The Polar Ship Gjøa
The Gjøa’s construction and early history
The Gjøa was built to order by Asbjørn Sexe (1) in 1872. It was the fifth in a line of sloops from Knut Johannesson Skaala’s (2) shipyard in Rosendal, Hardanger. Timber for the ship was felled in the forests by Bjørgane in Ølve, while the mast and spars came from Varaldsøy. The ship was named after Gjøa Sexe, the skipper’s wife.
Hans Nerhus writes of the Gjøa that Sexe naturally was present when the sloop was launched (Nerhus 1981). When he stood under the bow to strike the wedge from under a skid, the wedge rebounded and hit him on the mouth so blood flowed. While wiping the blood away the comment came that “I have had many good kisses from Gjøa, but never as powerful as today.”
While skippering the Gjøa Sexe mainly sailed to the northern Norwegian provinces of Nordland and Finnmark. One winter he sailed the Gjøa from Bergen to Stamsund in 67 hours, which apparently was the Norwegian record for a sloop.
In 1882 the Gjøa was wrecked by Kabelvåg. Sexe sold his farm in Hardanger and moved to Haugesund. Asbjørn Sexe kept a close eye on the Gjøa’s fate and was extremely proud of his old sloop when she navigated the Northwest Passage in 1906. He sent a telegram to Roald Amundsen containing a poem of homage to Amundsen and the Gjøa. In translation it goes something like this:
Welcome greetings to you and your men
Fine and strong man
Because in old Norway there are few others like you.
Your ship is called Gjøa, as was my wife.
The vessel Gjøa was christened for love and life.
The namesake is gone, but you have, proud in victory,
Shown that old Gjøa anyway has survived the struggle.
Harald Finehair’s wife had the same name.
We take off our hat for his and her deeds.
So will your name live because of your fine, tough deed.
Mother Norway will bless you in the sagas’ wise account.
When Amundsen later held a lecture on the Gjøa expedition in Haugesund 8 April 1907, Sexe was apparently in the audience and the two Gjøa skippers met.
The wreck of the Gjøa was sold to O.J. Kaarbøe in Svolvær in 1882 and was brought to Gravdal, Vestvågøy, Nordland for reconstruction. While there she was sold to Tromsø skipper Hans Christian Johannesen (3) for 700 kroner. The Toftekalven brothers in Høylandsbygd bought the original rigging.
In 1884 Johannesen sailed the Gjøa to the Kara Sea and thereafter he made annual voyages in arctic waters. In 1897 the Gjøa was off the east coast of Greenland, before she sailed east to Virgohamna bay in Svalbard where Swedish S.A. Andrée was preparing to set off for the North Pole with his hydrogen balloon “The Eagle” (Örnen). The following year Johannesen sailed the Gjøa past Novaya Zemlya and returned to Tromsø via Franz Josef Land and Kvitøya in northeast Svalbard.
Amundsen buys the Gjøa
On 28 March 1901 Roald Amundsen signed the contract to buy the Gjøa. The sloop had been thoroughly examined and assessed beforehand and for 10 000 kroner Amundsen got the Gjøa with hunting equipment, boats and fixtures. That same summer the Gjøa was equipped for a test voyage in the Arctic Sea. Amundsen was well satisfied with the sloop, but several improvements were necessary before the Gjøa could sail towards the Northwest Passage.
The shipyard Tromsø Skipsverft put in extra strengthening of the hull, lengthened the ice sheathing down to the keel and improved the interior fittings. In May 1902 the Gjøa was strengthened with iron in Trondheim and a 13 HP Dan hot-bulb motor was put in. This was one of the first petrol engines to be installed in a Norwegian vessel.
The history of the first navigation of the Northwest Passage is well known (See the Fram Museum webpage). The Gjøa left Kristiania on 16 June 1903, and became the first ship to sail through the entire Passage. The crew in addition to Roald Amundsen were Godfred Hansen, Helmer Hansen, Anton Lund, Peder Ristvedt, Gustav Juel Wiik and Adolf H. Lindstrøm. The expedition arrived in Nome, Alaska on 30 August 1906 after two winterings in Gjøa Haven on King William Island and one at King Point by the Mackenzie Delta. The Gjøa anchored in San Francisco on 10 September 1906 and was met with enormous enthusiasm from the inhabitants there.
The Gjøa after the Northwest Passage
Amundsen wanted to sail the Gjøa round America and home, but was advised by Fridtjof Nansen not to do this because of the risk of sailing round Cape Horn. The Gjøa was left at the naval station in San Francisco under the watchful eye of the commanding officer. The Norwegian-Americans in San Francisco wanted to preserve the famous little ship and a committee was established which bought the sloop and gave her to the city of San Francisco.
On 5 July 1909 the Gjøa was pulled ashore and placed on a prominent site in the Golden Gate Park.
The Gjøa was a big attraction in San Francisco, but standing under an open sky, at the mercy of wind, sun and rain, she quickly deteriorated. In addition she was exposed to vandalism, fire and souvenir hunters. Plans existed to put the Gjøa into a protective building, but this was never realised. Finally the Gjøa was in such a bad state that there was talk of burning the wreck. Several private collections were needed to finance the most important maintenance, but this was not enough. In connection with the visit of the Norwegian Crown Prince and Princess to San Francisco in 1939, newspapers could announce that the restoration of the Gjøa had at last started. However, the work was stopped in 1941 owing to the war. It was renewed in 1947, when the ship was languishing in a dilapidated shack. The Norwegian parliament now granted money and the restoration could begin.
The Gjøa in transit
The restoration was finally completed in 1949, and on this special occasion the mayor of San Francisco promised that it was now the city’s responsibility to keep the ship in good order. This did not happen, and deterioration began again. Inferior materials, vandalism and lack of maintenance led to the efforts to bring the Gjøa back to Norway. People in San Francisco were positive to the plans and a Norwegian Gjøa committee was established in 1971. The only question was: Was the Gjøa in good enough condition to be moved?
The ship looked very good at this point in time. She had been painted in connection with the Norwegian royal visit in 1968, and she was given a new coat during the preparations for moving. Even the inside condition looked good. However, it became apparent that almost all the woodwork was infested with dry rot. The best-preserved parts were the original wood of the keel, the keelson, the bottom planks and some of the lower outer planking.
A hundred years after Roald Amundsen’s birth, in 1972, when the Gjøa herself was 100 years old, she was lifted up in the Golden Gate Park, placed on a trailer and driven to the harbour. There she was lifted again by a floating crane and placed on the deck of the M/S Star Billabong. The Gjøa arrived in Oslo on 2 June. The Oslo Harbour Office’s floating crane placed her on a concrete foundation by the shore outside the Fram Museum and the Gjøa was formally handed over to the Norwegian Maritime Museum.
Djupevåg Boatyard in Tørvikbygd carried out maintenance work during the summers 1972 and 1973. Almost all the deck and hull planks needed to be replaced. In spring 1974 the Gjøa was rigged and later the same year a cabin fore and aft were fitted out.
In connection with new and more comprehensive information about the Gjøa’s history in her new home, the Fram Museum is interested in coming into contact with readers who have photographs, documents, objects and other effects relating to the Gjøa and her voyages. Please contact us.
(1) Asbjørn Sexe was born in 1839 and married Gjøa Frøynes in 1869. She died in 1900, while Asbjørn lived until 1915.
(2) Knut was born in 1843. He was the son of boat builder Johannes Jørgensson, who also participated as one of the ordinary workers during the building of the Gjøa. Knut was married to Anna, who it is said helped to plane the keel together with her husband. Knut died in 1900, and Anna in 1931.
(3) Hans Christian Johannesen was born in 1846. From 16 years of age he spent all his time in the arctic seas as crew, and later skipper, on his father’s sloop the Lydianna. In 1878 he skippered the D/S Lena, which sailed together with Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld’s ship the Vega for depth sounding during the first part of Nordenskiöld’s historical first navigation of the Northeast Passage. He was ice pilot on the Correct which took Jonas Lie and Fridtjof Nansen “Through Siberia”. Nansen originally wanted to have Johannesen as skipper on the Fram, and Amundsen wanted him on the Maud. However, he suffered a stroke in 1917 and died in 1920.