The First Vessel to Transit the Northwest Passage
Original photo postcard postmarked 1936, San Francisco.
From the archives of the Saltwater People Historical Society.
Amundsen began preparing himself for this calling. He practiced daily exercises to produce a super body and strength for the trials of life in the Arctic.
Together with a companion, he undertook a several-day, cross-the-mountains trip in the dead of winter to become somewhat acquainted with hardships in the frozen north.
On reading of past Arctic explorers he discovered one flaw in their management organization. The ships had an exploration leader and also a captain on the vessel. Many times the two were at odds. Amundsen determined to avoid this possibility by studying navigation and ship handling. To add to his knowledge, he shipped out on a sailing vessel bound for antarctic exploration.
Amundsen acquired the GJÖA on credit, and proceeded to outfit her in Oslo. He had sought financial backing both in Norway and Germany but had not obtained sufficient backing. On 16 June 1903 his creditors demanded payment. He was without funds. That night, Amundsen and his six followers slipped the GJÖA's moorings and sailed out of Oslo and into the North Atlantic beyond the reach of his creditors.
The GJÖA was a one-mast vessel of 74-ft. in length, 11-ft. of beam, shallow draught, and 47-tons. The GJÖA also had a small gas engine, although these machines were not very reliable at that time. Stops were made along the coast of Greenland where additional supplies and 20 dogs were obtained.
They sailed north and then west through Lancaster Sound, thence south; on 9 September, with winter threatening, they found a small, snug harbor on the south end of King William Island and named it GJÖA Harbor. A shore camp was set up including a building for magnetic observations. For this, Amundsen had made careful preparations. Only coppers nails were used and all other precautions were taken to avoid any object that could affect the magnetic observations. Hunting parties went forth and secured over 100 caribou for winter food.
Amundsen and party were secure and safe in this snug harbor and finally departed on 13 August 1905, having spent nearly two years there performing scientific studies. During this time, they found the last camp of the Franklin Expedition where those men had perished.
Amundsen then sailed west through Simpson Strait, between King William Island and an unnamed peninsula jutting north from the continent. This area had been charted by shore parties, but no sounding had been obtained. Three weeks were required for the GJÖA to negotiate this channel, with many times only one inch between the keel and the bottom. At other times they were stuck in the sand.
On 26 August 1905, when they sighted the whaler CHARLES HANSSON of San Francisco, they realized they had finally completed the Northwest Passage. They had just sailed west through Coronation Gulf, Dolphin and Union Strait, and into the Beaufort Sea. On 2 September they were beset by new ice and had to seek shelter for another winter. They found a location behind several icebergs, only a few miles from Herschel Island where several vessels of the whaling fleet were secured in harbor for the winter. The winter of 1905-1906 was spent icebound. When the thaw came, Amundsen and GJÖA proceeded west past Point Barrow, south through the Bering Sea, the North Pacific Ocean and on to San Francisco. He entered the Golden Gate in October 1906.
The GJÖA became the first vessel to transit this most fabled waterway--the Northwest Passage. For many years the GJÖA was open for show in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Several years ago, the GJÖA was returned to Oslo on the deck of a steamship and is on display there.
The adventurous Amundsen went on to be the first man to reach the South Pole. Eventually, he lost his life in the Arctic in 1928 during a attempted rescue of the explorer Umberto Nobile who had crashed in the dirigible ITALIA."
Text by Captain J. Edward Shields,
Writing for the Journal of the P.S.M.H.S.
The Sea Chest, June 1995