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Arctic explorer Baron Nordenskjold and his famous ship, the Vega

Posted in Exploration, Historical articles, History, Ships on Monday, 30 July 2012

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This edited article about the Vega originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 756 published on 10th July 1976.

Baron Nordenskjold, picture, image, illustration

Baron Nordenskjold, the great Arctic explorer, with the Vega

Nils Adolf Eric Nordenskjold, stands out as one of the great giants of Arctic exploration. Equally famous is his ship, Vega, which took him on his famous voyage through the North-East Passage to the Pacific.

He was born a Finn, but because of his political activities, he had to leave his native home in his mid-twenties. From then on, Stockholm became his adopted city.

He soon became obsessed with the idea of arctic exploration, and spent several years exploring those hostile regions.

By 1864, he had become well known enough to be made the leader of an expedition, equipped to winter on Spitzbergen. The occasion produced the most comprehensive data so far on any arctic land. He made two attempts on the Pole, using Spitzbergen as a base, and in 1868 reached the farthest point north yet attained by a ship. Four years later he tried again, this time using reindeer-drawn sledges. Unfortunately, he smashed the runners on the rough ice and had to give up.

After making a trip to the ice-cap of Northeast Land and the ice-cap of Greenland, he became interested in the activities of the whaling ships, and then by the vast expanse of unknown water along the Siberian coast.

He did not see it as the romantic route to Cathay as others had done, but rather as an advantageous trade route.

In 1878, after making two exploratory probes, he set off to explore the region in a Russian merchantman named Vega, accompanied by three merchant ships which were to travel with her on the first part of her journey. Her crew, which was an international one, was made up of scientists, naval and army officers and some sailors as well as a surgeon.

After parting with their escort, except for a steam launch, the Vega experienced ice and fog, and even more alarmingly, illusions caused by the mist and ice which made gulls appear as large as bears. Nevertheless, they were able to discover areas rich in animal fossils, and also made important longitudinal corrections, as well as finding some hitherto unknown islands.

Then suddenly things began to go wrong. The weather, which had been good, suddenly worsened. By the early September they were being troubled by snow and drifting ice. With incredible slowness, they crept on, with the accompanying steam launch taking continual soundings.

With the days becoming shorter, they found navigation more and more difficult, until finally the ice closed its remorseless grip around them. After ten seemingy endless months, a strong wind finally broke up the ice floes.

The Vega sailed past Serdze Kamen, the point to which Bering had sailed, more than a century earlier. At 11 a.m. on July 20th, they were abreast of East Cape. There, with national colours flying, they shattered the peace of the Northern Waters with cannon fire, to salute their achievement.

As soon as they came out of the ice, south of East Cape, they noticed a heavy swell beneath their keel. It was the Pacific Ocean.

The Vega made a triumphant voyage home to Stockholm, where Nordenskjold was made a baron. But this was not the end of arctic explorations.

In 1883 he made another voyage in which he became the first man to break through the ice barrier on Greenland’s east coast.

He died in 1901, leaving behind him an indispensable collection of hand-drawn maps, and charts.

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