5 Historic Polar Vessels

There’s no doubting that the polar explorers of the past were extremely brave. They headed out into the unknown, without all of the advanced technology that we have available today, and pioneered new routes which we now know so well. However, they would have been nothing without the ships in which they sailed.

Although these vessels were not built using the materials we use now, they stood up against whatever nature threw at them and helped these famous explorers to get there and back again in one piece (most of the time). Let’s take a look at some of the most historic polar ships.


Historic Ship Aurora

The steam yacht Aurora was originally built to be a whaling vessel and so she spent the first part of her life, between 1987 and 1910, plying the North Sea and Atlantic Ocean with whalers on board. At the end of this period, she was purchased by legendary Australian explorer Douglas Mawson. Because of her sturdy structure and the fact that she had been used for rescue missions in the past, he knew Aurora would be perfect for Antarctic exploration.

In 1911, she took Mawson and his crew to Cape Denison, on Antarctica, before leaving a team on the continent. When she returned a year later, Mawson and two other explorers were still on an expedition and so she left for Australia again without them. Aurora later returned a third time to collect Mawson and six other men.

During her service, Ernest Shackleton also spent time at her helm. It was during this time, in 1915, that she survived almost a year of being trapped in sea ice off the coast of Discovery Bay. Aurora’s fate is unconfirmed but it is believed that she was sunk during World War I.



Fram, meaning ‘forward’ in Norwegian, is possibly one of the most famous explorer ships ever to sail the icy seas. She holds legendary status in Norway, due to those who sailed in her, and is known the world over for being the wooden ship to sail the furthest north and the furthest south. Hurtigruten Expeditions have named their polar ship after this fabled vessel and you can still see the real thing at a museum dedicated to Fram in Oslo.

Fram was originally built for Fridtjof Nansen but was also sailed by other Norwegian explorers such as Roald Amundsen. Amongst her lasting achievements, she took Nansen on a three-year expedition to reach the North Pole, reached as far south as 78° 41' S with Amundsen, and staged the most comprehensive Arctic exploration ever when she helped Otto Sverdrup map 260,000 kilometres squared of the Canadian Arctic.

HMS Erebus/Terror

HMS Terror and Erebus

Both HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were built as bomb vessels and the latter saw action in the war with America in 1812. The fact that they were built to cope with the monstrous recoil force that resulted from their mortars being fired meant that they made excellent polar exploration vessels, and this is why they were chosen for Franklin’s ill-fated expedition.

Before this, though, the two ships were operated in tandem by James Clarke Ross for explorations in the Antarctic. During this time, they spent three years sailing throughout the Ross and Weddell seas, discovering islands across the area. It was 1845 when they set out on what would be their last trip; the now infamous attempt by John Franklin to be the first person to navigate the Northwest Passage in its entirety. The ships were never seen again and, after various search and rescue missions, it wasn’t until September 2014 that HMS Erebus was found. HMS Terror remains missing to this day.

RRS Discovery

RRS Discovery

Image: Mactographer

The Scottish-built ship RRS Discovery performed many jobs during her service including carrying cargo between Britain and Canada, transporting Russian munition during the First World War, and even acting as a stationary training ship for the boy scouts when she had finished her sailing days.

However, her most noticeable achievements are in the field of Antarctic exploration and research. She sailed south in 1901 with Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton on board and enabled them to confirm that Antarctica was indeed continental size and not a small island. She later returned, in 1923, as a Royal Research Ship to help monitor whale numbers and their migration routes. In 1986, she was transported back to Dundee, the city in which she was built, and is a popular tourist attraction at Discovery Point.

Kapitan Khlebnikov

Kapitan Khlebnikov

Kapitan Khlebnikov may not be from the same era as the ships mentioned above, but she is still an impressive vessel within the modern day field of polar exploration. Launched in 1980 and built from steel, not wood, this Russian ice-breaker has been mostly used to guide smaller ships through the icy waters of Siberia. However, the monstrous vessel has recently reconvened her job as a passenger ship for Quark Expeditions, taking intrepid tourists on a mammoth Arctic Circumnavigation.

During her time as an expedition vessel, she achieved the feat of being the first ship to circumnavigate Antarctica and equalled the record set by Fram, above, for travelling further south than any other ship.

Whilst some of these ships are lost forever and some can be seen in a preserved state, you can still take a cruise aboard Kapitan Khlebnikov. For more information about the epic Arctic voyage that the ship is set to undertake, please contact our specialists today.

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