It is not completely absurd to think that as sailors were the first on becoming explorers these would make the most of the use of their particular knowledges in every task they would have to develop.
So it not surprising they started to use sails to impulse their heavy loaden sledges almost from the beginning of polar exploration when long journeys, sometimes of thousands of miles, across snowy and icy landscapes started to be performed.
Maybe one of the most known examples of this practice may be Nansen´s expedition to cross Greenland. During that voyage pictures were taken which rapidly become worldwide known after their arrival to the civilized world.
|Nansen´s crossing of Greenland|
They showed the men walking across rugged ground dragging their sledges, but also discrete squared sails which were suppossed to help them. But of course, it wasn´t Nansen the first of using this advantageous technique.
In march of 1853 a huge party, commanded by G.N. Richards and Sherard Osborn, and composed by six sledges and about sixty men of the Edward Belcher´s rescue squadron composed of five ships departed from their winter quarters in their attempt to built cairns and leave depots of supplies and boats for Franklin and his men. In doing so, they used improvised sails for their sledges, in the same way that Nansen did more than forty years after. The sledges, which used to hoist the red ensign on them, were beautifully depicted in some of the drawings of that expedition. The sails were in fact actually the bottom of the tents of 3,5 x 2,7 m approximately.
Belcher described his sledge as follows:
"Our Craft was rigged in the most approved Sooloo pirate style, sheer masts stepped into a specially fitted batton, forming an isosceles triangle, with the means of support by shrouds from its extremity, greater by two feet than the width of the sledge, which have also been increased for carrying the ice.boat and out tent bottom was now formed into a well made sail. We were therefore "Shipshape".
The preparations of that early travel should compose an impressive scene. The sight of eight sledges and more than sixty men preparing these sledges at the side of the ships, working excitedly in the midst of a strong cold.
|Departure of sledges: From The last of Arctic Voyages|
As Edward Belcher described the scene as follows after he accompanied them during the first miles of the trip. The sight had to be, to say the least, a curious one:
The system worked reasonably well, the men could run besides the sledge, sometimes it went so well that the increasing speed provoked small accidents as the one Belcher starred. With his light and sarcastically usual tone describes in this way:
We left with a gentle breeze, under all sail, going at a very pleasant trot beside the sledge, until we came upon this rough sea. The velocity of the sledge, caused by the sudden increase of wind under Cape Sicic, tripped all hands up and dragged them astern, face downwards. I was on the sledge, and dropped myself in time to avoid the consequences of the capsize which one of these waves caused. We escaped with one damaged spar ; replaced it, and moved forward more cautiously. This time our engine ran away ; again all hands let go. I was perched, for ballast, on the weather-quarter, across which a long gun-case, three feet six inches, was lashed ;but, as if my neck was destined to be continually in jeopardy, I experienced a gentle summerset, driven at a radius of four feet, with sufficient impetus to derange it; however, I escaped with slight damage, and the sledge upsetting on a lee shore, enabled our crew to regain it. We now reduced our sail to a latteen until we cleared this frozen ocean, and eventually pitched our tent for the night on a fine gravel beach.
But even before Belcher´s expedition began to use sails in their sledges, years before in 1851, during the second rescue offensive to save Franklin, McClintock, which was part of the team of Horatio Austin, used the kites supplied by Benjamin Smith as tractile power to be added to the sails already mentioned. The following pictures were painted by Admiral William Smith and are present in the cover of the fabulous book "The Fate of Franklin" by Roderick Owen.
See how the artist properly placed the flag waving in the proper direction.
Sherard Osborn, in Stray leaves described these new devices called kites as follows, though judging from his words, the experience seemed not to be too pleasant:
Kites, which the kind Mr. Benjamin Smith had supplied me with, both as a tractile power to assist us in dragging sledges, as well as a means of signalizing between parties,
afforded much interest, and the success of our experiments in applying them to dragging weights was so great, that all those I was able to supply gladly provided themselves with so useful an auxiliary to foot-travellers. Experience, however, taught us how impossible it was to command a fair wind, without which they were useless weight, and in severe weather there was some danger, when handling or coiling up the lines, of having to expose the hands and being frost bitten.
But if we dig a bit further in the history of exploration we will find that Thomas Simpson during his succesful expedition of 1836-39 together with Warren Dease, also used sails for the sledges. I couldn´t find a explicit reference to this in the account of his journey but this picture posted below, apparently corresponds to it. Though they were supposed to be formed by twelve men and three sledges and not sixteen and two sledges as the picture shows.
Sails were not only used for sledges. When Parry launched his land trip from the Hecla and the Griper to explore the north part of Melville Island in june of 1820, he used a cart fitted with wheels to carry their baggages and the tents. Why he used a cart instead of a sledge in a ground which at that time of the year was almost completely covered by snow, I guess must be explained by his lack of experience still to come.At the end of the day that was the first winter the Royal Navy men spent in the Arctic. The men also carried backpacks of 12 or 14 kg each, a quite unusual practice not only in the high north, but in other more temperated northern countries. Parry described what his men did as follows:
The breeze freshened up to a gale from the S.S.E. as we proceeded, and the men, as if determined not to forget that they were sailors, set a large blanket upon the cart as a sail, which, upon the present level ground, was found to be of material assistance.
.../... The men had hoisted one sail upon the cart at first setting off; but the wind being now, as they expressed it, " on the larboard quarter ;" a second blanket was rigged as a main-sail, to their great amusement as well as relief.
But as it is logical to suppose, the use of this type of propulsion wasn´t exclusive of the Canadian arctic, I could find some engravings which shows a slightly different way of doing it but essentialy the same concept in Siberia and Amsterdam:
|Sledge sailing in AMsterdam|
And if we travel in time this towards our time, we see Klondike miners using sails to push their boats over frozen rivers and lakes:
And finally, when we reach our present time, we must amaze ourselves when we behold how this apparently ancient technique have been wonderfully developed to at an extreme degree. It is a spaniard who have made evolve the concept of using the wind to power a sledge i such way that it looks Sci-fi. His system not only serves the purpose of carrying supplies, clothes, provisions and so on, but also the explorers comfortably seated in the sledge while driving this astonishing device. The tents are placed over it, so some of the expeditionaries can even sleep while others are guiding the sledge. I am talking of Ramon Larramendi
, pioneer in the use of this marvel, state of the art of wind sledges! What he calls: El Trineo de viento. has allowed him to reach even the south pole.
What is awaiting ahead us regarding the use of the wind in sledge traveling? Time will say.