The Fram - World-Famous Record-Breaking Ship

Last week I was thrilled to see the totally intact Fram in the Oslo museum dedicated to it. The ship was designed by one of my heroes, Fridtjof Nansen - arguably Norway’s most famous citizen based on his accomplishments as a polar explorer, inventor, scientist, and Nobel Peace Prize winner. He designed the Fram to withstand the pressures of the polar ice pack. It became the model for all subsequent icebreakers, including the one on which I served, the USCGC Glacier. Like the Fram, the Glacier had a rounded bottom so that it would be forced out of the icepack rather than crushed by it. Nansen’s design clearly worked. The Fram survived three years frozen in the polar ice pack between 1893 and 1896. The ship also took Roald Amundsen to Antarctica when he became the first to reach the South Pole. To this day it remains the record holder for the ship that has traveled the combined furthest north and furthest south.

In some ways the Fram was even better suited for surviving the icepack than the Glacier because it had a retractable rudder and two-bladed prop that was protected in the vertical position by the rudder. US Coast Guard icebreakers have suffered more than a few damaged props, particularly in the Antarctic where I was deployed.

Although the Fram was built of wood, it was built to withstand stresses three times stronger than the pressure it took to force it out of the ice. The bow and stern were strengthened with oak 1.25 m thick. The sides were 70 to 80 cm thick and had three layers: the two inner ones of oak and the outer one of greenheart. The hull was supported by 400 naturally-grown knee-shaped oak ribs bolted together. The pure grain of these naturally shaped oak knees made them far stronger. Using naturally shaped wood segments was a technique perfected by the ancient Vikings. There was no more than 30 to 40 cm space between the ribs.

As far as I know, the hull of the Fram was never punctured. In contrast, the Glacier’s hull was punctured by the tongue of a submerged iceberg. Although our outer hull was torn, the inner hull buckled but did not give way. It was a close call.

The Fram had a couple of things aboard that we did not have on the Glacier—an upright piano and a gramophone. Nansen knew that he had to provide all of the entertainment he could to help keep up morale during the cold dark polar nights.

Although the Fram was tough, it was small, measuring 128’ by 34’. And their “staterooms” were far from stately. I would have needed to sleep diagonally in one of those staterooms to completely stretch out my 6’ 2” frame. Only that would not have worked because that space would have been shared with at least one other sailor. In comparison, the small interior stateroom I had to myself aboard the Glacier was a veritable palace.


 A thrill to see Fram in Oslo. Designed by  Nansen. It survivedcrushing polar ice 1893-96. Took Amundsen to Antarctica. Furthest north to south travel of any ship ever.