Jonty Pearce marvels at the exploration ship, the Fram during a visit to Norway
What do armchair sailors do during the winter months? Read. And dream.
The danger is, however, that dreams may impinge on everyday life, and that is exactly what happened when Carol and I finally arranged a long-anticipated trip to Oslo last week.
Why Oslo? Because of the Fram. Carol has long been fascinated by polar exploration; her Christmas present two years ago was a second edition of Nansen’s Farthest North. Her present this year was the first edition.
Nansen’s plan was to freeze a ship into the Arctic ice sheet and float with it over the North Pole.
The trouble is, as Shackleton found when Endurance became trapped in the ice, that ice can exert quite a lot of squeezing pressure.
Enough to crush Endurance and send her to the bottom under the Antarctica ice sheet of the Weddell Sea in 1915, never to be seen again.
Shackleton and his hardy team barely made it out alive. Years before this Fridtjof Nansen was fully aware of the risks and challenges, and realised that any ship commissioned to deliberately get frozen into the ice would have to be a bit special.
He turned to the Scottish-Norwegian shipwright Colin Archer of Larvik to design and build the Fram (Forward in Norwegian) for his 1893 Arctic expedition.
Nansen specified a ship that could survive the pressure, not only by pure strength, but because it would be of a shape designed to let the ice push the ship up, so it would “float” on top of the ice.
With a curved strong hull, the ice’s pressure would exert an upward force so that the Fram would rise rather than be crushed. The principle can be illustrated by squeezing a round nut between the fingers and seeing how it pops upwards.
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Archer built a three-masted schooner with a total length of 39 meters and a beam of 11 meters with an unusually wide, curved, and shallow hull. This meant that although she rolled foully in a cross sea, she survived when trapped in the ice.
At the time she was the strongest ship that had ever been built; hand-picked materials that included oak, iron, pitch pine, Norwegian pine and greenheart were used.
Wherever possible all components were either laid double or were strengthened. The naturally-formed oak frames were bolted double to become 56 cm wide, and laid only 5 cm apart.
The space between was filled with a mixture of pitch, tar, and sawdust for insulation. The hull was 70-80 cm thick with three layers of planking; two inner ones of oak and a durable outer ice sheathing of dense greenheart, fastened so that the ice could tear it off without serious damage to the integrity of the whole.
No bolt penetrated the entire thickness of the hull in order to avoid a conduit for cold and damp to enter the ship.
The keelson was of strong resinous decay-resistant pitch pine laid double, and the ship’s stem was formed out of three solid oak logs giving a thickness of 1.25m.
Iron strakes protected the bow and stern from ice damage.
In addition to this incredibly strong hull, there were other adaptations that would save the Fram and its crew in the ice.
Three heavy U-shaped iron frames reinforced the rudder, and both the rudder and the propeller could be lifted up into protective wells safe from the ice.
Initially, a steam engine was fitted, though this was replaced with a diesel engine, (a first for polar exploration vessels) prior to Amundsen’s later expedition to the South Pole in 1910.
The living quarters were insulated with three layers of panelling and tarred felt under the outer pitch pine; there had to be enough comfort to allow the crew to live on board for up to five years.
Large batteries charged by a windmill-driven generator gave electric lighting for the long nights.
And it worked. Fram survived being frozen in the Arctic ice, sailing (drifting) further north (85°57’N) than any other ship before Amundsen took her further south (78°41’S) than any other wooden ship.
She carried him on his quest to become the first to trek to the South Pole, beating Scott by a mere 34 days.
Fram is preserved at the Fram Museum in Oslo, Norway, where it was a thrill to see her, read about her exploits, and clamber all over her.
Her toughness has to be seen to be believed; we were in awe.
For Carol it was a dream come true. I quite enjoyed it too…