Vasa Matta You?

We visited Stockholm briefly 12 years ago with Dale’s mother and one of the highlights of that trip for me was a stop at the Vasa Museum.

The Vasa was a Swedish warship built between 1626-1628 during Sweden’s imperial phase. It was one of the largest and most heavily armed warships of the age, but due primarily to a design defect, it didn’t get even a mile away from the site of its launch before it foundered and sank in Stockholm harbor, little more than 100 yards offshore in just 100 feet of water. An attempt to raise the Vasa shortly after the disaster failed and the hull settled into the mud of the sea bottom where she lay, ultimately lost and forgotten, for over 300 years.

In the 1950s, however, Anders Franzén, an amateur Swedish archeologist, located the wreck and a committee was formed to explore raising and restoring the warship. By 1961, the Vasa was again afloat, then towed to dry dock for restoration. By the late 1980s, the powers that be had decided that the Vasa needed a permanent home so that restoration work could be completed and the results enjoyed by the public. The museum opened in 1990; we first visited in 2002. Restoration work continues, but the Vasa now looks like it could be put back to sea. Here’s the view that greets you as you enter the museum – remember, this boat is nearly 400 years old now:

It’s hard to get a sense of the scale of this mighty ship from photographs, but consider these dimensions: length (from bowsprit to transom) 226 feet; beam (width) 38 feet; draft (depth at waterline) 16 feet; and, height to top of main mast, 172 feet – that’s nearly the size of a 17-story building! The ship is too big to take in all at once, but, fortunately, there’s a fantastic scale model (1:10) of the Vasa under sail right near the museum entrance. It took 12,000 hours to build the model, imagine how long it took to build the ship, itself.

We worked our way around the hull at its waterline, then went upstairs from where we could compare the model to the real thing.

The Vasa was the first of a new type of warship when it was built, and the first of five ordered to be constructed by Sweden’s expansionist King Gustavus Adolphus (Gustav II Adolph; 1594–1632). Prior to 1600, sea battles were individual affairs, ordinarily determined by boarding and hand-to-hand combat, rather than by fleet bombardment. That’s the reason for the high stern section which was to serve as a firing platform to aid the 300 soldiers that the Vasa was to carry in their efforts to board a grappled enemy.

Additionally, the stern and transom created a magnificent “canvas” for the display of statuary and other adornments to show off the wealth and power of the King. The Vasa had nearly 500 wooden sculptures on its exterior. Although the transom, below, is now unpainted, at launch, it was very colorful.

We made our way around to the bow. If you look closely, you might be able to see how much higher the stern is; it probably rises 20 feet above the deck.

The innovation represented by the Vasa and its sister-ships was in armament: forty-six 24-pound cannons, placed on two gundecks (the norm, previously, was a single gundeck). This was the beginning of the movement from boarding to gun battles at sea and the ships of the line that would exchange broadside cannonades. In the photo, below, you can clearly see the two levels of gun ports.

Unfortunately, the added height above the waterline resulting from the additional gundeck made the Vasa unstable by raising its center of gravity. The problem was compounded by the lack of any significantly deep keel and minimal ballast stone, as you can see in the cross-section model, below.

Combine these factors with the height of the rigging and it’s easy to see why the Vasa foundered. According to the reports of the incident, shortly after leaving dock, with all 46 gunports open (they had fired a gun salute as they sailed away), a moderate gust hit the Vasa broadside, causing it to heel over quickly and resulting in water flooding in through the open, lower gunports, filling the hold and sinking the ship. Everything happened so quickly that 30 sailors drowned below decks, even though the ship was only 100 yards offshore.

Below, is a photo of the Vasa Museum (foreground); the three tall scaffolded poles represent the three masts of the Vasa at their actual height, although the Vasa, itself, is inside the building, not under the “masts.”

Had it successfully put to sea, the Vasa would likely have ruled the Baltic and further solidified Sweden’s domination of all the encircling lands. As it was, King Gustav II Adolph never saw his ship sail, but the fate of the Vasa didn’t deter him from his conquest of Poland, the expansion of his empire, or entry into the Thirty Years War against the Holy Roman Empire.

But that’s a story for another day.

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