The first attempt to exploit the wind to carry weight was by the Norwegian Fridtjof Wedel – Jarlsberg Nansen, who in 1888 led the first crossing of the Greenland interior, at the time, the first major known incursion on the ice. Between 1893 and 1896, Nansen tried to reach the North Pole, and even if he couldn’t attain it, this journey served to lay the foundations of what the polar exploration during the twentieth century would be like.
It was Nansen who devised the strategy of placing supply depots for part of the journey, who improved the clothing with Inuit techniques, who began using skis, who introduced dogsleds and sledding for expeditions (the same as the Inuit people have used to hunt for a long time) and, finally, who installed the first mast on a traditional Inuit vehicle.
In year 1888, during the journey to the interior of Greenland, Nansen had already placed sails on two sleds, which were joined together with a tent, like in a catamaran. This scheme allowed them to take advantage of the strong wind blowing behind them and to considerably increase their speed.
Subsequently, all the great polar explorers before going on journeys, visited Nansen, taking advantage of his knowledge and innovations, including the use of sails. As such did Ernest Shackleton, Roald Amundsen and Robert Scott on their expeditions to Antarctica on their way to the South Pole, although the masts ended up breaking due to difficulties in manoeuvring the sail on the hard sea of ice.
Throughout the twentieth century, continued attempts were made and since the early 70s there were several more sophisticated projects to navigate with sleds as if they were sail boats. The explorers knew they had to take advantage of the flat geography of the interior of polar areas and high winds to turn them into boats. In this manner, acquiring not only speed but also making it unnecessary to take dogs, avoiding problems with the animals and the overweight condition their food poses.
Moreover, since the 1994 Antarctic Treaty dogs are forbidden in the white continent, in order to prevent transmittal of diseases (such as the distemper disease) to seals, the introduction of other parasites or simply the devastation of penguin colonies.
But in all the trials that were accomplished the problem was still finding the perfect design.
One of the best known projects was conducted by the Canadian Pierre Magnan, author of the book “The Sailboat of the Polar Deserts” about his adventure on a sled designed by himself through the great north (he made some trips from the Canadian cities of Churchill, Eskimo Point and Resolute Bay and an incursion to the geographic North Pole). In his design, the explorer installed a tent on a carbon fiber sled which he named “Clarabelle”, and managed to navigate without loading at a good speed. His journeys were approximately 100 km (62 mi) long.
In the late 80s, the French biologist and explorer Jean Louis Etienne and the North American Will Steger developed a new attempt of a polar sailboat named “The Albatross Project”, for a cruise in Antarctica. It never became a reality. Both eventually would cross the continent in the austral summer of 1989-1990, but with dogs and sleds, as 80 years before Roald Amundsen had done. The 6300 km (3914 mi) journey lasted seven months.
Two other explorers who have tried to harness wind power were the Norwegian Borge Ouslad and the German Thomas Ulrich, who installed kites on sleds to move though a South Patagonian ice field, a large ice mass 400 km (248 mi) long by 80 km (49 mi) wide. Both men crossed the territory in autonomy in 2003.
By year 2003 Ramón Larramendi had traveled far longer distances several times in Greenland with his WindSled.
Experiences of using kites to propel a person have also been tried out several times in the last decade, but for now there is no alternative to the WindSled as it allows the transportation of scientific equipment while taking a crew on a long polar voyage.