The First (And Last) Voyage of the “Vasa”

In August 1628, the Swedish launched the wooden war ship Vasa with 64 cannons, part of a new fleet that was intended to maintain Sweden’s position as one of the most powerful militaries in Europe. But within half an hour, the Vasa was gone.


The hull of the Vasa emerges from Stockholm Harbor.  photo from Wiki Commons

In the late 1500’s, Sweden was a quiet nation of small farming and fishing villages. Although home to the much-feared Viking raiders of the 8th and 9th centuries, Scandinavia was now an ignored backwater with virtually no role on the world stage.

That began to change in the 1600’s. Under King Gustavus Adolphus, Sweden transformed herself. Using every available resource, Adolphus built Sweden into a military power with one of the largest and best armies in Europe, and turned it outwards. By 1625, Sweden had conquered Finland, Karelia, Estonia and Ingria, was at war with Poland and Lithuania, and was becoming a powerful player in the Thirty Years War between European Catholic and Protestant monarchs. Sweden would dominate all of northern Europe for the next 100 years. Later historians would refer to this as the Stormaktstiden, or “Age of Greatness”.

In 1626, Adolphus realized that he needed a bigger naval fleet to control the Baltic Sea: Catholic forces were threatening to capture the Jutland peninsula in Denmark, which would allow French ships to attack Protestant fleets in the Baltic. Sweden had always been a rival of Denmark, but now Adolphus took steps to increase his naval power and protect Jutland, by ordering construction of a new fleet. The new war galleons would utilize all of the latest and most modern technology, and would be different from anything the world had ever seen before.

At this time, naval warfare had not changed much since the time of the Romans. War ships were small, maneuverable and lightly armed. The primary battle strategy was to move your ships into position next to an enemy vessel, secure yourself to it with grappling hooks, then send a boarding party of marine troops to capture and occupy the enemy’s ship.

Gustavus Adolphus wanted to change all that. One natural asset that Sweden had in abundance was copper. Copper could be used to make bronze–and bronze could be used to make cannons. So Adolphus conceived the idea of a fleet of gunships–huge towering vessels, 120 feet long, packed with cannons that would attack enemy ships not by boarding them, but by blasting them to pieces with overwhelming firepower. Unlike most other war ships of the time, which had one deck of cannons firing 10 or 12 pound cannonballs, the new Swedish war galleons would have two full decks of 64 cannon, 16 of which were small deck guns, but 48 of which were heavy main guns firing 24-pound cannonballs almost six inches in diamater. The idea had already been developed in France and England, but the new Swedish ships would be the first to implement the strategy in a big way.

In March 1626, construction began in Stockholm on the first of these new ships, to be calledVasa. The project was overseen by Master Shipwright Henrik Hybertsson, who, despite his enthusiasm, had never built a ship with two gun decks before. As a result, much of the design was made simply by intuition. The King himself had set the ship’s dimensions and design–he wanted the vessel to be a grand symbol of Swedish power. It was an advantage for war ships to be as tall as possible at the front and rear ends, where “castles” would house Marines and small deck guns that would overhang the deck of enemy ships and sweep them with fire–so the Vasawas designed with towering fore and stern castles. Hybersson was also afraid that the huge heavy cannon could be knocked around in storms or in battle, so he built the gun decks from reinforced oak beams and extra-thick wooden planks. The two rows of heavy cannon along each side of the Vasa were placed to follow the curve of the hull, so the ship could fire in any direction. (Later, gunships were improved by arranging all the guns to face straight out, allowing them to all fire a concentrated barrage at a single target, known as a “broadside”.)

But the Vasa was not just a war ship–she was also a floating symbol of the power and glory of Sweden and the Swedish King. She was therefore covered with elaborate statues and carvings, which were brightly painted and covered in gold leaf. In January 1628, as the masts and sails were being added to the finished hull, King Gustavus Adolphus visited the Vasa at the shipyard. It was the only time he ever saw her.

In June 1628, construction was finished, and the ship was ready for testing. One of the tests performed was to check the stability: a group of men were gathered on the upper deck, who then ran from side to side to see how far the ship would roll before stabilizing herself. To everyone’s horror, the test revealed that the Vasa was dangerously top-heavy: the heavy cannon decks and the high fore and aft castles made the ship’s center of gravity much too high.

The sensible thing to do would have been to fix the problem, by adding ballast weight at the bottom of the ship, replacing the gun decks with lighter ones, and rebuilding the castles to make them smaller and lighter. But King Adolphus, off in Poland fighting the war, had already been sending a steady stream of messages demanding that the new ship be launched as soon as possible. Nobody at the shipyard or in the royal government, apparently, wanted to risk the King’s wrath by telling him his brand new war galleon, the mighty symbol of Sweden’s (and the King’s) glory, was top-heavy and needed months of additional work to fix her. So the ship was launched, as scheduled, for her sea trials on August 10, 1628.

The launch was a social event. The population of Stockholm gathered to watch the spectacle, and foreign dignitaries were accompanied by Swedish nobles as they picknicked on shore to watch the grand ship take to sea. The ship itself was crammed with civilians, as the crew members were allowed to take their families aboard for the adventure. One person who was not there was Henrik Hybertsson, the man who had designed her–he had fallen sick and died while the Vasa was being built.

As the crowd watched, mule teams on shore used heavy ropes to pull the mighty vessel away from the shipyard dock and into the harbor. Once out in open water, Vasa’s crew put up four of her sails, the gunners fired a salute to the watching crowd, and the ship was underway.

She got less than a thousand yards. As soon as the Vasa emerged from behind one of the small islands in the harbor and the wind filled her sails, she heeled over sharply to the left side. The open cannon ports dipped down into the sea, water flooded in through them, and within seconds the ship began to sink. As the lower decks filled with water she turned back upright, only to settle on the harbor floor in 100 feet of water, with only the tops of her masts protruding above the surface. At least 30 people on board died. It was only twenty minutes since Vasa had left her dock. She was only 400 feet from shore.

It took two weeks for the letter to reach King Adolphus, informing him that his grand new ship had sunk without even leaving harbor. A royal inquiry followed, in which everyone blamed ship designer Henrik Hybertsson, who was already dead.

The Vasa lay in the mud at the bottom of Stockholm harbor. Because the harbor was brackish water rather than salt, and because it was so cold for most of the year, the wooden ship was remarkably preserved. Although some of her bronze cannons were salvaged, it wasn’t until 1956 that plans were made to raise the ship. Over a period of several years, a series of tunnels were excavated under the wreck and large slings were inserted which lifted the ship out of the mud. In 1961, the Vasa finally emerged into the sunlight, after 333 years underwater. After a massive preservation effort, impregnating the wood with polyethylene glycol to prevent it from decaying, the Vasa was housed in a museum in Stockholm, where she remains on display today, a monument to the time when Sweden was a world superpower.

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