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The Mapmakers: An Essay in Four Parts
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20th Century

Three Arctic Vessels

Drawing: Amundsen's ship, the "Gjöa"

Given the size of the massive icebreakers that smash their way through the Northwest Passage today, it is ironic that the first vessel to navigate the passage was no larger than an average-sized wooden pleasure cruiser. The Gjöa was a 22 metre long fishing boat when Roald Amundsen found it in northern Norway, named for the wife of the first owner. The vessel was rigged for sailing, but Amundsen installed a 13 horsepower diesel engine. "Our successful negotiation of the North West Passage," he wrote, "was very largely due to our excellent little engine." (Delgado 1999, 171) Along with the engine, he reinforced the hull with beams and added a 76-mm-thick layer of oak around the bow.

Amundsen's plan was to launch a small expedition. The Gjöa had a crew of just six, plus seventeen sled dogs. (It was hoped that the dogs, as much as possible, would live off the land.) Amundsen knew that the expedition would take him close to shore in narrow channels, littered with shoals, and that such a route was best attempted by a light vessel with a shallow draft. Where others had tried to smash through the ice, he would manoeuvre around and between the floes. Amundsen's plan worked. Today the Gjöa is preserved in dry-dock at the Norsk Sjofartsmuseum in Oslo, Norway.

Captain Bernier's vessel, the Arctic, deserves an honoured place alongside the Gjöa in Canadian maritime history. It was already a veteran of polar exploration when Bernier purchased it for the Canadian government in 1904. Built in Germany as the Gauss, it had taken part in an expedition to the Antarctic in 1901-03 where it became just the second vessel in history to spend the winter. Made of oak, with a 275 horsepower engine and a crew of more than 30 men, at 50 metres the Arctic was much larger than the Gjöa.  --  it had to be to carry out the many duties assigned to it. As well as exploring the archipelago, the Arctic was a patrol vessel, supplying police outposts, surveying harbours, collecting customs and, eventually, making it possible for Canada to lay claim to its most northerly territories.

Photograph: Captain Bernier and Nu-Kood-Lah on board the "Arctic"

The Arctic travelled tens of thousands of kilometres through the northern ice without a single serious mishap. During World War One it served as a lightship in the St. Lawrence River, but when the government launched a regular eastern Arctic patrol in 1922, the Arctic, with Captain Bernier at the helm, was pressed back into service for another four seasons. Following the 1925 cruise, Bernier retired and the Arctic was taken out of service and dismantled.

Photograph: The RCMP vessel "St. Roch" in the ice

A worthy successor to the Arctic was the St. Roch, launched in Vancouver in 1928 as a patrol vessel for the RCMP's northern division. It was a 32 metre, diesel-powered vessel with a rounded wooden hull that had been specially designed to absorb and deflect the force of the ice. In 1941-42, under Captain Henry Larsen, it replicated the voyage of the Gjöa but in the opposite direction, becoming the first vessel to complete the Northwest Passage from west to east. In 1950 it was the first vessel to circumnavigate North America. Retired in 1954, the St. Roch was declared a National Historic Site and sits in dry-dock, open to visitors, at the Vancouver Maritime Museum.

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