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Gjøa, the first ship to sail through the Northwest Passage

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.[1]


  • History 1
    • Construction 1.1
    • Purchase by Amundsen 1.2
    • Journey through the Northwest passage 1.3
    • San Francisco: deterioration and restoration 1.4
  • Preservation 2
  • See also 3
  • Sources 4
  • References 5
  • External links 6


Gjøa in 1903, at the time of the Northwest passage expedition


The 70 by 20 ft (21.3 by 6.1 m) square-sterned sloop of 45 net register tonnage (4,500 cu ft or 130 m3) was built by Knut Johannesson Skaale in Rosendal, Norway in 1872, the same year Amundsen was born.[1] She was named Gjøa after her then owner's wife. (Gjøa is a modern form of the Norse name Gyða - this again is a compressed form of Guðfríðr, a compound of guð 'god' and fríðr 'beautiful'.) For the next 28 years the vessel served as a herring fishing boat.

Purchase by Amundsen

On March 28, 1901, Amundsen bought her 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 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.

Journey through the Northwest passage

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 heroes.

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 (who would accompany Amundsen on many of his subsequent expeditions), Anton Lund, an experienced sealing captain, Peder Ristvedt (1873-1955), the engineer, Gustav Juel Wiik, the second engineer, a gunner in the Royal Norwegian Navy, and Adolf Henrik Lindstrøm (1866-1939), the cook.[2]

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.[3]

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 over a thousand people (1,279 at the 2011 census).[4]

Gjøa arrives in Nome, August 1906

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 on board and spent 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.

San Francisco: deterioration and restoration

Rather than sail her round Cape Horn and back to Norway, the Norwegian American community in San Francisco prevailed on Amundsen to sell her to them. The ship was donated to the city of San Francisco and the ship was dragged up the beach[5][6][7][8] to the northwest corner of Golden Gate Park, surrounded by low fence and put on display. 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 traveled back to Norway by commercial ship. Of the expedition members, only Wiik did not return to Norway; he had died of illness during the third Arctic winter.

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. Being displayed outdoors and having faced 66 years of high winds, ocean salt and sand, the boat once again suffered deterioration until in 1972 Gjøa was returned to Norway.[9]


The Gjøa was displayed in the Norwegian Maritime Museum in Bygdøy, Oslo. In May 2009 the Norwegian Maritime Museum and the Fram Museum signed an agreement for the Fram Museum to take over the exhibition of the Gjøa. It is now displayed in the lower level of the Fram Museum.

A bauta (memorial pillar) now stands at Gjøa's former home in San Francisco.[10] The Gjøa was also featured as a filming location in the 2005 documentary, The Search for the Northwest Passage, in which Kåre Conradi played Amundsen.

See also


  • Roald Amundsen told the story of the exploration of the Norwest Passage in two volumes entitled Die Nordwestpassage. Meine Polarfahrt mit der Gjöa 1903 - 1907. the material was translated into English as The North-West Passage: Being the Record of a Voyage of Exploration of the ship "Gjøa" 1903-1907 (Ams Press Inc; June 1908, ISBN 978-0-404-11625-5 and reprinted Kessinger Pub Co, November 30, 2007, ISBN 978-0-548-77250-8).
  • Huntford, Roland (1999) The Last Place on Earth (Modern Library) ISBN 0-349-11395-5
  • Oterhals, Leo (2006) Havdrønn : om berømte båter og stolte båteiere (AS Lagunen) ISBN 82-90757-23-9


  1. ^ a b (Store norske leksikon)Gjøa – norsk polarskute
  2. ^ Et liv i isen: Polarkokken Adolf H. Lindstrøm (by Jan Ove Ekeberg, 2000. Kagge. ISBN 978-82-489-0075-7
  3. ^ Kieran Mulvaneu, At the Ends of the Earth: A History Of The Polar Regions, Island Press, 2001, p. 179, ISBN 1559639083, ISBN 9781559639088
  4. ^ Statistics Canada. 2012. Gjoa Haven, Nunavut (Code 6208081) and Nunavut (Code 62) (table). Census Profile. 2011 Census. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 98-316-XWE. Ottawa. Released October 24, 2012 (accessed May 20, 2014).
  5. ^ Roald Amundsen Marker - HISTORICAL MARKER DATABASE
  6. ^ The Gjoa - Western Neighborhoods Project - San Francisco History - The Roald Amundsen Monument - Or The Ship That Isn't There
  7. ^ 100 years since "Gjøa" arrived in San Francisco - Norwegian Consulate General San Francisco
  8. ^ San Francisco's Golden Gate Park - Chris Pollock
  9. ^ (Norwegian Consulate General San Francisco - years since "Gjøa" arrived in San Francisco
  10. ^ Gjoa Monument | Atlas Obscura

External links

  • The memorial bauta in San Francisco
  • Norsk Sjøfartsmuseum
  • Ships of the WorldHoughton Mifflin's
  • GJØA MODEL images

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