‘She was from another time, when ships were built to last,
and she had a mind of her own.’
- Captain Arne Sørensen
A legend in polar sailing
MV Nella Dan and the shipping company J. Lauritzen’s red polar ships constitute a unique chapter in Danish maritime history that goes far beyond boyish adventures and tall tales.
Already during her active years, Nella Dan was a legend among polar ships, and only a small number of renowned ships have left a similar legacy in Arctic and Antarctic exploration.
Nella Dan and her polar sisters from the shipping firm J. Lauritzen belong in the same league as Nansen’s Fram, Shackleton’s Endurance, Rasmussen’s Søkonge and Scott’s Discovery and Terra Nova. Less famous, perhaps, but all the more important for upholding national sovereignty, securing supplies and establishing modern Arctic and Antarctic research.
Hundreds of men and women have travelled on the little, plucky red ship, which even during the most perilous times in the Roaring Forties and the Furious Fifties provided a safe home to the Danish crew, guests, international research teams and Australian staff for the bases in Antarctica.
The migratory seabirds
Like migratory birds, Kista Dan, Magga Dan, Thala Dan and Nella Dan travelled back and forth between the Arctic and the Antarctic for the shipping company J. Lauritzen from 1953 to 1987. In the generation after the great polar explorers’ race for the poles and the mapping of the final frontier, the red polar ships was the lifeline and made it possible to keep national sovereignty in the polar regions.
The red polar ships shuttled back and forth between the Arctic and the Antarctic, season after season, from the time just after the Second World War, to make the farthest border region of the Danish realm in North-East Greenland habitable and to set up stations to conduct ice reconnaissance, environmental research and marine biology studies, monitor sea mammal populations and whaling activities and carry out many other tasks in the Antarctic.
As the last of the four ships, Nella Dan was perhaps also the most renowned. For 27 years, Nella Dan served as a supply, expedition and research vessel for Danish interests in North-East Greenland and Australian interests in the Antarctic.
Comradery and indomitability
Nella Dan embodied the spirit of adventure at a time when distances were huge, and mail took months to reach its destination. The truthful stories date back to the golden era of the 1960s, the turbulent and free conditions of the 1970s and the struggle for the survival of the able seaman and lower ranked crew in the 1980s, a time of flagging out and increasing competition. Nella Dan fought on to the end, in tough competition with larger rivals with higher engine power, tonnage, speed and capacity. The little red ship was coming up on its expiration date in the mid 1980s. That was felt on board.
Nella Dan’s track record of 40 voyages in the Arctic region and 85 voyages, covering half a million nautical miles by Antarctica – corresponding to 24 circumnavigations of the globe – meant that no other ship in Australian service had more nautical miles under her belt. Nella Dan loyally and with unfailing spirit served the men and women who, in the years after the first polar explorers and pioneers, defied the final boundaries and moved our modern knowledge society to the very edge of what was possible.
The experience of being ‘... the first ship to arrive that summer ...’ affected everyone on board. The meaning of the word ‘ship’ for the most remote Greenlandic settlements and northern stations was associated with survival and hope. The invincible Nella Dan was the last firm (or, perhaps more accurately, rocky ...) link to the safety at home for the many researchers, military personnel and station staff who went to Antarctica to establish and conduct modern environmental research, geological surveys and many other activities.
Nella Dan, not least, is about the many stories of comradeship and the experiences that unfold when as many as 90 very different people live together under cramped conditions for long periods of time. When this, further, happens under external conditions that stretch the horizon to infinity and test the laws of physics and the chemistry of the body and challenge people’s mental boundaries, that is a recipe for a human cocktail and melting pot.
When sea conditions did not make for perilous times in the Roaring Forties or the Furious Fifties, or ice pushed the adventure towards the poles, the on-board comradeship created a real-life experience that would put any modern reality TV show in the shade.
Reality often surpassed the imagination.
The trusty little red ship
She was launched in 1961, build no. 109 from Aalborg Værft.
On Christmas Eve 1987, the adventure was over. The little red ship drew one last, dying breath and came to rest in deep water off Macquarie Island in subantarctic waters after a shipwreck in Buckles Bay.
Hundreds of men and women have travelled on the little, indomitable red ship, which even during the most perilous times in the Roaring Forties and the Furious Fifties provided a safe home to the Danish crew, guests, international research teams and Australian personnel for the bases in Antarctica.
‘For those about to rock – we salute you!’
Nella’s fathers and mothers
Nella Dan was built for the shipping company J. Lauritzen with the special purpose of sailing for the Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition (ANARE). The collaboration between the director of ANARE, Dr Phillip Garth Law (Phil Law), and shipowner Knud Lauritzen (K. L.) was exceptional. In fact, when build no. 109 from Aalborg Værft was ready to launch in 1961, it was named after Phil Law’s wife, Nelle Isabel Law (Nel Law) and became Nella Dan. The artist Nel Law was also the first Australian woman to go to Antarctica, when she accompanied Phil Law to Mawson in 1960–61.
Shipowner Knud Lauritzen’s wife, artist Hannelore Lauritzen, was also a part of the ship and the life on board Nella Dan. Hannelore often accompanied K. L. on visits to Greenland and took part in the expeditions and activities related to the ship. After K. L.’s passing in 1977, Hannelore Lauritzen continued to travel on Nella Dan – and she followed the ship with undiminished passion to the end. Hannelore Lauritzen was on board when Nella Dan shipwrecked in Buckles Bay off Macquarie Island.
I will never forget Nella Dan
She was the first to show me the ice, and the last to return me safely home. She opened the jewel chest of the Antarctic Ocean to me during a time that is now over. She was a fine ship with a fine crew, and she belonged in a more courageous era. She is gone now, but her spirit lives on in our hearts and in amazing memories.
- Lex Harris, (wintering staff and photographer)