Furthest North; Surrendering to Ice

This is the Fram. I fell in love reading about her. Then I fell in love reading about the explorer that commissioned it, Fridtjof Nansen.


Let’s say you want to be the first to touch the North Pole. What do you do? Well if you’re like most Arctic and Antarctic explorers you get the strongest ship you can find, one that’s used to the conditions of the north. Whaling vessels, particularly Scottish-built whaling vessels had the best chance.

But here’s the problem for even the best wooden ships of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: Murderous ice.

As time moves toward winter, toward night-time temperatures, ice coagulates in the north. A ship can be trapped by developing ice in a relatively short period of time and then that ship can’t move, can’t find a passage, can’t get out.

The ice doesn’t stop.

It expands until it crushes the hull of the ship, allowing freezing water below the ice floes to enter the hold. At that point the best the men can do is to set up camp and wait for rescue. Or take one of the small ship’s boats, row to a northern town, hoping that they will not meet the same fate in a smaller boat because that means a quick, freezing death.

Here’s a chilling fact, most people who fall into Arctic water won’t live long enough to die from hypothermia. They’ll succumb to the cold shock response in under two minutes or cold incapacitation that will cause them to drown, unable to move their arms and legs well enough to swim.

If you are an explorer whose ship goes down in Arctic, chances are you are going to die unless you set up camp and someone rescues you. Your best chance is prevention. You need to keep the ice from crushing your ship.

Breaking the ice so that the ship could move is critical. Nineteenth century explorers strengthened the hull and prow with extra wood beams and with metal. They packed explosives to open passages through the ice. They added extra engines and power to force their way through the ice.

But what if the ice isn’t the enemy? What if it’s the solution?

Fridtjof Nansen realized that a transpolar current moved flotsam through the Arctic. He reasoned that this current must operate even when the Arctic seemed locked in by ice. Why fight nature, he thought.

The solution? Design a ship that resisted the grasp of the ice “the way a cherry pip squeezed between thumb and forefinger pops into the air.” He told naval architect, Colin Archer, that he wanted the hull to be “round and as slippery as an eel.”

If Nansen created a ship that could survive being locked in ice without succumbing to the crushing power of nature, he reasoned the ship would move through the currents like flotsam, eventually arriving at the furthest point north, the prize for Arctic exploration.

The Fram was born.

Unlike other ships that avoided the ice, the Fram sailed straight into the ice pack. The crew removed the engine and rudder, making the ship as smooth as possible. Ice engulfed the Fram, but didn’t crush her. Instead, she moved as the ice moved, with the transpolar current, travelling 189 miles and reaching further north than any other exploration vessel of the time.

That’s the amazing story of the Fram. What I love about it is the moment of genius where Nansen realized that he could make it further north by working with the ice instead of against it. He realized that the ice was not an enemy to be attacked. It is an environment that he could work within.

I’m agog at the breathtaking courage it must take to say, “Yes, I am here to join an expedition that intends to purposely get stuck in the ice.”

I want to write a short story about the Fram for the Superstars anthology, but I feel utterly inadequate to the brilliance of Nansen’s idea. So I am telling you about it here as I contemplate how to find my way through the ice to a story that can be told in about 3,500 words (my goal word count).

If you want to know more about the Fram, here’s a good article on it. Or you can read about Nansen’s adventure in his own words, Furthest North.

Hope you are not stuck in the ice, or that if you are you find a truly innovative solution. Be well, friends.



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