During April and May of 1972, it seemed extraordinary that so much effort and activity was focused on a nondescript little ship that, just a century before, had begun her existence as a humble Norwegian herring sloop.
Still, the ship, known as the Gjøa, was commonly regarded as one of Norway's historic treasures. Built in 1872 in Norway to be strong and reliable, she was named after the owner's wife, which was a common practice during that time. Capt. Ronald Amundsen bought her in 1901 and fit her with a13 horsepower engine. From 1903 and 1906, Amundsen's command, the 70-foot craft had gone where no ship had sailed before, and her Norwegian crew achieved success where all others had failed.
This stalwart craft, which had sailed from Norway in June of 1903 with provisions for a five-year voyage, had journeyed 10,000 miles through the Arctic Ocean, discovering the elusive Northwest Passage, a route sought and dreamed about for centuries by the world's most esteemed maritime explorers. The Gjøa was the first ship in world history, north of Patagonia, to sail from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.
Another advantage of the location was that it was so close to the magnetic north pole that precise scientific measurements could be made there. For two years the expedition remained at the port that the men named Gjøahavn. There they built observatories, equipping them with high precision instruments. The studies they undertook not only established the position of the magnetic north pole, but also included observations of such precision that they provided experts on polar magnetism with sufficient work to last them for 20 years. Amundsen also learned from the Eskimos how to drive dog teams. He carefully observed the clothes the Eskimos wore, the food they ate and their customs, storing it all in his retentive memory for later use in polar regions.
In August 1905, the scientific work was completed and the "Gjøa" resumed its westerly course through fog and drift ice. So shallow was the channel that at one point the vessel had only one inch of water beneath its keel. As the "Gjøa" moved slowly along its perilous course, Amundsen and his crew realized that they would soon be in waters that were known and charted by navigators moving eastwards from Alaska. Should no further problems arise they would have completed the final stage of their journey through the Northwest Passage. After three weeks of mounting tension and excitement the expedition sighted a whaling ship out of San Francisco. The "Gjøa" had successfully navigated the Northwest Passage, the first vessel to do so. But shortly after this it froze into the ice, where it remained all winter.
During the course of this arduous and precarious journey Amundsen had adroitly navigated the ice floes, pinpointed the North Pole and the precise location of magnetic north. The ship and her crew of six were often forced to endure vicious Arctic winds and temperatures that plummeted to 79 degrees below zero. During his passage, he wintered at a community he named Gjøa Haven, which is located on King William Island, and is still thriving, complete with Amundsen Hotel, and on the Internet today.
Gjøa threaded her way through the Northwest Passage, reaching the Bering Sea by August of 1905. Amundsen set off at once via dogsled on a 500-mile, two-month odyssey to the U.S. Army outpost of Fort Egbert at Eagle City in the Yukon. From there he could telegraph Norway, informing his government that the Northwest Passage had at last been located.
Meanwhile, under the direction of Lt. Godfred Hansen, vice-commander of the expedition, the Gjøa began the last leg of her journey, a 44-day voyage from Nome, Alaska, to San Francisco.
During the final 48 hours of the trip, off the California coast near the Golden Gate, the 47-ton Gjøa experienced some of the most treacherous currents and the worst weather conditions she had experienced in three years.
The sloop finally dropped anchor in San Francisco Bay on Oct. 19, 1906. City residents, especially those in its Norwegian community, celebrated vigorously. There were days of feasting, and aquavit flowed freely.
San Francisco's press sought superlatives to describe the Gjøa's amazing voyage. Local journalists declared that Amundsen, now 35, was "the last Viking." The boat was put on display in San Francisco, but was deteriorating. The Gjøa Foundation petitioned to have it returned to Norway in 1972. Upon arrival in Oslo, Gjøa underwent thorough restoration. She is presently displayed at Oslo's National Maritime Museum.
[Above was adapted from several articles including "The Gjøa's long, strange journey" By Michael Svanevik and Shirley Burgett (Special to The San Francisco Examiner),Publication date: 04/29/2002]