooth sides so she would “slip like an eel out of the embraces of the ice,” according to Lincoln Paine in his “Ships of the World.” She was massively built. The aggregate thickness of the stem was 4 feet, the frames were 21 inches wide, and the maximum thickness of her oak hull planking was 13 inches. Beams were reinforced with balks, stanchions, braces and stays.
Nansen named her Fram (“forward” in Norwegian) and set off from Oslo June 28 with a crew of 13, bound for the pack ice of Siberia. Fram successfully settled into the ice Sept. 22 — around the same time of year Tara would more than a century later. However, the drift took much longer than Nansen and crew anticipated.
After a second winter aboard the ship, the crew accepted the reality that Fram wouldn’t be reaching the North Pole anytime soon, and Nansen decided he would try to complete the mission by sledge. One other crewman, Hjalmar Johansen, would accompany him. The pair left Fram and her crew in March 1895 to begin a 400-mile trek to the North Pole.
Nansen and Johansen set out with three sledges and two kayaks, along with 100 days’ worth of rations for them and 30 days’ worth for their 28 dogs. After 23 days, they had struggled over 140 miles of tumbled ice, coming closer to the North Pole (86 degrees, 14 minutes north latitude) than anyone had at the time. At that point, they had lost 12 dogs, and food was running low. They reluctantly turned back, surviving a brutal winter on the Franz-Joseph Archipelago in northern Russia in huts they made of polar bear skins. They subsisted on walruses and polar bears they hunted.
In May 1896, Nansen and Johansen began their way south again and in June arrived at a British encampment at Cape Flora, Northbrook Island. They were taken aboard a ship led by British sailor Frederick George Jackson and returned to Norway. Meanwhile, Fram emerged into open water near Spitsbergen, Norway, Aug. 13, 1896, the same day Nansen and Johansen made Vardö, Norway. Nansen’s theory had proved correct. On Aug. 21, he and Johansen were reunited with the crew, who were said to have remained in outstanding physical and mental health.
Fram would embark on two more polar voyages. In 1898, Otto Sverdrup — who commanded the ship after Nansen left for the North Pole — sailed her on a three-year expedition in Greenland. And in 1910, Roald Amundsen sailed Fram to the high south latitudes, arriving in the Ross Sea in January 1911. She was 870 miles from the South Pole when Amundsen and four others set out across the Ross Ice Shelf with sledges and dogs. On Dec. 16, 1911, they became the first people to reach the South Pole.
Today, Fram is “home-ported” on public display at the Fram Museum in Oslo, where visitors can board her. She is considered one of the strongest wooden ships ever built.
Nansen went on to become Norway’s minister to Great Britain until 1908. His greatest achievements, however, may have come in the aftermath of World War I. With the Red Cross, he helped distribute supplies to an estimated
7 million starving people — victims of the Great Russian famine of 1921-’22.
He also played a pivotal role in the repatriation of some 450,000 Russian-held prisoners of war, in part through creation of what was called the “Nansen Passport.” The passport was issued to POWs who had become “stateless” through postwar geopolitical changes. It ultimately was recognized by 52 governments. Nansen was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for those efforts in 1922, and died in 1930 in Norway at the age of 68.
(Editor’s note: The information here is from several sources, including the Tara Expedition newsletter, Le Journal; Lincoln Paine’s “Ships of the World”; the Fram Museum (www.fram.museum.no ); and the Nobel Prize Web site (www.nobelprize.org ).