In 1626 an army of loggers was ordered by the King of Sweden, King Gustav II Adolf, to various estate forests in Sweden where they cut down a thousand of the finest giant oak trees and piled them onto barges. The logs were barged down to Stockholm where they were unloaded at the navy shipyard. Four hundred skilled shipwrights began the job of constructing what was to be the king’s vision of the mightiest fighting ship ever built. It was not only to be a terrifying fearsome fighter but beautiful as well. It was to be an awesome symbol of King Gustav’s wealth and prestige. It was intended to show the world that Sweden was a maritime superpower.
The ship was to be named VASA after the family that sat on the Swedish throne. It would be a majestic ship, 226 feet long and 38 feet wide, she drew 16 feet of water. Her mast’s height was 172 feet, as tall as a fourteen-story building. Gleaming white sails, only a fraction of her sail capacity measuring 13,720 square feet, billowed above gun decks on either side that held some sixty-four mighty bronze cannons. Not only was VASA a threatening naval war machine, but she was also a work of art. There were hundreds of painted and gilded sculptures and carvings depicting angels and devils. The carvings also included warriors, musicians, emperors and gods. Beautiful, but with enough firepower to blow an attacking enemy ship out of the water. She was designed to terrify the enemy and dazzle the friendly. The construction was closely designed by the king despite his lack of any marine architectural experience.
The long-awaited departure date was set for August 10, 1628. There was a great crowd gathered for the sailing of this mighty symbol of the king’s power. The 145 sailors were permitted to bring along their families for the first leg of the planned voyage. There were 300 soldiers and dignitaries. VASA was anchored in the harbor. At the signal, sailors inserted their handspikes and began to rotate the capstan which brought up the huge anchor. With the anchor free, sailors scampered up the rigging to unfurl four of the ship’s ten giant sails. VASA slowly moved through the harbor surrounded by many small boats. There was a festive feeling in the air and the people in the small boats marveled at the majestic sight of a beautiful ship that was also a man of war. Shouts of “Good Luck”, “Safe Voyage “and “Farewell” filled the air.
Just when all seemed well, as the VASA passed near the bluffs to the south, now called Sodermalm, a strong gust of wind pounded VASA’ssails. The ship leaned sharply to one side then righted herself in a few moments. Alarmed, the captain ordered all crewmen to their stations. He was concerned the ship was unstable, but ignoring the experts, the king was impatient to see her take up her station as the flagship of the reserve squadron at Alvnaben in the Stockholm Archipelago. The sheets were cast off, but in a short time, another even stronger gust blasted through a gap in the bluffs at Tegelviken. It hit the sails and she heeled over even farther than before. The sixty-four-gun ports were open so when the ship healed over, water gushed into the lower decks. In just a short time, the ship’s deck railings were touching the water. Sailors and their loved ones landed in the water and swam as best they could. Others clung to the rigging as screams echoed across the water. The surrounding small boats quickly turned from celebrating to attempting to rescue those in the water. Despite their noble efforts, 30 of those people aboard the VASA drowned. The ship sank in 105 feet of water only approximately 390 feet from shore as hundreds of people watched her go down.
It was two weeks before the king learned the ship, he was so proud of had sunk. He was in Poland at the time. The king was furious, and the atmosphere dictated that a scapegoat be found. After extensive inquiries and investigation, no guilty party could be found. Some questioned the overloading of the ship at the king’s orders.
The VASA lay undisturbed for 30 years then in 1663 a team of Swedish and Finnish divers using a simple diving bell were able to recover 50 of her guns. Various attempts to raise the ship failed during the ensuing 333 years. Rust and deterioration were destroying the wreck. Then in the early 1950s, an amateur archaeologist named Ander Franzen became interested in recovering the wreck. Years went by and in a series of 18 lifts in August and September of 1959, the ship was lifted from a depth of 105 feet to a more sheltered area at a depth of 52 feet. It took a year and a half, but the team finally refloated the VASA. For the first time in 333 years, sunlight reached her decks on the morning of April 24th, 1961.
As soon as the wood hit the air deterioration accelerated. To stop the deterioration, the ship was coated with polyethylene glycol over a period of 17 years. To preserve the ship and her artifacts the VASA Museum was built. The Vasa Museum is a maritime museum in Stockholm, Sweden. Located on the island of Djurgården, the museum displays the only almost fully intact 17th-century ship that has ever been salvaged, the 64-gun warship VASA that sank on her maiden voyage in 1628. Perhaps because she was so brand new when she sank, the ship is in a remarkable state of preservation. The lavish decorations ordered by the king are plain to see.
You can get a good look at the ship and the museum online at https://www.vasamuseet.se/en. The museum fights a never-ending job of slowing the deterioration of even the new bolts and nuts used during the restoration.
VASA has become a very popular attraction in Sweden and it is a wonderful symbol of 17th-century naval power and the early development of a European nation-state. Experts agree that Vasa is the best-known example and has become recognized internationally as a symbol of the greatness of
Sweden. The VASA Museum is a remarkable effort and well worth a visit.
All photos are courtesy of the VASA Museum.