A 250-ton barque was purchased for 70,000 francs in Norway. The three-masted whaler PATRIA had been built for the icy waters of the north. Extensive refitting was done and subsequently re-christened as the BELGICA.
On July 29, 1896, de Gerlache received a letter from a 25-year-old Norwegian wishing to sail, unpaid, aboard the BELGICA. His request was accepted and thus Roald Amundsen was added to the ship's crew.
The scientific crew represented many nations: the zoologist, Emile Racovitza, was Romanian; the geologist, Henryk Arctowski, was Polish; navigating officer and astronomer, George Lecointe, was Belgian; Amundsen and a number of others were Norwegian; the laboratory assistant was Russian; the ship's surgeon, Dr. Frederick A. Cook, was a 32-year-old native of Sullivan County, New York.
The BELGICA left Antwerp on August 16, 1897. She was so overloaded that she could make no more than 6 miles per hour under steam and her decks were barely 2 feet clear of water.
The BELGICA reached Punta Arenas on December 1, 1897. For no recorded reason a number of crew members deserted leaving only 19 men. Scientific studies were conducted in Tierra del Fuego with the BELGICA departing south on December 14. This may have proved costly as the late departure date resulted in a late arrival date, January 20, in Antarctic waters.
Without warning, on January 22 a strong storm hit the BELGICA. Her containers of coal broke free and spilled out over the deck as huge waves flooded over the sides. As the sailors scrambled, Dr. Cook later wrote "While thus engaged we heard an unearthly cry--a cry which made me shiver because of its force and painful tone. We turned about quickly, but saw nothing to indicate the direction of the noise. Amundsen, thinking there'd been an accident in the engine room, rushed in that direction. I went to the quarter-deck, looked astern and saw a man struggling among the white crests. It was (Carl) Wiencke (a sailor). In trying to free the scuppers he had lost his balance, and in falling he uttered the awful cry. With a quick presence of mind he grasped the log-line. I began to draw it in, but he slipped until his hand was stopped by the log. He held on to this with a death-like grasp...but there was little to be done. With a bravery impossible to appreciate, Lieutenant Lecointe offered to be lowered into the sea to pass a rope around Wiencke. With two men on deck, Lecointe was lowered, but he sank at once with the counter-eddies and nearly lost his life. We managed to tow Wiencke to the side of the ship...but he gave up his grip on the log-line, and sank. Wiencke was a boy with many friends, and his loss was deeply felt". It was the first loss of life on the BELGICA but not the last.
On the following day, Sunday, January 23, the storm subsided. They had arrived off the coast of Graham Land which had not been visited for the past 60 years. The BELGICA worked slowly between the Graham Land coast and a long string of islands to the west. De Gerlache named the passage Belgica Strait. Renamed in his honor, the great discovery is now known as Gerlache Strait.
Between January 23 and February 12, 1898, the Belgian Antarctic Expedition made no less than twenty separate landings on the islands along the strait. They charted and named the islands of Brabant, Liège, Anvers and, in memory of the sailor lost at sea, Wiencke Island. Heading southwest, the BELGICA crossed the Antarctic Circle on February 15, 1898. On the last day of February the explorers entered the ice pack at 70°20´S and 85°W. They reached another degree south and the vessel became wedged in the pack ice. For the next few days talk among the crew suggested de Gerlache intentionally trapped them in the ice. Efforts were made to free the BELGICA but the overloaded vessel remained imprisoned and by March 2 their fate was determined and the crew realized they were at the mercy of the south.
It was at this time that Dr. Cook assumed moral command of the BELGICA. De Gerlache and Amundsen were busy with the details of preparing the ship to break free of the ice while Cook realized that the mood of the shipmates would become his responsibility. Cook new the men needed sunlight and fresh meat. De Gerlache had already tasted penguin and seal meat and declared them both to be inedible. As for penguin meat, Dr. Cook said "If it's possible to imagine a piece of beef, odiferous cod fish and a canvas-backed duck roasted together in a pot, with blood and cod-liver oil for sauce, the illustration would be complete". In order to convince the crew it was necessary for medicinal purposes, de Gerlache unwillingly agreed to "ignore the taste; swallow it down as a duty". Next, in order to take the men's minds off their unpleasantness, Cook organized card schools where bets of 1000 francs were accepted, of which none were ever honored. But, the Antarctic night still took its toll. One crewmember spoke no French so when he heard the word for something, he really thought it meant kill and thus attacked anyone who spoke the word. Another man climbed overboard onto the ice and announced his departure for Belgium.
On July 23, 1898, the first glow of light returned along with the spirits of the men. The research work resumed. Soundings were taken through the ice and astronomical observations were taken while sledge parties explored the drift. Even though the winter was over, they were still firmly embraced by the ice which measured over seven feet thick.
The days continued on with no relief in sight. The expedition began to run short of coal and oil for the lamps and the crew began to fear the possibility of a second winter in the ice. In their minds, death was a certainty.
The BELGICA drifted to the west throughout August and September. In October they cheered to see lakes forming in the ice but the ice closed in and froze them in again. In November snow settled in around the ship as a number of the crew had to be treated by Dr. Cook for the onset of insanity. Panic was in the air as Christmas was celebrated aboard the ship. Despite the gloom, a constant watch was kept by de Gerlache, Lecointe, Amundsen and Cook. On New Year's Eve, 1898, a stretch of open water appeared. In the second week of 1899, a party sledged to the edge of the lake where they measured the depth of the ice. For the next few weeks, working day and night, the explorers chopped and sawed their way through the ice towards the ship. By the end of January they had cut a channel to within 100 feet of the ship. Then the wind changed, the ice shifted and the channel closed in behind them. Needless to say, the men became despondent. The remaining food was now being rationed and February would be the last month of the Antarctic summer, after which the days would become shorter and the weather unbearable. They even talked of abandoning ship but decided against it as they had no place to go.
On February 15, at 2 o'clock in the morning, de Gerlache was woke up by a sailor who had been on watch. The channel they had created was once again open! The engine was started and, for the first time since March 2, 1898, the BELGICA was moving under her own power. It was a desperate struggle, but by March 14 they cleared the pack after inching their way through seven miles of ice. Almost 13 months had elapsed since their initial entrapment. They had drifted across 17 degrees of longitude.
Roald Amundsen and two of his fellow countrymen left the BELGICA and sailed home on a Norwegian mailboat. Sailor Tollefsen had lost his sanity during the Antarctic night but eventually recovered. Sailor Knutsen wasn't so lucky as he died shortly after. Medals were presented by King Leopold of Belgium.
In 1901 de Gerlache led a zoological expedition to the Persian Gulf. In 1903 he joined Jean Charcot's expedition to the Antarctic but resigned in Buenos Aires. He made a number of important expeditions to the Arctic, among them Greenland in 1905 and 1909 and the Barents and Kara Seas in 1907. He assisted Ernest Shackleton with the organization of Shackleton's difficult expedition of 1914-17. De Gerlache sold him his yacht which Shackleton renamed the ENDURANCE.
Antarctica; the Extraordinary History of Man's Conquest of the Frozen Continent, by Reader's Digest.
Antarctica, the Last Continent, by Ian Cameron.
Before the Heroes Came: Antarctica in the 1890's, by T. H. Baughman.
Antarctic Conquest, the Great Explorers in Their Own Words, by Walker Chapman.
The White Continent, by Thomas R. Henry
Antarctica, the Extraordinary History of Man's Conquest of the Frozen Continent, Second Edition by Reader's Digest
Chronological List of Antarctic Expeditions and Related Historical Events, by Robert K. Headland.