Gjøa was the
first vessel to transit the Northwest Passage. With a crew of
six, Roald Amundsen traversed the passage in a three year
journey, finishing in 1906.
The 70 ft square-sterned 48 ton sloop was built by Kurt
Johannesson Skaale in Rosendal, Norway in 1872, the same year
Amundsen was born. She was named Gjøa after her owner's wife.
For the next 28 years she served as a herring fishing vessel,
before Amundsen bought her in 1900 from Asbjørn Sexe of
Ullensvang, Norway, for his forthcoming expedition to the Arctic
Ocean. Gjøa was much smaller than vessels used by other Arctic
expeditions, but Amundsen intended to live off the limited
resources of the land and sea through which he was to travel,
and reasoned that the land could sustain only a tiny crew (this
had been the cause of the catastrophic failure of John
Franklin's expedition fifty years previously). Her shallow
draught would help her traverse the shoals of the Arctic
straits. Perhaps most importantly the aging ship was all that
Amundsen (who was financing his expedition largely by spending
his inheritance) could afford.
Amundsen had little experience of Arctic sailing, and so decided
to undertake a training expedition before braving the Arctic
ice. He engaged Hans Christian Johannsen, her previous owner,
and a small crew, and sailed from Tromsø in April of 1901. The
next five months were spent sealing on the pack ice of the
Barents Sea. Following their return to Tromsø in September,
Amundsen set about remedying the deficiencies in Gjøa that the
trip had exposed. He had a 13 horsepower single-screw marine
paraffin motor installed (she had hitherto been propelled only
by sail, and had proved to be sluggish). Much of the winter was
spent upgrading her ice sheathing; Amundsen knew she would spend
several winters iced-in.
In the spring of 1902, her refit complete, Amundsen sailed her
to Christiania (later called Oslo), the capital of Norway. At
this time Norway was still in an (increasingly unhappy) union
with Sweden, and Amundsen hoped the nationalistic spirit which
was sweeping the country would attract sponsors willing to
underwrite the expedition's burgeoning costs. After much
wrangling, and a donation from King Oscar, he succeeded. By the
time Amundsen returned, Norway had gained its independence and
he and his crew were among the new country's first national
Amundsen was to serve as the expedition leader and Gjøa's
master. His crew were Godfred Hansen (a Danish naval lieutenant,
Gjøa's first officer), Helmer Hanssen (the second officer, an
experienced ice pilot - Hanssen was to accompany Amundsen on
many of his subsequent expeditions), Anton Lund (an experienced
sealing captain), Peder Ristvedt (the engineer), Gustav Juel
Wiik (the second engineer, a gunner in the Norwegian navy), and
Adolf Henrik Lindstrøm (the cook).
Gjøa left the Oslofjord on June 16, 1903, and made for the
Labrador Sea west of Greenland. From there she crossed Baffin
Bay and navigated the narrow, icy straits of the Arctic
Archipelago. By late September Gjøa was west of the Boothia
Peninsula and began to encounter worsening weather and sea ice.
Amundsen put her into a natural harbour on the south shore of
King William Island; by October 3 she was iced in.
There she remained for nearly two years, with her crew
undertaking sledge journeys to make measurements determine the
location of the North Magnetic Pole, and learning from the local
Inuit people. The harbour, known as Uqsuqtuuq (lots of fat) in
Inuktitut, has become the only settlement on the island - Gjoa
Haven, Nunavut has a population of just over 1000 people.
Gjøa left Gjoa Haven on August 13, 1905, and motored through the
treacherous straits south of Victoria Island, and from there
west into the Beaufort Sea. By October Gjøa was again iced-in,
this time near Herschel Island in the Yukon. Amundsen left his
men onboard and spend much of the winter skiing 500 miles south
to Eagle, Alaska to telegraph news of the expedition's success.
He returned in March, but Gjøa remained icebound until July 11.
Gjøa reached Nome on August 31, 1906. She sailed on to
earthquake ravaged San Francisco, California where the
expedition was met with a hero's welcome on October 19.
Rather than sail her round Cape Horn and back to Norway, the
Californian Norwegian American community prevailed on Amundsen
to sell her to them, and she was put on display in the city's
Golden Gate Park. Amundsen knew that the notoriety that his
exploits aboard Gjøa had earned him would allow him access to
Nansen's ship Fram, which had been custom-made for ice work and
was owned by the Norwegian state. Amundsen and his crew
travelled back to Norway by commercial ship. Only Wiik did not
return to Norway; he had died of illness during the third Arctic
Over the following decades Gjøa slowly deteriorated, and by 1939
she was in poor condition. Refurbishment was delayed by World
War II, and repairs were not completed until 1949. In 1972 Gjøa
was returned to Norway, and is now displayed in the Norwegian
Maritime Museum in Bygdøy, Oslo. A bauta (memorial pillar) now
stands at Gjøa's former home in San Francisco. The Gjøa was also
featured as a filming location in the 2005 documentary, The
Search for the Northwest Passage, in which Kåre Conradi played