Gjøa ~ Hardanger Jekt on the Yard


During a visit to Oslo, Norway, I was able to spend a day at  the wonderful museum in which is preserved the “Fram”, the famous polar exploration vessel belonging to Nansen, but which was used for Amundsen’s expedition to the Antarctic in 1912. This was the expedition in which Amundsen planted the Norwegian flag at the South Pole, ahead of the fateful expedition of  Scott and his party.

Outside the Fram building, a smaller vessel is on display. This is “Gjøa”, and although small, has a story of her own to tell. “Gjøa” was built in 1872 in Rosendahl, Norway. She is of a type known as a “Hardanger Jekt”, a general purpose vessel plying in the area of the Hardangerfjord.


The 'real' Gjoa in Norway
The 'real' Gjoa at the Fram Museum, Oslo

In 1901 she was bought by the polar explorer Roald Amundsen, who intended to use her for Arctic exploration. After a voyage to the Barendtsz sea he fitted her with an oil engine, and prepared her for a voyage in which he would attempt to transit the North West Passage.

Sailing from Oslo in 1903, she crossed the Atlantic and entered the Davis strait. Turning west she crossed Baffin Bay and passed by Boothia peninsula. In the October she became icebound in an inlet on King William Island, remaining so for two winters. The inlet is known as Gjøa Havn. Leaving in August 1905 she crossed the Beaufort Sea, becoming iced-in again for the winter near Herschel Island. Finally completing her transit of the North West passage, she arrived at the Alaskan port of Nome in August 1906, thence on to San Francisco.

As a retired Master Mariner, I have always had great admiration for the early polar explorers. Many years ago I served with the British Antarctic Survey, as Navigating Officer in the RRS “John Biscoe”, so have some first-hand experience of polar conditions. There were times when I was very glad to be sailing aboard an ice-strengthened steel vessel with heated accommodation and other “mod cons” and certainty didn’t envy those early explorers. Wooden ships riron men indeed!

For my 70th birthday this year, my nieces gave me a kit for the vessel “Gjøa”. I was so pleased. I have been ship modelling for much of my life, and my most recent completion was the wool clipper “Torrens”. Using Underhill’s wonderful plans,and with assistance from his “Masting and Rigging the Clipper ship and Ocean Carrier” I was able to successfully modify a Sergal kit for the “Cutty Sark” resulting in a passable “Torrens”.

The “Gjøa” kit was by Constructo, a basic plank-on-bulkhead single-skin construction. Plans and materials were all up to a high standard, as was the well-illustrated instruction booklet. Construction was straightforward, although I would have preferred to have used thinner planking and a double skin. One change I made was to the deck structure. The kit contains a laser-cut deck from 3mm ply. This is fine, but the vessel has a fair spring to her sheerline, plus camber on the deck. A lot of force would be needed to get this unnecessarily thick deck unit located and secured. As the deck is subsequently planked with limewood strips, I decided to replace the ply substrata with cardboard, and this was completely adequate.

As with all my models, before planking I apply a modification to the keel structure. I like to display my ships on brass turned keel posts. I don’t like to see external cradle-type stands. To secure the vessel safely on keelposts, I drill vertically into the keel, then cutting slots to accommodate 6BA nuts which are tightly fitted into slots cut into the keel and glued. This allows 6BA screws to be inserted from beneath the baseboard to positively fasten the vessel down onto her keelposts and baseboard. This modification must be done, of course, before commencing the planking, as once planked, the nuts are inaccessible. The nuts were actually square mild steel 3mm by about 8mm square, tapped 6BA.

I actually decided early on to build the vessel as she appeared originally. Amundsen made a number of modifications which didn’t add to the ship’s appearance. When he added the engine, there was nowhere for a propeller, so an additional deadwood timber was added to the transom, with a propeller aperture. The rudder was hung on this false deadwood. This looks rather ugly, both in model form as well as in the real vessel, and I omitted it, converting her back to a pure sailing vessel.

The ship sports an unusual rig, having gaff mainsail and topsail on a single mast, but with two square sails on the same mast. Three headsails set on a substantial bowsprit and jibboom. I never set sails on my models; adhering to the convention that states that only waterline models should be depicted under sail. Full-hull models should be shown without sails, or with sails bent on but stowed.

I enjoyed building the vessel and was pleased with the result. It wasn’t a huge challenge, and she took about six weeks to complete. Then I had an idea!

The model is approx 1/72 scale, compatible with OO/HO railway. So why not display her on a slipway, with lots of shipyard activity going on?  A huge array of scenic materials and accessories are available for the railway modeller at this scale, much of which is appropriate or adaptable to a shipyard diorama. This would be a new venture for me.

My local timber merchant supplied lengths of 6mm square and other small sections allowing me to construct a slipway repair berth. New timber was “aged” using wire brush, and painted. A visit to our local model railway shop yielded a number of small kits for things like a platform crane, garden shed, and, of course, “people”. I actually enjoyed building the shipyard diorama more than the actual construction of the ship!

The starboard anchor is being lowered to the ground using the yard crane. Two workmen are ranging the chain cable. Another yard hand is planing timber on a saw horse. Stacks of new timber, packing cases and other yard paraphernalia are evident. A garden shed kit provided the yard “office”, while the vessel owner and the yard manager confer. Down by the stern, out of sight, a yard hand is sitting reading his newspaper! Some very dodgy scaffolding has been erected on the port side and work is underway on the topside. On deck the (female) Mate confers with a couple of her crewmen, her dog lays on the hatch covers. Another hand coils a halyard at the foot of the mast. Beneath the slipway a bunch of kids are playing football.

This has been a most enjoyable project. The activity induces visitors to look at the diorama a bit more closely than if it were simply a static model ship. There is a fascination in such an animated scene.


My enthusiasm whetted, my next project will be another shipyard. Two slipways, a coastal schooner under construction, in frame. A fishing smack under repair on the second slipway. Lots of interesting shipyard activity including a pitsaw, steambox and a mast being stepped. Workshops located “under the arches”, and a row of low-relief terraced houses adjacent.

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