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Stella Polare was originally built in 1881 as the Norwegian whaler Jason. Her early years were rather undistinguished, until 1888, when she was used by Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen to carry his expedition to Greenland when he attempted to cross that island from Sermilik to Christianhaab. Later, between 1892 and 1894, she was used for another Norwegian expedition, this time to Antarctica, under the leadership of Carl Anton Larsen. She thus already had a respectable curriculum when, in January 1899, she was bought by Luigi Amedeo of Savoy-Aosta, Duke of the Abruzzi, nephew of the King of Italy Umberto I. A naval officer, explorer and mountaineer, Luigi Amedeo was planning an expedition to the North Pole; Jason, which he renamed Stella Polare (Polar Star), was to be his ship. Before sailing, Stella Polare underwent extensive overhaul and hull strenghtening. Then, on 12 June 1899, she set sail from Oslo.
The expedition consisted of twenty men, eleven Italians and nine Norwegians: the Italians were the 26-year-old Duke of the Abruzzi, expedition leader; 36-year-old Lieutenant Commander Umberto Cagni and 31-year-old Lieutenant Francesco Querini of the Italian Navy, who acted as Stella Polare’s first and second mate; 33-year-old doctor and scientist Pietro Achille Cavalli Molinelli; Valdostan mountain guides Felix Ollier (30), Joseph Petigax (38), Alexis Fenoillet (37) and Cyprien Savoye (30); Carlo Cardenti, second boatswain (32); Simone Canepa, sailor (24); Gino Gini, cook (35). The Norwegians were 47-year-old Carl Julius Evensen, captain of the Stella Polare; Harry Alfred Stökken, first engineer (24); Anton Torgrinsen, second engineer (30); Andreas Andresen, first boatswan (20); Christian Andresen, first cook (35); Ditman Olanssen, carpenter (35); firemen Johan Johansen (42) and Ascel Andresen (22); Carl Christian Hanse, sailmaker (37); Oll Johannesen, second cook (25).
The Duke’s plan was to use ship to get as close as possible to the North Pole, then continue with dog sleds. In Teplitz Bay (Rudolf Island) Stella Polare became stuck in ice and suffered hull damage; the crew set up camp on the pack and waited for winter to pass, planning to make the attempt in spring. Winter passed, and the ride towards the Pole began on 11 March 1900: initially, the Duke himself had been slated to lead, but during the winter he had lost two fingers to frostbite, and was still recovering in March; therefore, he remained at the camp and ceded the command of the sledge expedition to Lieutenant Commander Cagni. Three groups with four dog sleds each would depart from Teplitz Bay, but only one was to reach the Pole: the other two had the task of carrying the supplies that would enable the third one to reach the Pole, and were scheduled to turn back earlier. The group that was to reach the Pole consisted of Cagni himself (commander), seaman Canepa and guides Fenoillet and Petigax; the other two groups consisted, respectively, of Lieutenant Querini (commander) with guide Ollier and first engineer Stökken, and of doctor Cavalli Molinelli (commander) with boatswain Cardenti and guide Savoye.
For a dozen days the twelve sleds, each driven by 7 to 9 dogs and carrying 250 kg of supplies, advanced together on the pack, amid freezing wind and snow squalls, with temperatures often close to 40 degrees below zero. Then the two support groups turned back as scheduled, Querini’s on 23 March and Cavalli Molinelli’s a week later, but only the latter made it back to Stella Polare on 18 April. Francesco Querini, Felix Ollier and Alfred Stökken disappeared in the Arctic: the Duke sent two rescue groups looking for them, to no avail. What exactly happened to them remains unknown.
Cagni, Canepa, Fenoillet and Petigax, meanwhile, proceeded towards the Pole amid increasing difficulties. Frostbite started to take its toll; among others, Cagni had to amputate one of his own fingers in order to prevent gangrene. They reached the ‘Farthest North’ – the most northerly latitude ever reached by explorers (namely, Fridtjof Nansen in 1895) at that time – and pushed farther north, but on 25 April – about 40 kilometres to the north of Nansen’s Farthest North, and about 381 km from the North Pole –, in the face of the ever-worsening situation, which would reduce their possibilities of return in case they continued, Cagni decided to turn back. He and his men had established a new Farthest North record, 86° 34′ N, but the North Pole would remain untouched by man for another nine years (at least).
The return trip was even more dramatic. The pack had started to melt, with blocks of ice breaking and drifting away; the four men were forced to jettison nearly all of their supplies and equipment, and to kill and butcher some of their sled dogs in order to feed themselves and the other dogs. On 23 June 1900, after covering 1,400 kilometres in 104 days, Cagni, Canepa, Fenoillet and Petigax made it back to Stella Polare; out of their original thirty-four dogs, only seven were still alive.
The ship, meanwhile, had been repaired, and with the pack melting, was now able to sail again. Stella Polare left Teplitz Bay on 16 August, and reached Oslo on 11 September. Though its main objective – reaching the North Pole – had not been attained, the expedition had established a new Farthest North record and gathered a sizeable amount of data of scientific data about Arctic climate, magnetism, flora, minerals, gravity, and tides; upon return to Italy, its members received a hero’s welcome and their undertaking was celebrated by poets Giovanni Pascoli and Gabriele D’Annunzio and by writer Emilio Salgari; Vittorio Calcina, one of the first filmmakers in Italy, made a short film about the expedition.