The History of the Incredible Vasa Warship and its Humiliating Shipwreck

The History of the Incredible Vasa Warship and its Humiliating Shipwreck

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The Vasa was a Swedish warship that was built during the early part of the 17 th century. The construction of this warship was commissioned by the King of Sweden, Gustav II Adolf, whose aim was to increase the military might of his country. This accomplishment of this objective was urgent, as Sweden was at that point of time engaged in a war with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Although the Vasa was expected to be one of the most powerful ships of its time, it was, ironically, not sunk by enemy guns, but by a gust of wind. Even more humiliating for the Swedes was the fact that the Vasa sunk just shortly after it left the harbor of Stockholm on its maiden voyage in full view of the inhabitants of Stockholm who came to watch the spectacle.

Ship Construction

The story of the Vasa begins in January 1625, when Gustav II Adolf signed a contract with the Dutch master shipwright, Henrik Hybertsson, and his business partner, Arendt de Groote. According to this contract, the two men were to build for Gustav four new ships, one of them being the Vasa. In the following year, work on the Vasa began. The master shipwright, however, was already ill at this point of time, and died in 1627. Following Hybertsson’s death, his assistant, Hein Jakobsson, was left in charge of the project.

Gustavus Adolphus' landing in Pomerania, near Wolgast, 1630

The Launch of the Vasa

The Vasa was launched during the spring of 1627, around the time of Hybertsson’s death, and was completed by the summer of 1628. The Vasa has been measured to be 69 m (226 ft.) in length, and 50 m (164 ft.) in height (when measured from the keel to the top of the main mast). The ship weighed over 1200 tons, and had 10 sails, 64 cannons, 120 tons of ballast, and hundreds of sculptures. The Vasa was indeed an impressive warship to behold, though it had a problem – it was unstable.

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The preserved Vasa in the main hall of Vasa Museum seen from above the bow. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Unstable Ship

One reason accounting for the instability of the Vasa was the numerous changes that were made to the ship when it was being built. For instance, the initial plan was for Hybertsson to build two smaller ships and two larger ones. The former were to have keel lengths of 39 m (127 ft.), whilst the latter 41 m (134.5 ft.). Originally, the Vasa was intended to have been one of the smaller ships. When it was completed, it had transformed into a big one.

Vasa's port side. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Swedish navy officials at that time seemed to have been aware of the problem with the Vasa. In the summer of 1628, the captain supervising the building of the ship, Söfring Hansson, called Vice Admiral Klas Fleming to the Vasa, which was at that time moored at the royal palace. Hansson was worried, and expressed his concern to the admiral that the ship was unstable, and not safe to sail. To demonstrate this, the captain had 30 men run back and forth across the deck, which caused the ship to roll alarmingly. Fearing that the Vasa would sink if the men continued running, Fleming had the demonstration stopped. In spite of this, Fleming, under pressure from the king to get the ship sailing, orders his captain to sail anyway.

Sinking Ship

On the 10 th of August 1628, the Vasa embarked on its maiden voyage. 1300 m later, a gust of wind heeled (tipped) the ship to port (the left side of the vessel when facing forward). As the gun-ports were left open, water starts gushing in, and within minutes, the Vasa had gone 32 m below the water. An inquest is launched soon after, and the blame falls on Hybertsson. The master shipwright, being dead for more than year, was unable to defend himself, and could not be punished. Thus, the case was closed.

The sinking of the Vasa Ship. ( Image Source )

Nevertheless, the Vasa was not entirely forgotten. For example, in the decades following the disaster, several attempts were made to raise the ship from the seabed, though none of them succeeded. During the 1660s, a team of divers, using an early type of diving bell, succeeded in salvaging the ship’s cannons. The Vasa was then left alone, and faded out of human memory, until the 1950s, when it was relocated. Following the Vasa’s rediscovery, an attempt was made to raise it out of the sea, which succeeded in 1961.

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Central Stockholm and the movements of Vasa from Skeppsgården ("navy yard") to the anchoring place near the old royal castle where it was fitted and armed in the spring of 1628, and finally the location where it foundered and sank. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Due to the conditions of the water that the Vasa was in, it was well-preserved. By taking the Vasa out of the sea, the condition of the ship’s wood began to deteriorate, thus requiring conservation work. This effort continues even today. Still, the Vasa continues to attract national interest in Sweden, as it is a symbol of the country’s Great Power Period, a time when Sweden was a major European power, and was in control of a large portion of the Baltic. It is perhaps fitting then, that this ship is today preserved in a museum named after it, the Vasa Museum, in Stockholm.

Featured image: Vasa's port bow. Photo source: ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Salvaged Artefacts at Vasa Ship Museum

The mightiest 16th-century Vasa was beyond a Royal carriage. It was a warship meant to create historic glory. Something I figured, only after, the fascinating exploration tour I took at this Swedish Ship Museum. The visit uncovered many attributes of this military expansion, however, what peculiarly captured my attention was its 500 recovered artefacts. It’s even more intriguing as these artefacts stayed underwater for over 300 years. Then one day, the ship mysteriously appeared on the Swedish shoreline, and that too quite intact. Vasa was the most powerful warship of its line and era. Not the largest though!

However, when you rover around the ship, is when you will notice the voluminous intensity of this vessel. It was loaded with heavy artillery on either side, weighing up to 550Kg. Much of the recovered artillery is now a part of the artefacts collection. Other items give insight into the remarkable lifestyle of the Swedish Royals. Here’s a summary of all the archaeological finds, I caught a glimpse of, in the Main Hall. This entire collection was rescued by the Swedish marine archaeologists in 1961.


During the 17th century, Sweden went from being a sparsely populated, poor, and peripheral northern European kingdom of little influence to one of the major powers in continental politics. Between 1611 and 1718 it was the dominant power in the Baltic, eventually gaining territory that encompassed the Baltic on all sides. This rise to prominence in international affairs and increase in military prowess, called stormaktstiden ("age of greatness" or "great power period"), was made possible by a succession of able monarchs and the establishment of a powerful centralised government, supporting a highly efficient military organization. Swedish historians have described this as one of the more extreme examples of an early modern state using almost all of its available resources to wage war the small northern kingdom transformed itself into a fiscal-military state and one of the most militarised states in history. [6]

Gustavus Adolphus (1594–1632) has been considered one of the most successful Swedish kings in terms of success in warfare. When Vasa was built, he had been in power for more than a decade. Sweden was embroiled in a war with Poland-Lithuania, and looked apprehensively at the development of the Thirty Years' War in present-day Germany. The war had been raging since 1618 and from a Protestant perspective it was not successful. The king's plans for a Polish campaign and for securing Sweden's interests required a strong naval presence in the Baltic. [7]

The navy suffered several severe setbacks during the 1620s. In 1625, a squadron cruising in the Bay of Riga was caught in a storm and ten ships ran aground and were wrecked. In the Battle of Oliwa in 1627, a Swedish squadron was outmaneuvered and defeated by a Polish force and two large ships were lost. Tigern ("The Tiger"), which was the Swedish admiral's flagship, was captured by the Poles, and Solen ("The Sun") was blown up by her own crew when it was boarded and nearly captured. In 1628, three more large ships were lost in less than a month. Admiral Klas Fleming's flagship Kristina was wrecked in a storm in the Gulf of Danzig, Riksnyckeln ("Key of the Realm") ran aground at Viksten in the southern archipelago of Stockholm and Vasa foundered on her maiden voyage. [7] [8]

Gustavus Adolphus was engaged in naval warfare on several fronts, which further exacerbated the difficulties of the navy. In addition to battling the Polish navy, the Swedes were indirectly threatened by Imperial forces that had invaded Jutland. The Swedish king had little sympathy for the Danish king, Christian IV, and Denmark and Sweden had been bitter enemies for well over a century. However, Sweden feared a Catholic conquest of Copenhagen and Zealand. This would have granted the Catholic powers control over the strategic passages between the Baltic Sea and the North Sea, which would be disastrous for Swedish interests. [7] [8]

Until the early 17th century, the Swedish navy was composed primarily of small to medium-sized ships with a single gundeck, normally armed with 12-pounder and smaller cannons these ships were cheaper than larger ships and were well-suited for escort and patrol. They also suited the prevailing tactical thinking within the navy, which emphasised boarding as the decisive moment in a naval battle rather than gunnery. The king, who was a keen artillerist, saw the potential of ships as gun platforms, and large, heavily armed ships made a more dramatic statement in the political theater of naval power. Beginning with Vasa, he ordered a series of ships with two full gundecks, outfitted with much heavier guns. [9]

Five such ships were built after Vasa (Äpplet ("Apple" [b] ), Kronan ("Crown"), Scepter ("Sceptre") and Göta Ark ("Ark of Gothenburg")) before the Privy Council cancelled the orders for the others after the king's death in 1632. These ships, especially Kronan and Scepter, were much more successful and served as flagships in the Swedish navy until the 1660s. The second of the so-called regalskepp (usually translated as "royal ships"), [10] Äpplet was built simultaneously with Vasa. The only significant difference between the design of Vasa and her sister ship was an increase in width of about a metre (3.1 ft). [11]

Just before Vasa was ordered, Dutch-born Henrik Hybertsson ("Master Henrik") was shipwright at the Stockholm shipyard. On 16 January 1625, Master Henrik and business partner Arendt de Groote signed a contract to build four ships, two with a keel of around 135 feet (41 m) and two smaller ones of 108 feet (33 m). [12]

Master Henrik and Arendt de Groote began buying the raw materials needed for the first ships in 1625, purchasing timber from individual estates in Sweden as well as buying rough-sawn planking in Riga, Königsberg (modern Kaliningrad), and Amsterdam. As they prepared to begin the first of the new ships in the autumn of 1625, Henrik corresponded with the king through Vice Admiral Klas Fleming about which ship to build first. The loss of ten ships in the Bay of Riga led the king to propose building two ships of a new, medium size as a quick compromise, and he sent a specification for this, a ship which would be 120 feet (35.6 m) long on the keel. Henrik declined, since he had already cut the timber for a large and a small ship. He laid the keel for a larger ship in late February or early March 1626. [13] Master Henrik never saw Vasa completed he fell ill in late 1625, and by the summer of 1626 he had handed over supervision of the work in the yard to another Dutch shipwright, Henrik "Hein" Jacobsson. He died in the spring of 1627, probably about the same time as the ship was launched. [14]

After launching, work continued on finishing the upper deck, the sterncastle, the beakhead and the rigging. Sweden had still not developed a sizeable sailcloth industry, and material had to be ordered from abroad. In the contract for the maintenance of rigging, French sailcloth was specified, but the cloth for the sails of Vasa most likely came from Holland. [15] The sails were made mostly of hemp and partly of flax. The rigging was made entirely of hemp imported from Latvia through Riga. The king visited the shipyard in January 1628 and made what was probably his only visit aboard the ship. [16]

In the summer of 1628, the captain responsible for supervising construction of the ship, Söfring Hansson, arranged for the ship's stability to be demonstrated for Vice Admiral Fleming, who had recently arrived in Stockholm from Prussia. Thirty men ran back and forth across the upper deck to start the ship rolling, but the admiral stopped the test after they had made only three trips, as he feared the ship would capsize. According to testimony by the ship's master, Göran Mattson, Fleming remarked that he wished the king were at home. Gustavus Adolphus had been sending a steady stream of letters insisting that the ship put to sea as soon as possible. [17]

There has been much speculation about whether Vasa was lengthened during construction and whether an additional gun deck was added late during the build. Little evidence suggests that Vasa was substantially modified after the keel was laid. Ships contemporary to Vasa that were elongated were cut in half and new timbers spliced between the existing sections, making the addition readily identifiable, but no such addition can be identified in the hull, nor is there any evidence for any late additions of a second gundeck. The king ordered seventy-two 24-pound guns for the ship on 5 August 1626, and this was too many to fit on a single gun deck. Since the king's order was issued less than five months after construction started, it would have come early enough for the second deck to be included in the design. The French Galion du Guise, the ship used as a model for Vasa, according to Arendt de Groote, also had two gun decks. [18] Laser measurements of Vasa's structure conducted in 2007–2011 confirmed that no major changes were implemented during construction, but that the centre of gravity was too high. [19]

Vasa was an early example of a warship with two full gun decks, and was built when the theoretical principles of shipbuilding were still poorly understood. There is no evidence that Henrik Hybertsson had ever built a ship like it before, and two gundecks is a much more complicated compromise between seaworthiness and firepower than a single gundeck. Safety margins at the time were also far below anything that would be acceptable today. Combined with the fact that 17th-century warships were built with intentionally high superstructures (to be used as firing platforms), this made Vasa a risky undertaking. [20] Henrik Hybertsson died in 1627, before the ship was finished, and the contract was taken over by his widow Margareta Nilsdotter.

Armament Edit

Vasa was built during a time of transition in naval tactics, from an era when boarding was still one of the primary ways of fighting enemy ships to an era of the strictly organised ship-of-the-line and a focus on victory through superior gunnery. Vasa was armed with powerful guns and built with a high stern, which would act as a firing platform in boarding actions for some of the 300 soldiers it was supposed to carry, but the high-sided hull and narrow upper deck were not optimised for boarding. It was neither the largest ship ever built, nor the one carrying the greatest number of guns. [21]

What made her arguably the most powerful warship of the time was the combined weight of shot that could be fired from the cannon of one side: 588 pounds (267 kg), excluding stormstycken, guns used for firing anti-personnel ammunition instead of solid shot. This was the largest concentration of artillery in a single warship in the Baltic at the time, perhaps in all of northern Europe, and it was not until the 1630s that a ship with more firepower was built. This large amount of naval artillery was placed on a ship that was quite small relative to the armament carried. By comparison, USS Constitution, a frigate built by the United States 169 years after Vasa, had roughly the same firepower, but was over 700 tonnes heavier. [22]

The Constitution, however, belonged to a later era of naval warfare that employed the line of battle-tactic, where ships fought in single file (or line ahead) while the group as a whole attempted to present the batteries of one side toward the enemy. The guns would be aimed in the same direction and fire could be concentrated on a single target. In the 17th century, tactics involving organised formations of large fleets had still not been developed. Rather, ships would fight individually or in small improvised groups, and focused on boarding. Vasa, though possessing a formidable battery, was built with these tactics in mind, and therefore lacked a unified broadside with guns that were all aimed in roughly the same direction. Rather, the guns were intended to be fired independently and were arranged according to the curvature of the hull, meaning that the ship would be bristled with artillery in all directions, covering virtually all angles. [23]

Naval gunnery in the 17th century was still in its infancy. Guns were expensive and had a much longer lifespan than any warship. Guns with a lifetime of over a century were not unheard of, while most warships would be used for only 15 to 20 years. In Sweden and many other European countries, a ship would normally not "own" its guns, but would be issued armament from the armory for every campaign season. Ships were therefore usually fitted with guns of very diverse age and size. What allowed Vasa to carry so much firepower was not merely that an unusually large number of guns were crammed into a relatively small ship, but also that the 46 main 24-pounder guns were of a new and standardised lightweight design. These were cast in a single series at the state gun foundry in Stockholm, under the direction of the Swiss-born founder Medardus Gessus. [24]

Two additional 24-pounders, of a heavier and older design, were mounted in the bows, the so-called bow chasers. Four more heavy guns were intended for the stern, but the cannon foundry could not cast guns as fast as the navy yard could build ships, and Vasa waited nearly a year after construction was finished for its armament. When the ship sailed in August 1628, eight of the planned armament of 72 guns had still not been delivered. All cannons during this time had to be made from individually made moulds that could not be reused, but Vasa's guns had such uniform precision in their manufacturing that their primary dimensions varied by only a few millimetres, and their bores were almost exactly 146 mm (5.7 in). The remaining armament of Vasa consisted of eight 3-pounders, six large caliber stormstycken (similar to what the English called howitzers) for use during boarding actions, and two 1-pound falconets. Also included on board were 894 kilograms (1,970 lb) of gunpowder and over 1,000 shot of various types for the guns. [25]

Ornamentation Edit

As was the custom with warships at the time, parts of Vasa were decorated with sculptures. Residues of paint have been found on many sculptures and on other parts of the ship. The entire ornamentation was once painted in vivid colors. The sides of the beakhead (the protruding structure below the bowsprit), the bulwarks (the protective railing around the weather deck), the roofs of the quarter galleries, and the background of the transom (the flat surface at the stern of the ship) were all painted red, while the sculptures were decorated in bright colors, and the dazzling effect of these was in some places emphasised with gold leaf. [8]

Previously, it was believed that the background color had been blue and that all sculptures had been almost entirely gilded, and this is reflected in many paintings of Vasa from the 1970s to the early 1990s, such as the lively and dramatic drawings of Björn Landström or the painting by Francis Smitheman. [26] In the late 1990s, this view was revised and the colors are properly reflected in more recent reproductions of the ship's decoration by maritime painter Tim Thompson and the 1:10 scale model in the museum. Vasa is an example not so much of the heavily gilded sculptures of early Baroque art but rather "the last gasps of the medieval sculpture tradition" with its fondness for gaudy colors, in a style that today would be considered extravagant or even vulgar. [8]

The sculptures are carved out of oak, pine or linden, and many of the larger pieces, like the huge 3-metre (10 ft) long figurehead lion, consist of several parts carved individually and fitted together with bolts. Close to 500 sculptures, most of which are concentrated on the high stern and its galleries and on the beakhead, are found on the ship. [27] The figure of Hercules appears as a pair of pendants, one younger and one older, on each side of the lower stern galleries the pendants depict opposite aspects of the ancient hero, who was extremely popular during antiquity as well as in 17th-century European art. [28]

On the transom are biblical and nationalistic symbols and images. A particularly popular motif is the lion, which can be found as mascarons originally fitted on the insides of the gunport doors, grasping the royal coat of arms on either side, the figurehead, and even clinging to the top of the rudder. Each side of the beakhead originally had 20 figures (though only 19 have actually been found) that depicted Roman emperors from Tiberius to Septimius Severus. [29]

Overall, almost all heroic and positive imagery is directly or indirectly identified with the king and was originally intended to glorify him as a wise and powerful ruler. The only actual portrait of the king is located at the very top of the transom in the stern. Here he is depicted as a young boy with long, flowing hair, being crowned by two griffins representing the king's father, Charles IX. [30]

A team of at least six expert sculptors worked for a minimum of two years on the sculptures, most likely with the assistance of an unknown number of apprentices and assistants. No direct credit for any of the sculptures has been provided, but the distinct style of one of the most senior artists, Mårten Redtmer, is clearly identifiable. Other accomplished artists, like Hans Clausink, Johan Didrichson Tijsen (or Thessen in Swedish) and possibly Marcus Ledens, are known to have been employed for extensive work at the naval yards at the time Vasa was built, but their respective styles are not distinct enough to associate them directly with any specific sculptures. [31]

The artistic quality of the sculptures varies considerably, and about four distinct styles can be identified. The only artist who has been positively associated with various sculptures is Mårten Redtmer, whose style has been described as "powerful, lively and naturalistic". [32] He was responsible for a considerable number of the sculptures. These include some of the most important and prestigious pieces: the figurehead lion, the royal coat of arms, and the sculpture of the king at the top of the transom. Two of the other styles are described as "elegant . a little stereotyped and manneristic", and of a "heavy, leisurely but nevertheless rich and lively style", respectively. The fourth and last style, deemed clearly inferior to the other three, is described as "stiff and ungainly" [33] and was done by other carvers, perhaps even apprentices, of lesser skill. [34]

On 10 August 1628, Captain Söfring Hansson ordered Vasa to depart on her maiden voyage to the naval station at Älvsnabben. The day was calm, and the only wind was a light breeze from the southwest. The ship was warped (hauled by anchor) along the eastern waterfront of the city to the southern side of the harbor, where four sails were set, and the ship made way to the east. The gun ports were open, and the guns were out to fire a salute as the ship left Stockholm. [17]

Sinking Edit

As Vasa passed under the lee of the bluffs to the south (what is now Södermalm), a gust of wind filled her sails, and she heeled suddenly to port. The sheets were cast off, and the ship slowly righted herself as the gust passed. At Tegelviken, where there is a gap in the bluffs, an even stronger gust again forced the ship onto its port side, this time pushing the open lower gunports under the surface, allowing water to rush in onto the lower gundeck. The water building up on the deck quickly exceeded the ship's minimal ability to right itself, and water continued to pour in until it ran down into the hold. [35]

The ship swiftly sank to a depth of 32 m (105 ft) only 120 m (390 ft) from shore. Survivors clung to debris or the upper masts, which were still above the surface. Many nearby boats rushed to their aid, but despite these efforts and the short distance to land, 30 people reportedly perished with the ship. Vasa sank in full view of a crowd of hundreds, if not thousands, of mostly ordinary Stockholmers who had come to see the ship set sail. The crowd included foreign ambassadors, in effect spies of Gustavus Adolphus' allies and enemies, who also witnessed the catastrophe. [36]

Inquest Edit

The Council sent a letter to the king the day after the loss, telling him of the sinking, but it took over two weeks to reach him in Poland. "Imprudence and negligence" must have been the cause, he wrote angrily in his reply, demanding in no uncertain terms that the guilty parties be punished. [37] Captain Söfring Hansson, who survived the disaster, was immediately taken for questioning. Under initial interrogation, he swore that the guns had been properly secured and that the crew was sober. [37]

A full inquest before a tribunal of members of the Privy Council and Admiralty took place at the Royal Palace on 5 September 1628. Each of the surviving officers was questioned as was the supervising shipwright and a number of expert witnesses. Also present at the inquest was the Admiral of the Realm, Carl Carlsson Gyllenhielm. The object of the inquest was as much or more to find a scapegoat as to find out why the ship had sunk. Whoever the committee might find guilty for the fiasco would face a severe penalty. [37]

Surviving crew members were questioned one by one about the handling of the ship at the time of the disaster. Was it rigged properly for the wind? Was the crew sober? Was the ballast properly stowed? Were the guns properly secured? However, no one was prepared to take the blame. Crewmen and contractors formed two camps each tried to blame the other, and everyone swore he had done his duty without fault and it was during the inquest that the details of the stability demonstration were revealed. [38]

Next, attention was directed to the shipbuilders. "Why did you build the ship so narrow, so badly and without enough bottom that it capsized?" the prosecutor asked the shipwright Jacobsson. [39] Jacobsson stated that he built the ship as directed by Henrik Hybertsson (long since dead and buried), who in turn had followed the specification approved by the king. Jacobsson had in fact widened the ship by 1 foot 5 inches (c. 42 cm) after taking over responsibility for the construction, but construction of the ship was too far advanced to allow further widening. [39]

In the end, no guilty party could be found. The answer Arendt de Groote gave when asked by the court why the ship sank was "Only God knows". Gustavus Adolphus had approved all measurements and armaments, and the ship was built according to the instructions and loaded with the number of guns specified. In the end, no-one was punished or found guilty for negligence, and the blame effectively fell on Henrik Hybertsson. [40]

Less than three days after the disaster, a contract was signed for the ship to be raised. However, those efforts were unsuccessful. [41] The earliest attempts at raising Vasa by English engineer Ian Bulmer, [42] resulted in righting the ship but also got it more securely stuck in the mud and was most likely one of the biggest impediments to the earliest attempts at recovery. [41] Salvaging technology in the early 17th century was much more primitive than today, but the recovery of ships used roughly the same principles as were used to raise Vasa more than 300 years later. Two ships or hulks were placed parallel to either side above the wreck, and ropes attached to several anchors were sent down and hooked to the ship. The two hulks were filled with as much water as was safe, the ropes tightened, and the water pumped out. The sunken ship then rose with the ships on the surface and could be towed to shallower waters. The process was then repeated until the entire ship was successfully raised above water level. Even if the underwater weight of Vasa was not great, the mud in which it had settled made it sit more securely on the bottom and required considerable lifting power to overcome. [43] More than 30 years after the ship's sinking, in 1663–1665, Albreckt von Treileben and Andreas Peckell mounted an effort to recover the valuable guns. With a simple diving bell, the team of Swedish and Finnish divers retrieved more than 50 of them. [44]

Such activity waned when it became clear that the ship could not be raised by the technology of the time. However, Vasa did not fall completely into obscurity after the recovery of the guns. The ship was mentioned in several histories of Sweden and the Swedish Navy, and the location of the wreck appeared on harbor charts of Stockholm in the 19th century. In 1844, the navy officer Anton Ludwig Fahnehjelm turned in a request for salvaging rights to the ship, claiming he had located it. Fahnehjelm was an inventor who designed an early form of light diving suit and had previously been involved in other salvage operations. There were dives made on the wreck in 1895–1896, and a commercial salvage company applied for a permit to raise or salvage the wreck in 1920, but this was turned down. In 1999, a witness also claimed that his father, a petty officer in the Swedish navy, had taken part in diving exercises on Vasa in the years before World War I. [45]

Deterioration Edit

In the 333 years that Vasa lay on the bottom of Stockholm harbor (called Stockholms ström, "the Stream", in Swedish), the ship and its contents were subject to several destructive forces, first among which were decomposition and erosion. Among the first things to decompose were the thousands of iron bolts that held the beakhead and much of the sterncastle together, and this included all of the ship's wooden sculptures. Almost all of the iron on the ship rusted away within a few years of the sinking, and only large objects, such as anchors, or items made of cast iron, such as cannonballs, survived. Organic materials fared better in the anaerobic conditions, and so wood, cloth and leather are often in very good condition, but objects exposed to the currents were eroded by the sediment in the water, so that some are barely recognizable. [46] Objects which fell off the hull into the mud after the nails corroded through were well protected, so that many of the sculptures still retain areas of paint and gilding. Of the human remains, most of the soft tissue was quickly consumed by bacteria, fish and crustaceans, leaving only the bones, which were often held together only by clothing, although in one case, hair, nails and brain tissue survived. [47]

The parts of the hull held together by joinery and wooden treenails remained intact for as much as two centuries, suffering gradual erosion of surfaces exposed to the water, unless they were disturbed by outside forces. Eventually the entire sterncastle, the high, aft portion of the ship that housed the officers' quarters and held up the transom, gradually collapsed into the mud with all the decorative sculptures. The quarter galleries, which were merely nailed to the sides of the sterncastle, collapsed fairly quickly and were found lying almost directly below their original locations. [46]

Human activity was the most destructive factor, as the initial salvage efforts, the recovery of the guns, and the final salvage in the 20th century all left their marks. Peckell and Treileben broke up and removed much of the planking of the weather deck to get to the cannons on the decks below. Peckell reported that he had recovered 30 cartloads of wood from the ship these might have included not just planking and structural details but also some of the sculptures which today are missing, such as the life-size Roman warrior near the bow and the sculpture of Septimius Severus that adorned the port side of the beakhead. [48] Since Vasa lay in a busy shipping channel, ships occasionally dropped anchor over the ship, and one large anchor demolished most of the upper sterncastle, probably in the 19th century. Construction work in Stockholm harbor usually results in blasting of bedrock, and the resulting tonnes of rubble were often dumped in the harbor some of this landed on the ship, causing further damage to the stern and the upper deck. [49]

Vasa rediscovered Edit

In the early 1950s, amateur archaeologist Anders Franzén considered the possibility of recovering wrecks from the cold brackish waters of the Baltic because, he reasoned, they were free from the shipworm Teredo navalis, which usually destroys submerged wood rapidly in warmer, saltier seas. Franzén had previously been successful in locating wrecks such as Riksäpplet and Lybska Svan, and after long and tedious research he began looking for Vasa as well. He spent many years probing the waters without success around the many assumed locations of the wreckage. He did not succeed until, based on accounts of an unknown topographical anomaly just south of the Gustav V dock on Beckholmen, he narrowed his search. In 1956, with a home-made, gravity-powered coring probe, he located a large wooden object almost parallel to the mouth of dock on Beckholmen. The location of the ship received considerable attention, even if the identification of the ship could not be determined without closer investigation. Soon after the announcement of the find, planning got underway to determine how to excavate and raise Vasa. The Swedish Navy was involved from the start, as were various museums and the National Heritage board, representatives of which eventually formed the Vasa Committee, the predecessor of the Vasa Board. [50]

Recovery Edit

A number of possible recovery methods were proposed, including filling the ship with ping-pong balls and freezing it in a block of ice, but the method chosen by the Vasa Board (which succeeded the Vasa Committee) was essentially the same one attempted immediately after the sinking. Divers spent two years digging six tunnels under the ship for steel cable slings, which were taken to a pair of lifting pontoons at the surface. The work under the ship was extremely dangerous, requiring the divers to cut tunnels through the clay with high-pressure water jets and suck up the resulting slurry with a dredge, all while working in total darkness with hundreds of tonnes of mud-filled ship overhead. [51] A persisting risk was that the wreck could shift or settle deeper into the mud while a diver was working in a tunnel, trapping him underneath the wreckage. The almost vertical sections of the tunnels near the side of the hull could also potentially collapse and bury a diver inside. [52] Despite the dangerous conditions, more than 1,300 dives were made in the salvage operation without any serious accidents. [53]

Each time the pontoons were pumped full, the cables tightened and the pontoons were pumped out, the ship was brought a metre closer to the surface. In a series of 18 lifts in August and September 1959, the ship was moved from depth of 32 metres (105 ft) to 16 metres (52 ft) in the more sheltered area of Kastellholmsviken, where divers could work more safely to prepare for the final lift. [54] Over the course of a year and a half, a small team of commercial divers cleared debris and mud from the upper decks to lighten the ship, and made the hull as watertight as possible. The gun ports were closed by means of temporary lids, a temporary replacement of the collapsed sterncastle was constructed, and many of the holes from the iron bolts that had rusted away were plugged. The final lift began on 8 April 1961, and on the morning of 24 April, Vasa was ready to return to the world for the first time in 333 years. Press from all over the world, television cameras, 400 invited guests on barges and boats, and thousands of spectators on shore watched as the first timbers broke the surface. The ship was then emptied of water and mud and towed to the Gustav V dry dock on Beckholmen, where the ship was floated on its own keel onto a concrete pontoon, on which the hull still stands. [55]

From the end of 1961 to December 1988, Vasa was housed in a temporary facility called Wasavarvet ("The Vasa Shipyard"), which included exhibit space as well as the activities centred on the ship. A building was erected over the ship on its pontoon, but it was very cramped, making conservation work awkward. Visitors could view the ship from just two levels, and the maximum viewing distance was in most places only a couple of metres, which made it difficult for viewers to get an overall view of the ship. In 1981, the Swedish government decided that a permanent building was to be constructed, and a design competition was organised. The winning design, by the Swedish architects Månsson and Dahlbäck, called for a large hall over the ship in a polygonal, industrial style. Ground was broken in 1987, and Vasa was towed into the half-finished Vasa Museum in December 1988. The museum was officially opened to the public in 1990. [56]

Vasa posed an unprecedented challenge for archaeologists. Never before had a four-storey structure, with most of its original contents largely undisturbed, been available for excavation. [57] The conditions under which the team had to work added to the difficulties. The ship had to be kept wet in order that it not dry out and crack before it could be properly conserved. Digging had to be performed under a constant drizzle of water and in a sludge-covered mud that could be more than one metre deep. In order to establish find locations, the hull was divided into several sections demarcated by the many structural beams, the decking and by a line drawn along the centre of the ship from stern to bow. For the most part, the decks were excavated individually, though at times work progressed on more than one deck level simultaneously. [58]

Finds Edit

Vasa had four preserved decks: the upper and lower gun decks, the hold and the orlop. Because of the constraints of preparing the ship for conservation, the archaeologists had to work quickly, in 13-hour shifts during the first week of excavation. The upper gun deck was greatly disturbed by the various salvage projects between 1628 and 1961, and it contained not only material that had fallen down from the rigging and upper deck, but also more than three centuries of harbor refuse. [59] The decks below were progressively less disturbed. The gundecks contained not just gun carriages, the three surviving cannons, and other objects of a military nature, but were also where most of the personal possessions of the sailors had been stored at the time of the sinking. These included a wide range of loose finds, as well as chests and casks with spare clothing and shoes, tools and materials for mending, money (in the form of low-denomination copper coins), privately purchased provisions, and all of the everyday objects needed for life at sea. Most of the finds are of wood, testifying not only to the simple life on board, but to the generally unsophisticated state of Swedish material culture in the early 17th century. The lower decks were primarily used for storage, and so the hold was filled with barrels of provisions and gunpowder, coils of anchor cable, iron shot for the guns, and the personal possessions of some of the officers. On the orlop deck, a small compartment contained six of the ship's ten sails, rigging spares, and the working parts for the ship's pumps. Another compartment contained the possessions of the ship's carpenter, including a large tool chest. [60]

After the ship itself had been salvaged and excavated, the site of the loss was excavated thoroughly during 1963–1967. This produced many items of rigging tackle as well as structural timbers that had fallen off, particularly from the beakhead and sterncastle. Most of the sculptures that had decorated the exterior of the hull were also found in the mud, along with the ship's anchors and the skeletons of at least four people. The last object to be brought up was the nearly 12-metre-long longboat, called esping in Swedish, found lying parallel to the ship and believed to have been towed by Vasa when it sank. [61]

Many of the more recent objects contaminating the site were disregarded when the finds were registered, but some were the remains of the 1660s salvage efforts and others had their own stories to tell. Among the best known of these was a statue of 20th-century Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi, which was placed on the ship as a prank by students of Helsinki University of Technology (now known as Aalto University) the night before the final lift. [62] [63] The inspiration for the hack was that Sweden had forbidden Nurmi from competing in the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, United States.

Vasa sank because it had very little initial stability, which can be thought of as resistance to heeling over under the force of wind or waves acting on the hull. The reason for this is that the distribution of mass in the hull structure and the ballast, guns, provisions, and other objects loaded on board puts too much weight too high in the ship. The centre of gravity is too high, and so it takes very little force to make the ship heel over, and there is not enough righting moment, force trying to make the ship return to an upright position. The reason that the ship has such a high centre of gravity is not due to the guns. These weighed little over 60 tonnes, or about 5% of the total displacement of the loaded ship. This is relatively low weight and should be bearable in a ship this size. The problem is in the hull construction itself. The part of the hull above the waterline is too high and too heavily built in relation to the amount of hull in the water. The headroom in the decks is higher than necessary for crewmen who were, on average, only 1.67 metres (5 feet 5½ inches) tall, and thus the weight of the decks and the guns they carry is higher above the waterline than needed. In addition, the deck beams and their supporting timbers are over-dimensioned and too closely spaced for the loads they carry, so they contribute too much weight to the already tall and heavy upper works. [64]

The use of different measuring systems on either side of the vessel caused its mass to be distributed asymmetrically, heavier to port. During construction both Swedish feet and Amsterdam feet were in use by different teams. Archaeologists have found four rulers used by the workmen who built the ship. Two were calibrated in Swedish feet, which had 12 inches, while the other two measured Amsterdam feet, which had 11 inches. [65]

Although the mathematical tools for calculating or predicting stability were still more than a century in the future, and 17th-century scientific ideas about how ships behaved in water were deeply flawed, the people associated with building and sailing ships for the Swedish navy were very much aware of the forces at work and their relationships to each other. In the last part of the inquest held after the sinking, a group of master shipwrights and senior naval officers were asked for their opinions about why the ship sank. Their discussion and conclusions show very clearly that they knew what had happened, and their verdict was summed up very clearly by one of the captains, who said that the ship did not have enough "belly" to carry the heavy upperworks. [66]

Common practice of the time dictated that heavy guns were to be placed on the lower gun deck to decrease the weight on the upper gun deck and improve stability. The armament plans were changed many times during the build to either 24-pounders on the lower deck along with lighter 12-pounders on the upper deck or 24-pounders on both decks. The gun ports on the upper deck were the correct size for 12-pounders, but in the end the ship was finished with the heavy 24-pounders on both decks, and this may have contributed to poor stability. [67]

Vasa might not have sunk on 10 August 1628, if the ship had been sailed with the gunports closed. Ships with multiple tiers of gunports normally had to sail with the lowest tier closed, since the pressure of wind in the sails would usually push the hull over until the lower gunport sills were under water. For this reason, the gunport lids are made with a double lip which is designed to seal well enough to keep out most of the water. Captain Söfring Hansson had ordered the lower gundeck ports closed once the ship began to take on water, but by then it was too late. If he had done it before he sailed, Vasa might not have sunk on that day. [66]

Although Vasa was in surprisingly good condition after 333 years at the bottom of the sea, it would have quickly deteriorated if the hull had been simply allowed to dry. The large bulk of Vasa, over 600 cubic metres (21,000 cu ft) of oak timber, constituted an unprecedented conservation problem. After some debate on how to best preserve the ship, conservation was carried out by impregnation with polyethylene glycol (PEG), a method that has since become the standard treatment for large, waterlogged wooden objects, such as the 16th-century English ship Mary Rose. Vasa was sprayed with PEG for 17 years, followed by a long period of slow drying, which is not yet entirely complete. [68]

The reason that Vasa was so well-preserved was not just that the shipworm that normally devours wooden ships was absent but also that the water of Stockholms ström was heavily polluted until the late 20th century. The highly toxic and hostile environment meant that even the toughest microorganisms that break down wood had difficulty surviving. This, along with the fact that Vasa had been newly built and was undamaged when it sank, contributed to her conservation. Unfortunately, the properties of the water also had a negative effect. Chemicals present in the water around Vasa had penetrated the wood, and the timber was full of the corrosion products from the bolts and other iron objects which had disappeared. Once the ship was exposed to the air, reactions began inside the timber that produced acidic compounds. In the late 1990s, spots of white and yellow residue were noticed on Vasa and some of the associated artefacts. These turned out to be sulfate-containing salts that had formed on the surface of the wood when sulfides reacted with atmospheric oxygen. The salts on the surface of Vasa and objects found in and around it are not a threat themselves (even if the discolouring may be distracting), but if they are from inside the wood, they may expand and crack the timber from inside. As of 2002, the amount of sulfuric acid in Vasa's hull was estimated to be more than 2 tonnes, and more is continually being created. Enough sulfides are present in the ship to produce another 5,000 kilograms (11,000 lb) of acid at a rate of about 100 kilograms (220 lb) per year this might eventually destroy the ship almost entirely. [69]

While most of the scientific community considers that the destructive substance responsible for Vasa's long-term decay is sulfuric acid, Ulla Westermark, professor of wood technology at Luleå University of Technology, has proposed another mechanism with her colleague Börje Stenberg. Experiments done by Japanese researchers show that treating wood with PEG in an acidic environment can generate formic acid and eventually liquify the wood. Vasa was exposed to acidic water for more than three centuries, and therefore has a relatively low pH. Samples taken from the ship indicate that formic acid is present, and that it could be one of the multiple causes of a suddenly accelerated rate of decomposition. [70]

The museum is constantly monitoring the ship for damage caused by decay or warping of the wood. Ongoing research seeks the best way to preserve the ship for future generations and to analyze the existing material as closely as possible. A current problem is that the old oak of which the ship is built has lost a substantial amount of its original strength and the cradle that supports the ship does not match up very well with the distribution of weight and stress in the hull. "The amount of movement in the hull is worrying. If nothing is done, the ship will most likely capsize again", states Magnus Olofson from the Vasa Museum. An effort to secure Vasa for the future is under way, in cooperation with the Royal Institute of Technology and other institutions around the globe. [71]

To deal with the problem of the inevitable deterioration of the ship, the main hall of the Vasa Museum is kept at a temperature of 18–20 °C (64–68 °F) and a humidity level of 53%. To slow the destruction by acidic compounds, different methods have been tried. Small objects have been sealed in plastic containers filled with an inert atmosphere of nitrogen gas, for halting further reactions between sulfides and oxygen. The ship itself has been treated with cloth saturated in a basic liquid to neutralise the low pH, but this is only a temporary solution as acid is continuously produced. The original bolts rusted away after the ship sank but were replaced with modern ones that were galvanised and covered with epoxy resin. Despite this, the newer bolts also started to rust and were releasing iron into the wood, which accelerated the deterioration. [72]

Vasa has become a popular and widely recognised symbol for a historical narrative about the Swedish stormaktstiden ("the Great Power-period") in the 17th century, and about the early development of a European nation state. Within the disciplines of history and maritime archaeology the wrecks of large warships from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries have received particularly widespread attention as perceived symbols of a past greatness of the state of Sweden. Among these wrecks, Vasa is the single best known example, and has also become recognised internationally, not least through a deliberate use of the ship as a symbol for marketing Sweden abroad. The name Vasa has in Sweden become synonymous with sunken vessels that are considered to be of great historical importance, and these are usually described, explained and valued in relation to Vasa itself. [73] The Swedish maritime archaeologist Carl-Olof Cederlund, who has been active in the various Vasa-projects, has described the phenomenon as regalskepps-syndromet, "the royal ship syndrome" (after the term used in the 17th century for the largest warships in the Swedish navy). He associates the "syndrome" to a nationalist aspect of the history of ideas and traditional perceptions about hero-kings and glory through war. The focus of this historical theory lies on the "great periods" in "our [Swedish] history" and shares many similarities with the nationalist views of the Viking era in the Nordic countries and the praising of Greek and Roman Antiquity in the Western world in general. [74] Cederlund has stressed the ritualised aspects of the widely publicised salvage in 1961 and has compared the modern Vasa Museum with "a temple in the Classical sense of the word". The placement of the museum on Djurgården, traditional crown property, and its focus on "the King's ship" has led him to suggest a description of it as "The Temple of the Royal Ship". [75]

Literature and popular culture Edit

Vasa's unique status has drawn considerable attention and captured the imagination of more than two generations of scholars, tourists, model builders, and authors. Though historically unfounded, the popular perception of the building of the ship as a botched and disorganised affair (dubbed "the Vasa-syndrome") has been used by many authors of management literature as an educational example of how not to organise a successful business. [c] In The Tender Ship, Manhattan Project engineer Arthur Squires used the Vasa story as an opening illustration of his thesis that governments are usually incompetent managers of technology projects. [76]

The Vasa Museum has co-sponsored two versions of a documentary about the history and recovery of the ship, both by documentary filmmaker Anders Wahlgren. The second version is currently shown in the museum and has been released on VHS and DVD with narration in 16 languages. In late 2011, a third Vasa-film premiered on Swedish television, with a longer running time and a considerably larger budget (with over 7.5 million kronor provided by SVT). [77] An educational computer game, now in its second generation, has been made and is used in the museum and on its website to explain the fundamentals of 17th century ship construction and stability. Several mass-produced model kits and countless custom-built models of the ship have been made. In 1991, a 308-tonne pastiche reproduction of the ship was built in Tokyo to serve as a 650-passenger sightseeing ship. Vasa has inspired many works of art, including a gilded Disney-themed parody of the pilaster sculptures on the ship's quarter galleries. [78] Being a popular tourist attraction, Vasa is used as a motif for various souvenir products such as T-shirts, mugs, refrigerator magnets, and posters. Commercially produced replicas—such as drinking glasses, plates, spoons, and even a backgammon game—have been made from many of the objects belonging to the crew or officers found on the ship. [79]

Vasa: the Swedish Empire’s doomed flagship

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.

Cross section of the Vasa

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.

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.

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

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Gorgeous Decay: The Second Death of the Swedish Warship Vasa

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The Swedish Warship Vasa never made it out of Stockholm harbor. It sank on its maiden voyage in 1628, and nearly 400 years later, the ship is suffering a slow, inexorable decay in Sweden's Vasa Museum.

The mighty vessel has come to symbolize Sweden's Great Power Period, when the nation became a major European power and controlled much of the Baltic. Though not the largest or most heavily armed ship of its time, the Vasa was formidable: The 226-foot, 64-cannon ship could fire a combined weight of more than 650 pounds of shot from one side. But the maritime pride of Sweden never saw battle – it was too top-heavy, and it capsized and sank after sailing less than a nautical mile.

The Vasa was recovered in 1961 and has been displayed in its own museum since 1990, attracting more than a million visitors per year. But in 2000, signs of deterioration sprang up on the ship's surface. A new study published July 6 in Biomacromolecules shows that the ship's wooden hull has significantly weakened, due to decay of the wood's structural fibers. The Vasa wood is about 40 percent weaker than regular oak wood, and has become very acidic.

"We found a very clear connection between low pH, high degradation, and a large decrease in mechanical strength," said study co-author Ingela Bjurhager, a mechanical engineer at Sweden's University of Uppsala.

Bjurhager's team cut out samples of wood from four different locations on the Vasa to test its properties. They measured the wood's tensile strength by stretching it in a machine until the wood reached its fracture point, and they analyzed its iron and sulfur content.

Wood gets its mechanical strength from cellulose fibers, and decay of these fibers appears to be responsible for the *Vasa'*s weakening. The cause of the decay is still being debated, but one theory suggests that iron leaching out of the ship's metal bolts and fixtures could be combining with oxygen to create a highly reactive substance that's eating away at the cellulose.

While some microbial degradation took place underwater, the researchers believe most of the decay happened after the ship was brought out of the water. Stockholm harbor provided ideal conditions for preserving a shipwreck: The dark bottom was protected from damaging ultraviolet light, the cold water slowed down chemical processes, and heavily polluted 17th century water prevented an infestation of "shipworm" – a notorious wood-eating parasite.

"Comparatively speaking - Vasa is in an excellent state of preservation compared with most shipwrecks," said Emma Hocker, conservator of the Swedish National Maritime Museums, in an email.

Soon after the ship was salvaged, it was sprayed with a waxy substance called polyethylene glycol, or PEG, to replace the water inside the wood and prevent it from shrinking. It wasn't intended to protect against fiber degradation, but it appears to have kept the ship's surface better preserved than its inner regions.

In 2004, the museum upgraded its climate-control system to keep the relative humidity stable, as fluctuating humidity could lead to changes in the shape and weight of the ship. Efforts are also underway to replace the corroding steel bolts that were inserted in the ship during the 1960s with improved stainless steel ones.

The Vasa does not have an immediate risk of structural failure, the researchers concluded. Still, the ship deforms a few millimeters every year. Given the extent of the wood atrophy, "It's sort of a little bit too late to do anything," said Bjurhager, who is focusing instead on preventing further deformation. Her team is currently working on a computer model of the ship so they can design a new support structure.

There may be life in the Vasa yet."It has a long history with the Swedish people," Bjurhager said. "People just like it."

Where to get Vasa Museum Tickets

Admission for adults is 130 SEK (approximately $15US). Children and adolescents up to 18 get free entry, and students with valid student ID pay 100 SEK.

It’s currently impossible to buy Vasa Museum tickets on the Vasamuseet website.

If you’re traveling in low season, like we were, buying tickets in person is super fast and easy. Unless you plan to take a tour, you can literally just show up and be inside admiring the Swedish warship Vasa within minutes.

However, since the Vasa Museum is Stockholm’s most popular museum with over a million visitors per year (mostly during high season), consider purchasing a Stockholm Card to avoid line-ups. It includes access to the Vasa Museum, over 60 popular attractions in the city, hop-on hop-off bus and boat tours, and a guidebook.

Alternatively, you can join a walking tour that includes Stockholm’s Old Town, a ferry ride to the Djurgarden, and skip-the-line tickets to the Vasa Museum.

The ship’s masts rise high above the Vasa Museum in Stockholm’s Djurgarden


From the beginning of 1961 to 1983, Vasa was housed in a temporary structure called Wasavarvet ("The Vasa Shipyard") where she was treated with polyethylene glycol. Visitors could only view the ship from two levels and the maximum distance was only 5 m (17 ft). In 1981, the Swedish government decided that a permanent Vasa museum was to be constructed and a competition for the design of the museum building was organized. A total of 384 architects sent in models of their ideas and the final winners were Marianne Jakobbäck and Göran Månsson with Ask ("box"). The construction of the new building began on and around the dry dock of the old naval yard with an inauguration ceremony hosted by Prince Bertil on 2 November 1987. Vasa was towed into the flooded dry dock under the new building in December 1987, and during the summer of 1989, when visitors were allowed onto the construction site, 228,000 people visited the half-finished museum. The museum was officially opened on 15 June 1990. [2] So far, Vasa has been seen by over 25 million people. In 2017, the museum had a total of 1,495,760 visitors. [1]

The main hall contains the ship itself, and various exhibits related to the archaeological findings of the ships and early 17th-century Sweden. Vasa has been fitted with the lower sections of all three masts, a new bowsprit, winter rigging, and has had certain parts that were missing or heavily damaged replaced. The replacement parts have not been treated or painted and are therefore clearly visible against the original material that has been darkened after three centuries under water.

The new museum is dominated by a large copper roof with stylized masts that represent the actual height of Vasa when she was fully rigged. Parts of the building are covered in wooden panels painted in dark red, blue, tar black, ochre yellow and dark green. The interior is similarly decorated, with large sections of bare, unpainted concrete, including the entire ceiling. Inside the museum the ship can be seen from six levels, from her keel to the very top of the sterncastle. Around the ship are numerous exhibits and models portraying the construction, sinking, location and recovery of the ship. There are also exhibits that expand on the history of Sweden in the 17th century, providing background information for why the ship was built. A movie theatre shows a film in alternating languages on the recovery of the Vasa.

The museum is in the process of publishing an 8-volume archaeological report to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the salvage. Vasa I: The Archaeology of a Swedish Warship of 1628 was published at the end of 2006. Subsequent volumes will be published annually. [3]

The museum also features four other museum ships moored in the harbour outside: the ice breaker Sankt Erik (launched 1915), the lightvessel Finngrundet (1903), the torpedo boat Spica (1966) and the rescue boat Bernhard Ingelsson (1944).

The first lift

On 20 August 1959, all was ready for the initial lift. Would the pontoons have enough power to pull the ship free of the mud? Would the hull hold together under the strain? The pumps were started, and the pontoons began to rise. Vasa was free again after 331 years! As the ship was lifted it was moved into shallower water, set down, and the process repeated, Each lift gained a little less than a metre, and in 18 stages the ship was moved into the lee of Kastellholmen, where divers could work year round at 17 metres depth to prepare the ship for the final lift.

For more than 18 months, a small team of commercial divers plugged holes where bolts had rusted away, fitted covers over the open gunports, and rebuilt the bow and stern to make them watertight. Steel rods were fastened across the hull to help hold it together. It was also important to make the ship lighter. The central part of the upper gundeck, which was covered with mud and debris, was cleared. More than a thousand objects were found: coins, personal belongings, gun carriages, tools and the bones of five people who had been on board when the Vasa foundered. .


Vasa syndrome is inspired by the disastrous sinking of the Swedish warship Vasa on its short maiden voyage in 1628. Vasa was one of the earliest examples of a warship with two full gun decks, and was built when the theoretic principles of shipbuilding were still poorly understood. The safety margins at the time were also far below anything that would be acceptable today. Combined with the fact that 17th century warships were built with intentionally high superstructures (to be used as firing platforms), this made Vasa a risky undertaking. [2]

Gustavus Adolphus, King of Sweden 1611–1632, was waging war on the European continent in the 1620s commissioned the ship and insisted on swift completion of what was intended to be the pride of his fleet. Despite stability tests that showed that Vasa was dangerously unstable, she was allowed to sail in August 1628. After less than 2 km (1.2 mi), the ship was hit by a strong gust of wind and foundered in Stockholm harbor. [3]

The fiasco of Vasa ' s sinking has been ascribed largely to a supposed lengthening of the ship in mid-construction, constant meddling in minor details by the king (who was abroad waging war) and problems in communication between the various parties involved. Though these claims are today considered to have little support in contemporary sources, the idea of Vasa as a flawed project has remained, especially in view of the fact that she did sink without ever firing a single shot in anger. [4]

Vasa syndrome refers to the need to stay realistic in terms of strategy and project management. Also, organizations need to keep their goals matched to their capabilities. Decision makers need to have access to unbiased (both internal and external) information and there needs to be processes in place that will allow for the flow of information throughout the organization. Internal sources allow firms to develop core competencies while external sources enable companies to develop a wider knowledge base and also to stay updated on new technologies. Through changes such as in customer needs, advancements or breakthroughs in technology, and changes in competition, companies may find it necessary to alter their goals. If company coordination is poor, this can make the new goals confusing. This will affect product development at both the strategic and product management levels. It is important that organizations keep their goals and objectives clear so that their new projects and activities are not being doubted by company employees.

Another problem that companies need to avoid is the desire to create a product on a shortened timeline. Although the idea of first-mover advantage seems like it would be worth speeding up the innovation process, "some researchers have pointed out the disadvantages of pioneering new technologies and concluded that it is sometimes better to go slower and be a follower instead of a pioneer". [1]

There were a number of examples which demonstrated the effects of the Vasa syndrome. For example, while handling the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA failed to learn from previous mistakes and repeated many of the same mistakes in product development and project management which led to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. The knowledge gained from the Challenger was not stored in the organizational memory and therefore was not available to create sufficient corrective mechanisms. [1]

Another example used to demonstrate the effect of the Vasa syndrome is Greyhound Lines's attempt to design and implement a new computerized reservation system in 1998, modeled after a similar American Airlines system. Greyhound managers did not fully understand the technology and lacked sufficient knowledge of the bus industry. Because they attempted to copy a product they did not fully understand and a product that ended up being quite different from what they needed, the project was a complete failure. [1]

The Bizarre Story of ‘Vasa,’ the Ship That Keeps On Giving

Vasa was the world’s most high-tech warship when it set sail. Today, it’s a resource for naval historians and archaeologists–and a cautionary tale for those who seek to design technology.

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The story of what happened to the ship has gone down in history:  despite being one of the Swedish navy’s biggest achievements and among “the most spectacular warships ever built,” according to Eric H. Kessler, Paul E. Bierly III and Shanthi Gopalakrishnan in The Academy of Management Executive, Vasa sank within twenty minutes of setting sail, on this day in 1628.

“The warship survived the first blast of wind it encountered on its maiden voyage in Stockholm Harbor,”  writes Lucas Laursen for Archaeology. “But the second gust did it in. The sinking of Vasa took place nowhere near an enemy. In fact, it sank in full view of a horrified public, assembled to see off their navy’s–and Europe’s–most ambitious warship to date.” Engineering problems sank the ship–but this PR disaster for the Swedish navy has become a boon for archaeologists. Here’s how it happened and how Vasa's influence is felt today.

The sinking

Vasa was a vast, beautifully decorated ship. It was covered in wooden carvings that told stories about the Swedish royal family, and most importantly the king, Gustav II Adolf, writes Rhitu Chatterjee for Public Radio International. It was the king who ordered the ship, which carried an unprecedented 64 bronze cannons, to be built–and who watched in horror as it sunk.

“Soon after, there was an inquest that concluded that the ship had been unstable,” Chatterjee writes. “But the reasons behind the instability have remained a point of debate over the centuries.” 

An archaeologist who has studied the remains of the ship in great detail thinks it sank because the gun deck was far too heavy–the result of its having been designed and built by someone with no experience building such a well-armed ship, Chatterjee writes. It didn’t help that the king rushed the building process.

The rediscovery

Although Vasa didn’t work out well for Gustav II Adolf, it’s become a boon for archaeologists. “The cold, oxygen-poor water of the Baltic Sea protected Vasa from the bacteria and worms that usually digest wooden wrecks,” writes Laursen. “Perhaps 95 percent of Vasa’s wood was intact when Sweden finally raised the wreck in 1961.”

Although keeping the wooden structures stable while raising the ship proved to be a huge engineering feat, it was managed. Preserving the ship was a process that took almost three decades, Laursen writes. During that time, there wasn’t much room for archaeology, but now that the ship is stable, investigators have worked to uncover why it sank. Beyond the simple engineering problems, writes Laursen, the “human question of why it was not” seaworthy is worth discussing.

The human factor

The management world has a name for human problems of communication and management that cause projects to founder and fail–Vasa syndrome. The events of August 10, 1628 had such a big impact that the sinking is a case study business experts still read about.

“An organization’s goals must be appropriately matched to its capabilities,” write Kessler, Bierly and Gopalakrishnan. In the case of the Vasa, “there was an overemphasis on the ship’s elegance and firepower and reduced importance on its seaworthiness and stability,” they write, “which are more critical issues.” Although it was originally designed to carry 36 guns, it was sent to sea with twice that number. At the same time, the beautiful ornamentation contributed to its heaviness and instability, they write. These and a host of other factors contributed to Vasa’s sinking and provide a cautionary tale for those designing and testing new technologies.

The remains of the ship can be found in Stockholm’s Vasa Museum. According to the museum, it is the only preserved 17th-century ship in the world, and the museum is a place for historical and anthropological study as well as for visitors from around the globe.  

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance science and culture journalist based in Toronto.