Maritime history is filled with vessels that were constructed at a great cost in time, money and manpower only to fall victim to disaster on its maiden voyage. By far the most well-known of all such ships is, of course, the RMS Titanic, which sank on its maiden crossing of the Atlantic after striking an iceberg.
However, at least the Titanic made it roughly 1800 nautical miles into her maiden voyage. In the case of the 17th Century Swedish warship Vasa, the vessel didn’t even make it out of the harbour.
Before discuss the Vasa herself, it is worth addressing the broader context in which she was constructed.
Europe in the 17th Century was a continent consumed by famine, disease and war. This was the time of the European Wars of Religion, triggered by the onset of the Protestant Reformation the previous century.
Sweden at this time was counted amongst the great powers of Europe. The Swedish Empire is generally accepted to have begun in 1611, with the ascension to the throne of Gustav II Adolph (more commonly known as Gustavus Adolphus), who would, thanks to his formidable military reputation, become known as the Lion of the North and one of the great generals in history.
When he took the throne, Gustav inherited from his father no less than three separate wars. The most important of these was against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, whose ruler claimed the throne of Sweden was rightfully his. The conflict against the Poles would continue, punctuated by periods of truce, until 1629. During the periods of active war, Gustav invaded Polish possessions along the Baltic coast on several occasions.
However, while the war on the Continent was going well, Sweden had suffered a series of naval losses throughout the 1620s, including two of its flagships and several of its larger warships. Gustav was determined that the Swedish navy should be rejuvenated and brought into line with what was expected of a great power.
To that end, he ordered the construction of a series of mid-to-large warships. The first of these vessels was to be the new flagship: the Vasa (named for Sweden’s royal House of Vasa).
This was a period of transition in European naval warfare. Until the 17th century, artillery technology had not advanced enough to produce guns capable of decisively damaging an enemy ship. Previously those cannons that were mounted on warships were used to target the enemy crew, rather than the ship itself. Since boarding was still the primary means of naval combat, casualties in the enemy crew were more important than damaging the enemy ship. By the 17th century, however, larger guns had begun appearing on warships, though still not in enough numbers to be decisive in a naval engagement. Over time this would change, as naval combat shifted away from the era of boarding to the era of the so-called ships-of-the-line, where the guns were the primary weapon of the vessel.
This period of transition is reflected in the design in the Vasa. Gustav demanded a flagship that had an unusually high number of guns. 72 cannons were to be mounted on the ship, including 48 heavy 24-pounders. Since the Vasa was not an especially large vessel, two gundecks were required to house so many cannons, something that had almost never been attempted before. Shipbuilding in the 17th century was not yet the science that it would later become and the design compromises required to facilitate two gundecks while maintaining the stability of the vessel as a whole were quite poorly understood.
Despite possessing an armament on par with later ships-of-the-line, Vasa still possessed the high and narrow aft-castle, complete with intricate ornamentation, that characterised warships of the old tradition. She also possessed, for a ship of her size, an unusually shallow draft (the portion of the hull that sat beneath the waterline, a crucial part of the design necessary for balancing the weight of the ship above the surface). This mingling of the old tradition with the new design requirements of a heavy armament would have disastrous consequences.
When the captain tasked with supervising the ship’s construction ordered a test of the Vasa’s stability (involving 30 men running from one side of the deck to the other repeatedly to make the ship roll) in the summer of 1628, he was forced to stop the test not long after it began for fear of capsizing the ship. It was clear as daylight that there were some serious flaws in the design of the ship.
However, Gustav was impatient for the Vasa to be launched as soon as possible. He regularly sent letters to the shipyard demanded that construction be sped up. When the shipwrights raised the prospect of postponing the launch so that the design flaws could be rectified as much as possible, the king dismissed their concerns out of hand. He wanted the ship made ready as early as humanly possible and there were to be no compromises on its design.
In August 1628, Gustav ordered the Vasa be put to sea.
Unable to stand up to the king, the captain had no choice but to obey.
On August 10, the Vasa began her maiden voyage. Thousands of civilians, as well as dozens of foreign dignitaries, lined Stockholm’s harbour to see the flagship off. The ship’s guns were fired in a salute.
Initially, all appeared to be going well.
That soon changed.
As the ship passed the eastern end of what is now Södermalm island, it was hit with a powerful gust of wind. The vessel immediately began to lean heavily onto its port side. The lower gunports (which the captain had forgotten to close) on the port side were open and were soon forced below the waterline. Water rushed into the lower holds of the ship, sealing her fate. Within minutes, the ship sank to a depth of 32m less than 120m from the shore and in full view of the spectators. It is believed that at least 30 sailors drowned.
And that seemed to be the end of the story of the ill-fated Vasa.
Until, that is, the wreck was rediscovered in 1956.
Admittedly, the wreck had not been entirely lost to history since the ship sank. Within 50 years the majority of the cannons (the most expensive and valuable part of the ship) had been recovered. And in the 19th century, there were several diving operations performed in and around the site of the wreck. However, since the late 19th century, the location of the Vasa’s resting place had been lost.
In 1956, the amateur maritime archaeologist Anders Franzen believed he had found the shipwreck when he noticed a suspicious lump on the sea floor just off the island of Beckholmen in the results of a sounding program. Swedish Navy divers soon confirmed that it was a shipwreck and it was a vessel that possessed two gundecks.
The Vasa had been found.
Discussions quickly turned to the possibility of raising the wreck from the sea floor, an extremely difficult proposition as the ship was deeply ensconced in the heavy clay mud of the Stockholm Ström.
Eventually, the newly formed Vasa Board settled on a means of recovery. Six tunnels would be dug underneath the ship, through which steel cables would be threaded. Two pontoons would then slowly tighten the cables, raising the ship from its resting place.
The reality of this recovery operation for the divers involved was extremely dangerous. For months, divers used high-pressure hoses to cut through the thick clay of the sea flow. At all times there was the possibility that the wreck might move or settle deeper into the mud with a diver trapped in the tunnels beneath hundreds of tonnes of mud-filled shipwreck. Despite this everpresent danger, the tunnels were dug without any major incidents.
Over the course of several years, the cables were slowly tightened and the ship was ever so slowly raised closer to the surface. As the ship was freed from the mud, divers began the painstaking archaeological process of clearing out the mud from the lower decks of the ship. Since the lower decks were almost entirely intact, the utmost care was needed to excavate and catalogue everything that was uncovered. It was during this period that the remains of several individuals were discovered, along with a veritable treasure trove of unique archaeological finds, including personal items of the ship’s crew.
In 1961, the final lift raised the ship above the surface.
333 years after she sank on her maiden voyage, the Vasa was afloat once more.
When it was finally revealed, the ship was astonishingly well preserved. It was quickly discovered that a combination of the heavy clay of the sea floor and, somewhat ironically, the heavy pollution of the Stockholm Ström until the late 20th century had created an environment so hostile to life that even the bacteria that would have caused the ship to decompose were unable to survive.
Additionally, it quickly became clear exactly why the ship sank in the first place. The portion of the ship above the waterline was too high, too heavy and not properly counterbalanced by a proportionally deep draft. The centre of gravity was simply too high.
The re-floated Vasa was towed into a drydock, where it underwent significant restoration. It was later moved to the half-finished Vasa Museum, where it now rests. The remainder of the museum was constructed around the ship.
However, almost as soon as the battle to recover the ship had ended, another had begun. The Vasa was freed from her tomb but also from her protection. Since it was raised in 1961, the caretakers of the ship have been in a constant battle to protect the vessel from deterioration.
The harsh chemicals that had protected the ship from bacteria had also penetrated the wood itself. Exposure to the air triggered chemical reactions within the timbers that produce sulfuric acid, as well as some acids caused by the spraying of preservative chemicals on the wood.
The deterioration of the ship is inevitable. The process can only be slowed and scientists and conservationists from teams around the world are currently researching methods of preserving this spectacular piece of history for as long as possible.
The Vasa is now among Sweden’s most popular tourist attractions, with an estimated 35 million visitors since 1961. Hopefully, millions more may get the chance to see this incredible relic of a by-gone age for many years to come.