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.

Polar Regions, Vikings and Tomatoes

So what’s the relationship between the three things in the title you may ask? Since I’m three quarters Norwegian by heritage and I’ve always loved stories about exploring, it’s not surprising that I developed an interest in the vast explorations during the heyday of the Vikings. Their explorations covered an area including North America, Greenland, Europe, the Mediterranean and Russia. And they or their direct descendants not only settled many of these areas, but they also help set up major trading economies and helped establish stable governments, particularly in Russia, Iceland, and Sicily. And today Viking descendants are helping us in other ways.

The time I spent in Antarctica aboard the Glacier significantly increased my interest in polar regions, which led to my reading more about important Norwegian explorers like Nansen and Amundsen. The direct and indirect influence Norwegians have had on both the Arctic and the Antarctic is quite impressive.

I’ve always liked tomatoes, but modern day tomatoes don’t taste as good as the kinds I had more than sixty years ago when I was a little kid in Minnesota. It turns out that those good tasting tomatoes were less uniform, uglier and harder to transport. Round red tomatoes were not only easier to ship, but they also were more aesthetically pleasing and sold better. It wasn’t long before that was the only kind of tomato readily available. More recently, heirloom tomatoes are making a comeback, thanks to those who saved the seeds of the older varieties.

So what is it that links tomatoes, Vikings and polar regions? The connection has to do with plant seeds in general and all those plants that are dying out because of global warming, natural disasters, depleted soils, agribusiness practices, etc. It turns out there is a Global Seed Vault housed in a large tunnel and bunker in Svalbard, Norway— an island archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. The seed bank there opened in 2008 and now stores seeds from close to 900,000 plant varieties. The state-of-the-art facility collecting the seeds is funded by the Government of Norway and is the result of a partnership between Norway, the Nordic Genetic Research Center and the Global Crop Diversity Trust.

We need to do all we can to preserve and maintain the planets dwindling biodiversity. Hats off to the government of Norway and their partners.