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Guy G. Guthridge
National Science Foundation

Who discovered Antarctica? Whole books have tried to answer that question, and historians still don't agree. One candidate is an American, Nathaniel Brown Palmer. His travels to Antarctica as a sealer at the age of 21 began a prosperous life as a sealer, a sea captain, and a ship designer and builder.

The antarctic voyages

Young Nat played in his father's shipyard, and by 16 he was in the New England coastal trade. At 18 he was master of a schooner. In 1819 he was mate on the sealer Hersilia in the South Shetland Islands near Antarctica.

On 31 July 1820 three sealing vessels sailed from Stonington, Connecticut. Palmer was master of the Hero, a 47-foot sloop. On 16 November, after sealing in the South Shetlands, Palmer took Hero south to the northeast end of Orl‚ans Strait, reaching 63o45'S. He was just 3 miles from the Antarctic Peninsula. His log said, ``stood over for the Land [Antarctica] Course S by E « E.''

Some say Palmer discovered Antarctica on this cruise. Others say the discovery was made by earlier American sealers, the British explorers William Smith or Edward Bransfield, the Russian Fabian von Bellingshausen, or others.

Palmer's life after Antarctica

Captain Palmer received command of larger ships after his return from Antarctica and later was made designer of the Dramatic Line, an association that lasted to 1847. Palmer supervised the construction of four ships during this period. One, the Roscius (180 feet), was the most expensive ship in the transatlantic trade. Yet the ship paid, and Palmer became wealthy.

Palmer next began designing and building clippers for the China trade. Together with William H. Aspinal, he was called the originator of the late clipper era.

Palmer was admired for his tact, kindness, and courage.

One day when the ship was rolling fearfully the captain put his head out of the cabin scuttle and asked the mate how the weather was. The mate said it was more moderate just then, but thought it would blow again at 8 o'clock. Palmer said:

``Mr. Low, shake the reefs out of the maintopsail, set the main topgallantsail and main royal, and let her roll over, shipshape and Bristol fashion, with all her canvas on her.'' At eight it began to blow again and the captain put his head out of the scuttle and called out:

``Mr. Low, take in the main royal, the main topgallantsail, and let her roll over and be damned to her.''

``He was very passionate,'' Low wrote. ``In calm weather he would come on deck with an old white beaver hat on, take it off and stamp on it, and damn the calm and everything else. But he never abused the men.''

Palmer's first namesake

A ship built in 1851 after the captain's designs was named for him: the N.B. Palmer. She was one of the largest of his clippers--214 feet long by 39 broad and 22 deep. A colleague wrote:

``The N.B. Palmer was perhaps the most famous ship built in the Westervelt yard. In China she was known as `the Yacht,' and with her nettings in the tops, brass guns, gold stripe, and her lavish entertainments on the Fourth of July and Washington's Birthday, she well deserved the title.''

On her second voyage the Palmer made her best records for speed. On the third day out of New York she covered 396 miles in 24 hours--an average 16.5 knots. On 1 July 1852 she overhauled the celebrated Flying Cloud that had sailed 10 days ahead of her. And she beat the Flying Cloud from Canton to New York. The Palmer was one of the swiftest of the clippers.

"Reinventing" the Great Republic: Captain Palmer was better known in his lifetime as a wealthy shipper than as an antarctic explorer. He also would fit in today as an innovator. When the largest clipper ever built, the Great Republic, sank in 1853 while being loaded in New York before its maiden voyage, Palmer bought and rebuilt it, eliminating the upper deck, adding steam- powered winches (a first), and shortening the yards. People had ridiculed the original ship as too big to pay, but Palmeržs changes let him reduce the crew from 100 to 50. He operated the ship in commercial and government service until he sold it in 1869. At 325 feet, the Great Republic was slightly longer than the National Science Foundation's icebreaking research ship, the Nathaniel B. Palmer.

A new Nathaniel B. Palmer

In 1992 the National Science Foundation decided to name its newly chartered 94-meter-long antarctic research icebreaker the Nathaniel B. Palmer. Completed in March 1992 by Edison Chouest Offshore in Louisiana, the brand-new ship headed for its first assignment, to rotate and later remove research crews from the U.S.- Russian Ice Camp Weddell. Now it is supporting research in the science disciplines important to understanding the Antarctic. Like its clipper ship predecessor and its namesake, the ``Nattie B'' someday also may be famous.


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