Nansen sought to improve upon the voyage of an earlier polar exploration that had ended in disaster. In 1879 the American ship U.S.S. Jeannette became locked in the ice pack above Siberia. It drifted in the Arctic for 21 months, but was eventually crushed by the pressure, and sank on June 13, 1881. Although the crew made a valiant sprint for Siberia, more than half the 33 men on the expedition perished. However, three years later, artifacts from the Jeannette were found washed up on the coast of Greenland after having drifted thousands of miles in the ice.
Reading about the Jeannette artifacts, Nansen wondered if the strong east-to-west current over the Arctic could be ridden to the North Pole—or at least close. And so an idea was hatched. It was an unorthodox notion, says Nansen biographer Roland Huntford, "to take note of the forces of nature, and try to work with them and not against them."
The trick, of course, was to build a boat far tougher than the Jeannette, and in 1891 Nansen hired a brilliant Norwegian naval architect of Scottish descent named Colin Archer to do just that. Archer's design featured a curiously rounded hull that lacked a pronounced keel, and wells that allowed the rudder and propeller to be hauled up to safety in the event of crushing ice. The hold of the ship was braced with mighty timbers. To keep the explorers warm, Nansen insulated his vessel with thick felt, reindeer hair, cork shavings, and tar. To fight off the perpetual blackness of the polar night, a windmill was installed to run electric arc lamps. Belowdecks were a cozy saloon decorated with carved dragon's heads and a library that Nansen stocked with some 600 carefully chosen volumes.
Nansen pronounced the vessel fit, and with thousands of well-wishers lining the Oslo harbor, his wife, Eva, christened the ship Fram. With a crew of 13 and provisions for five years, Nansen left Oslo in the summer of 1893, bound for the New Siberian Islands.
As expected, the Fram became locked fast in the ice in September. The pressure was intense, and the constant churning and scraping of the ice made ghastly sounds. "A deafening noise began, and the whole ship shook," Nansen wrote. "The noise steadily grows till it is like all the pipes of an organ." The ice, he wrote two days later, "is trying its very utmost to grind the Fram into powder ." But the Fram easily withstood all this frightful squeezing and simply rose up, unharmed, from the depths of the ice. Over time Nansen came to "laugh at the ice; we are living as it were in an impregnable castle."
The Fram continued to ride the floes toward the Pole at the creaky pace of a few miles a day. Despite several mishaps—including a polar bear attack that ended with one crewman bitten and two dogs dead—the first two years of the journey were oddly easy. The men ate well in the bright, warm saloon—where an automatic organ played through the long Arctic nights and the electric lamps, Nansen wrote, "acted on our spirits like a draught of good wine." The men published their own newspaper, organized ski outings on the ice for exercise, and took endless soundings and other measurements. Boredom was a constant companion—one crewman cursed "the monastic life we lead in this dead zone"—but Nansen's men did not suffer. "I myself," he wrote, "have certainly never lived a more sybaritic life."