The Swedish Royal Warship Vasa
By Chantal-Marie Wright
In a museum in Stockholm lies the largely intact wreck of the Swedish warship Vasa. Built for King Gustavus Adolphus, construction began on the ship on 1626, during a time when Sweden’s power was on the rise. The ship was intended to be a testament to that power. Painted carvings and sculptures decorated the outside of the ship, including mythological and historical figures.
A large amount of firepower was packed into the Vasa’s 69 meter length. She carried 48 24-pounders, 8 3-pounders, and 2 light 1-pounders, as well as 6 stormstycken (howitzers). She was fitted with 10 sails and was meant for a crew of 145 sailors and 300 soldiers. When she was launched on her maiden voyage in 1628, over a hundred crewmen were on board, along with some family members and guests. The public also turned up to watch the beautiful Vasa set sail from Stockholm. The guns were loaded for a salute, and the ship headed for the Älvsnabben navel station.
This routine launching is remarkable because of what happened next: Before she could sail even one nautical mile, the Vasa heeled to port and, as water rushed in through her open gunports, sank about 100 yards from shore. Contemporary reports say between 30-50 people went down with her. An inquest was held to determine the cause of the sinking, but at the time the blame could not be squarely pinned on anyone, and the eventual solution was act of god. The bronze cannons were raised in 1664 and the wreck then lay undisturbed.
The Vasa might be yet another shipwreck footnote in history if not for the 20th century discovery and salvage. In 1956 she was found by Anders Franzén, an amatuer archaeologist, and she was then raised in 1961 by salvagers and the Swedish Navy. They raised the ship in stages, reinforcing what was left before attempting to break the surface. A video of the raising can be seen here: (http://vimeo.com/13821497) The iron had rusted away, and the stern castle with its quarter galleries had collapsed into the mud. Many of the carvings had eroded in the currents. But much of the ship had survived in the cold, brackish waters of Stockholm’s harbor. The wood was sprayed with polymer polyethylene glycol, a synthetic wax. 95% of the timber on display is original. Modern analysis has identified many factors in her sinking, including a lack of proper ballast, the open gunports, and the loading of the heavy guns on the second deck of an already unstable design.
The Vasa received her own museum in Stockholm, not far from where she was first launched. The Vasamuseet contains objects excavated from the wreck, as well as the large ship, which is exhibited in her winter rigging (three lower masts stepped and rigged.) The museum building itself has masts to give visitors an idea of the full height of the Vasa when she was fully rigged. Much of the color scheme was revealed through study of paint chips, and a painted replica shows the Vasa in her full regalia. Other exhibits tell of life in Sweden in 1628, including naval warfare, shipbuilding, and even a garden with medicinal plants and vegetables grown at the time. This breathes more life into the ship. The remains of at least 16 people were found with the wreck, and are now found here, along with facial reconstructions of their possible appearance in life. Keeping the ship preserved is an ongoing challenge, as the museum fights sulfuric and formic acids in the wood, and controls the temperature and humidity. These conservation techniques are also featured in a museum display.
Other ships moored at the museum include the Finngrundet, launched in 1903, and the Spica, a torpedo boat launched in 1966. The Vasamuseet has a website (http://vasamuseet.se/en/) and a Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/Vasamuseet). Over a million people visited in 2008; 80% of which were from outside Sweden.
Chantal-Marie Wright blogs about transportation disasters on fuckyeahwrecks