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Transport in the Polar Regions

Since 1845, transport for polar expeditions has undergone many changes. The major shift has been that from the use of traditional sailing ships and sledges to the widespread development of motorised transport for use in polar exploration. Motorised transport was in use from the early 1900s, but it was many years before the problems with these early prototypes could be corrected to form the foundation for modern polar vehicles.

In addition to changes in land transport, the introduction of air transport began in the 1930s. This permitted aerial photography at the poles, allowing us to see them from a whole new perspective. Flights over the polar regions also allowed remote exploration and surveying, making it possible to survey areas which would have been difficult to cover on foot. Aircraft have also been used to provide support to ground teams, although more recently there has been a shift to attempt polar expeditions without outside assistance.

Today we see a combination of mechanised and more traditional transport methods. They both have their strengths and weaknesses and so their use together is ideal.

This resource package outlines the various transport methods used and examines the expeditions that used them.

Sea Transport

Before a polar expedition can even begin, the expedition members first have to get to the poles. For British explorers, the Arctic is geographically closer and some explorers have chosen the Arctic rather than Antarctica as their destination to minimise the cost of their journey. For example, H.G. (Gino) Watkins had wanted to travel to the Antarctic to explore Graham Land, but when he was unable to raise sufficient funds he took a smaller expedition to the Arctic, on the East Greenland Expedition (Pan Am) 1932. Sadly, Watkins died in a kayaking accident on this expedition. John Rymill, who was also on this expedition, went onto lead the British Graham Land Expedition 1934.

Many expeditions going south to Antarctica would make port in either New Zealand or Australia before sailing on. These British dominions made ideal stopping points for ships, allowing them to refuel and restock any supplies. As a product of this, New Zealand and Australia have a rich Antarctic history, playing a significant role in the expeditions of the heroic age and beyond.

During the so called heroic age of exploration (circa 1901-1922) it was common to charter a ship, often one designed as a whaling vessel, for a journey to either the Arctic or Antarctic. In the Arctic it was common for the ship to over winter, whereas in the Antarctic some ships would winter whilst others would return to Australia or New Zealand to pick up further supplies, returning when the ice receded. The ships that sail to the polar regions require strengthening if they are to be able to navigate their way through the pack ice and be able to withstand the pressures of the ice on the ship. During the heroic age of exploration ships were constructed with wooden hulls. These ships would be ice-strengthened to allow the wood to withstand the voyage. Typically this meant double planking to the hull around the waterline and bands of iron or metal sheeting on the outside of the ship. Some explorers went to the lengths of having a ship built to their own specifications.

The Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen presented his proposal for a radical new design to the Norwegian Geographical Society in 1890 and to the Royal Geographical Society in London in 1892. Fram (meaning “Forward”) was exceptional, with a rounded triple oak/greenwood hull, 24-28 inches (61-71 cm) thick, able to proceed under steam or sail power. Built in Scotland, she was immensely strong, weighing more than 400 tons. The total cost was £25,000. The design criteria included three main points: the hull was to be shaped to offer a minimal target for attack by ice; its rounded shape should withstand great pressure from any direction; she should be equipped with mechanical systems and provisions to survive a 5-year voyage without re-supply. If a ship with a rounded hull became ‘nipped’ (frozen into the ice) the pressure of the ice would cause the ship to rise up and preventing the ship from being crushed.

More recently ships have been built from steel, for example the Benjamin Bowring, the expedition ship for the Transglobe Expedition 1979-82 was built especially to be used in the polar regions. The ship has been built with a 75%-100% increase in shell plating thickness. This gave 3 centimetres of thick plating around the bow of the ship and frame spacing of 30 centimetres along the ship. They also had protection for the propeller and rudder to prevent them from damage in icy waters, and the stern of this ship was designed to ride up onto ice and break up any pack ice.

At times, ships have been frozen into the ice, sometimes deliberately, and at other times as the disastrous consequence of poor weather conditions. At best, a ship that became unexpectedly beset in the ice would be forced to unintentionally over winter. As long as the crew had enough supplies to last them a further year and the ice melted enough in the summer to free the ship, this was no great problem. Scott demonstrated this on the British National Antarctic Expedition 1901-04, during which the expedition’s ship Discovery was frozen into the ice. They were prepared for over wintering for a few years and the relief ship Morning made sure they had adequate supplies. However, when the ship was still frozen in the ice the following year this was problematic. Two ships, Morning and Terra Nova were despatched, with the orders that if Discovery remained frozen in the ice she was to be abandoned. The crew of Discovery tried frantically to free her; parties were arranged to try and saw her out of the ice, which realistically would have little effect. Luckily the ice retreated and Discovery was freed.

Unfortunately not all situations in which ships are trapped in the ice have such a happy ending. Whilst we do not know the exact fate of the British Naval Northwest Passage Expedition 1845-48 (led by Sir John Franklin) we do know that the ships Erebus and Terror were beset in the ice and were probably eventually crushed. This will have played a large role in the tragic fate of the expedition, stranding the men in the Arctic with no means of escape. In a similar situation, Endurance, the ship of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914-16 (led by Shackleton) was beset in the ice of the Weddell Sea and as it did not have a rounded hull was crushed. This stranded the men off the Antarctic coast and Shackleton began a journey to rescue his men, rather than carry out his expedition plans. Amazingly, Shackleton and his men would all safely return home, but this journey would take two years.

In the 1930s we see a shift away from chartering ships to the Arctic. Many smaller expeditions during this period were able to attain passage on sealing and whaling vessels. This allowed smaller groups to undertake research in the Arctic with little funding. During this period we see a rise in the number of university expeditions to the region. More recently, scientific expeditions have used their own ships, as these are equipped with the necessary instruments and laboratories for their experiments.


The kayak is a traditional indigenous form of transport in the Arctic, made from a wooden frame covered with sea mammal skin, with either a single or double ended blade to propel the kayak through the water. Used traditionally for hunting on lakes, rivers and coastal areas, some explorers to the Arctic who adopted indigenous survival techniques used the kayak to hunt walrus and seal to supplement their diet. Watkins was to become so good at hunting from a kayak during the British Arctic Air Route 1930 expedition that he intended to feed the East Greenland Expedition (Pan Am) 1932 almost entirely on the products of his hunting. Unfortunately Watkins (against the advice of the local indigenous people) was out alone in an area of water known to be treacherous when he died in an accident. As he was alone, we shall never know exactly what happened, but it is presumed his kayak capsized or drifted away from him. Watkins was never strong at swimming in cold water and it is presumed he drowned. Other members of the expedition had to take on the responsibility for hunting, so that they would have enough food.


Perhaps the most famous whaleboat is the James Caird. This was the modified whaleboat, used as a lifeboat on Endurance, in which Shackleton, Crean, Vincent, McNeish, Worsley and McCarthy sailed to find help for their crew stranded on Elephant Island during the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Once the Endurance had been crushed by ice, the men were stranded on an ice floe in the Southern Ocean with no means of getting home and no way of raising an alarm. Shackleton and his men knew their best bet was to get to South Georgia 800 miles away. They had used the whaleboats from the Endurance to transport all the men to Elephant Island, but Shackleton realised that not all the boats were capable of such a journey and neither were all the men.

One of the whale boats, James Caird, was modified to turn the open boat into a covered boat, allowing Shackleton and five of his men to sail through storms and gales, reaching South Georgia where the alarm was raised.
next page ‘Surface Transport’ »