The Fram was the first ship to be built in Norway specifically for polar research. Used first by Nansen in his expedition to reach the North Geographic Pole in 1893 and then later by the Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen (1872–1928) to support his highly successful expedition to the South Geographic Pole in 1911. The ship occupies a very special position in polar history, supposedly having sailed farther north and south than any other wooden ship.
Nansen commissioned the shipwright Colin Archer to create a ship able to withstand the crushing pressures of sea ice. The resulting ship was a three masted schooner with a wide and shallow base, and featured an unusual curved hull that would allow the ship to be lifted by the ice rather than crushed by it. Manufactured from oak and iron, the ship had a durable outer ice sheath of dense greenheart wood, fastened in such a way that it could be torn off by the ice without damaging the ship. The ship’s rudder was iron-strengthened and the stern was constructed to enable the rudder and propeller to be hoisted away from ice. Powered at first by a steam engine, the ship was later remodelled and fitted with a modern Swedish diesel engine for Amundsen’s expedition; a first for polar exploration vessels.
Amundsen was fascinated from an early age with polar exploration, inspired by stories of travel in the Arctic. Particularly drawn to accounts of the ill-fated Franklin Expedition in 1845 to traverse the Northwest Passage, Amundsen was determined to lead his own polar expedition. After gaining his first polar experience overwintering on the Belgica in the Southern Ocean, Amundsen started planning his own expedition. On the advice of Nansen, Amundsen purchased a small ship called the Gjøa, in which he led the first expedition to successfully traverse the Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans in 1903. During this trip Amundsen spent time with the local Netsilik people, learning Arctic survival skills that proved to be invaluable on later trips.
On his return to Norway, Amundsen was granted the use of the Fram for a new expedition to explore the Arctic Ocean and claim the North Geographic Pole; as Nansen had originally intended. When it was announced in September 1909 that the Americans, Commander Robert Peary and Frederick Cook both separately claimed to have reached the North Geographic Pole, Amundsen abandoned his plans, deciding instead to make a bid for the last great polar prize – the South Geographic Pole.
Amundsen was wary of alerting other polar explorers to his plan and determined to keep his plans a secret, particularly from British explorer Robert Falcon Scott who had announced his own expedition South. Hiding his true intentions from all but a handful of the team, Amundsen began planning in earnest, selecting the equipment and provisions for the expedition with his typical attention to detail. The ship was soon heavily laden with 97 Greenland dogs, skis and sledge equipment, materials for a prefabricated hut and scientific equipment. Finally, on 9 August 1910 the Fram left Norway with much of the crew still believing that their ultimate destination was north via the Bering Strait. It was only when the ship stopped at the island of Madeira that Amundsen informed the crew of the change of plans. Given the option of returning home, all nineteen of the crew chose to proceed.
When Scott and his ship the Terra Nova arrived in Melbourne on 12 October 1910, he was met with a brief, blunt telegram from Amundsen: “BEG TO INFORM YOU FRAM PROCEEDING ANTARCTIC — AMUNDSEN.” The race for the South Geographic Pole was on.