Refloating historic wreck

The tough oaken vessel that took famed explorer Roald Amundsen on his second Arctic voyage is about to rise again.

After four years of negotiation and preparation, a Norwegian team expects to refloat the Maud this week, 85 years after she was scuttled in shallow waters off the coast of Nunavut.

"We're quite confident," said Jan Wanggaard, who's heading the crew hoping to return the last ship of a Norwegian national hero to its homeland.

The Maud was built in 1917 in Vollen for Amundsen, the first man to reach the South Pole. He also made groundbreaking expeditions in the Canadian Arctic, including the first successful transit of the Northwest Passage.

Amundsen intended to use the specially strengthened Maud to drift across the North Pole while frozen into moving sea ice. After two failed attempts, she was sold to the Hudson's Bay Co. in 1925.

Three years later, the ship sank while moored in shallow water just off Cambridge Bay. Parts of the hull still protrude above the waves.

Since June, Wanggaard and his colleagues have been slipping ropes and straps under the Maud's 40-metre hull. Sometime this week, they'll attach flotation balloons to the ropes and gently ease the vessel off the seafloor.

The Maud can take it, said Wanggaard.

"This boat was built as one of the strongest ships ever of wooden construction," he said. "It was made to take the pressure from the ice."

Once the Maud is afloat, the team will sink a barge it has brought from Norway and position it beneath the hull. Flotation tanks in the barge will be reinflated, and the barge will hoist the old vessel right out of the water.

There's little left to her. Although she originally sported both sails and a then-innovative diesel engine, she was stripped long ago.

The barge, with the Maud strapped on top, will probably spend one more winter in Cambridge Bay, drying out and solidifying for the long journey back to Norway.

"On the technical side, it's quite basic," Wanggaard said.

The politics, however, have been anything but.

The Norwegian efforts initially met resistance from the people of Cambridge Bay, who thought the ship should stay where she was. Then the Canadian government would not give the group's members an export permit, even though they have legal title to the hulk.

They finally got the permit by default when no Canadians presented a salvage plan.

And there's nothing simple about Amundsen's stature back home. Norway had just split from Sweden in 1905 and the explorer's exploits in harsh polar seas gave his countrymen a hero just when they needed one, said Wanggaard.

"Amundsen was a special man. We were a completely new nation and he was one of the key figures building the national identity or the pride of being a nation."

Two of Amundsen's other ships are already in Norwegian museums.

Although Maud is about to leave Canada forever, something of her will remain behind. She was the model for one of Canada's most famous Arctic ships, the fabled RCMP schooner the St. Roch.

Using the Maud's innovations, the St. Roch became the first ship to completely circumnavigate North America. She was the second sailing vessel to sail the Northwest Passage and the first ship to complete the passage west to east.

The St. Roch now sits in drydock at the Vancouver Maritime Museum.

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