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East Greenland Expedition (Pan Am) 1932 -33


  • This was a small expedition consisting of four men: Gino Watkins‘ (leader), Rymill, Chapman, and Riley.
  • Their intention was to follow up their work of the previous summer, investigating the possibility of an air route through the Arctic. The American airline Pan Am funded them to look into the possibility of constructing an air base in the Arctic.
  • Sadly, Watkins died in an accident whilst out seal hunting, he is presumed to have drowned when his kayak capsized.
  • The men continued the expedition but were forced to narrow its aims as they were now one man short. They undertook meteorological observations, collected flora and fauna specimens, as well as surveying 175 square miles.
  • They met with many indigenous people, some of whom they had met on previous expeditions.

Please note the photographs for this expedition are forthcoming.

Originally Watkins had hoped to travel to the Antarctic to settle a dispute about whether its two halves were joined or separate. However, due to lack of funds he turned his attentions to the Arctic. Vilhjalmur Stefansson, the Arctic advisor to Pan-American Airways, offered Watkins £500 to follow up his work of the previous year and take a party to East Greenland. The intention was to carry out meteorological work and investigations into flying conditions. Pan Am were looking for an air route between Britain and Canada and this would require a base to refuel somewhere in the Arctic.

The Royal Geographic Society contributed £200 and lent instruments to facilitate surveying, the Meteorological Office lent meteorological instruments, and the newspaper The Times gave £100 in return for the press rights. This amount fell very short of the £14,000, which had been collected for Watkins’ previous expedition.

The party would have to be small, consisting of only four members. The plan was that Riley would establish a meteorological station, Rymill and Chapman would survey the area, and Watkins would supplement their food supplies by hunting seals. In the autumn and the spring the group would undertake large scale local survey using sledges to go as far as possible into the mountains.

The sailed in July on a Danish ship the Gertrud Rask to Angmagssalik, calling in at Scoresby Sound on the way. There they met indigenous people, many of whom they knew from the previous expedition; and they were able to show them a film which had been shot on that expedition. They then travelled by boat up to Lake Fjord; Riley set up a meteorological station, and Rymill and Chapman began surveying. Watkins started seal hunting so that a store could be made to last them through the winter, when there would be no seals to hunt.

On 20 August Watkins’ was hunting alone, against local recommendation, in an area that was known to be precarious. It is believed that his kayak upturned and he jumped from the ice flow into the water to try and stop the kayak being carried away. He was known to cope poorly with very cold water. When the empty kayak was found floating his companions searched for him but his body was never found, he died aged 25.

Following Watkins’ death Rymill took over as leader of the expedition, he was the oldest and most experienced member of the team. After relaying their news to Pan Am the men carried on, however, the large sledging trip to Godhaab would need to be abandoned as they no longer had enough men. On 2 September the men had their hut and stores delivered to Lake Fjord. As their survival counted on there being a supply of fresh meat and their best hunter had died, time that was meant to have been spent carrying out scientific experiments had to be given over to hunting. However, sledging trips were undertaken to survey the mountains and glaciers, and a local survey was carried out at Angmagssalik.

Whilst Rymill waited behind at Lake Fjord undertaking meteorological observations, Chapman and Riley travelled to Angmagssalik. There they joined in the search and rescue of an American family whose plane had crash-landed. Riley and Chapman returned and the men wintered there waiting to begin their sledging trips.

By the beginning of February the sledging journeys began, first Rymill and Chapman went to Angmagssalik where they could get more dogs. Unable to secure the dogs they decided to lighten their loads and adjust their route so they could begin mapping straight away. They made it to Sermiligak Fjord where there was a settlement, there they were able to buy some more dogs so they then had ten each. From there they returned to base camp.

Back at base they waited for better weather, whilst they waited they carried out local surveying and went to climb Mount Forel. However, they realised that as there were only two of them it would have been madness to attempt a climb and so surveyed the area instead. They had hoped to go further but were forced to return to base camp due to poor weather.

Once the weather improved Riley and Rymill went off surveying. Chapman had damaged his knee before he left Britain and it had been causing him pain ever since, before his previous sledge journey he had rested it for a month in the hope it would improve. Chapman spent a month alone at the base camp where he undertook meteorological measurements.

The group managed to secure passage to Iceland on board the Nordtsjern, which gave them a month to finish off their work. Chapman was to spend a month with indigenous people studying birds, whilst Rymill and Riley went down the coast to improve on their maps. They would then meet up in Angmagssalik to catch the Nordstjern. On 12 September the Nordstjern entered the harbour, leaving on 17 September. They reached Reykjavik on 24 September where they caught a steamer to Hull.

Their survey covered 175 square miles of mountainous country. They had also undertaken meteorological observations and studied the flora and fauna collecting many specimens.  Before their returned they erected a memorial in memory of Watkins.

Further Information

Hayes, J.G. (1934) The Conquest of the North Pole. Thornton Butterworth Ltd.

Chapman, F.S. (1934) Watkins’ Last Expedition. London:Chatto and Windus.