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Daily Journals

September 3, 2006

Kapitan Dranitsyn and Tara  - copyright Francis Latreille/Tarawaka
©Francis Latreille/Tarawaka

Today was historic. We met the French sailing vessel, Tara, and helped it motor north alongside an ice floe. Tara will spend the next two years frozen in the ice while her crew conducts scientific research. After hearing about the high-tech research that is currently being done in the Arctic, Tara and her crew might seem to be going back to the early days of polar exploration. But Tara is a unique combination of advanced 21st century technology and adventurous 19th century spirit. Before discussing Tara, let's first set the stage by looking at the history of polar exploration and one of its most notable ships, the Fram.

For centuries, people have yearned to explore the frozen sea. Early explorers were undoubtedly looking for many of the things that drive people to endure the hardships of the far north today — resources, shipping routes and the desire to see what lies beyond the horizon. Early explorers faced the same formidable obstacles that modern-day explorers face — total darkness in the winter, frigid temperatures, high winds and treacherous sea ice — but those early explorers battled the elements without modern equipment. Early attempts at sailing to the North Pole often met with failure or worse.

In 1879, an American ship, the Jeannette, traveled through the Bering Strait in an attempt to reach the North Pole. The ship became trapped in the pack ice and drifted slowly west, where, in June of 1881, she was crushed by the ice and sank. Less than half of the Jeannette’s crew survived the trek across hundreds of miles of ice required to reach land. (To learn more about the Jeannette’s voyage, visit the Naval Historical Center.)

Curiously, the Jeannette's demise provided valuable scientific information. Three years after being crushed by the ice, debris from the ship was found along the southern Greenland coast, 2,900 nautical miles from where she sank. This provided direct evidence of the speed and direction of sea ice drift and gave Fridtjof Nansen, a young Norwegian explorer, an idea for reaching the North Pole.

Nansen’s plan involved trapping his ship in ice and allowing it to drift with the ice. He believed the direction of drift would take his ship to the North Pole. Nansen commissioned a specially designed polar ship with a three-layered, metal-reinforced wooden hull that could withstand the crushing pressures of moving ice. To make sure the ship would be pushed above the ice instead of being crushed by it, the ship’s hull had a rounded bottom. The ship was named Fram, which is Norwegian for "forward."

The ship Fram frozen in ice - photographer unknownNansen departed Bergen, Norway in the Fram in 1893. The Fram headed eastward and then turned north into the ice pack. She became trapped in the ice not far from where we are with Tara today (79° 50.88' N, 143° 34.48' E). For three years, the ship was carried by the ice across the Arctic, but never reached Nansen's goal of the North Pole.

Realizing that the drift would not carry the Fram far enough north, Nansen and Fredrik Hjalmar Johansen set out in March of 1895 to reach the Pole on skis. Lines of ice ridges blocked their progress northward, and, after reaching only a little beyond 86° N, they were forced to turn back when they began to run low on supplies.

Unable to locate the Fram, they trudged for almost 400 miles until reaching Franz Josef Land (we will pass near there later in this trip). Nansen and Johansen survived the winter season living in a stone hut, killing bears and walrus for food and clothing, and burning blubber for fuel.

In the spring of 1896, Nansen and Johansen headed south and encountered a British exploratory party who transported them back to a port in Norway. Ironically, the Fram returned to the same port that same week, after finally being freed from the drifting pack ice. (Visit the Fram Museum to learn more about the Fram and her amazing history.)

The voyage of the Fram provided oceanographers with a great deal of information about the central Arctic Ocean; and the endurance and heroism of her crew inspired many of the polar explorers that followed.

Tara is similar in length (~100 ft) to Fram, but narrower and lighter (aluminum hull instead of wood). Just as the Fram’s voyage over 100 years ago brought a new understanding about the Arctic, Tara's mission will shed a great deal of light on the oceanography of this region. Her crew will surely have stories of endurance and heroism to tell as they drift across the Arctic Ocean with their ship. (Visit to learn about Tara's mission and crew and to read daily logs throughout the mission.)

—Mike Dunn


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Kapitan Dranitsyn