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.

The preserved Vasa in the main hall of Vasa Museum seen from above the bow.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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