Photo: Pål Stagnes

Vasa ship

On August 10, 1628, the ship “Vasa” wrecked on her maiden voyage on her way from Stockholm harbor.

The Vasa museum houses the world’s only preserved ship from the 17th century, telling the history of the ship.

On August 10, 1628, the ship Vasa wrecks while sailing out from Stockholm harbor.  «Vaasa» should be one of the foremost vessels in the Swedish Navy.

Vasa would probably sail to Poland, which for many years had been Sweden’s enemy. Poland was ruled by King Sigismund, who once had governed in Sweden, but was deprived of his Catholic faith

The newly built warship Vasa had been named after the ruling Vasa ancestery’s coat of arms.

Building of Vasa. Photo: Pål Stagnes

The ship was built in Stockholm under the supervision of the Dutch shipbuilder Henrik Hybertsson. He was helped by carpenters, sculptors, painters, glassmasters, sail makers, smiths and many other craftsmen. Altogether 400 people worked on Vaasa.

It was the Swedish king Gustav II Adolf who had ordered the ship to be built. It took about two years to build the ship. The ship had three masts, could carry ten sails, measured 52 meters from masthead to chill and 69 meters from front to aft. The ship weighed 1200 tonnes. When it was finished it was one of the most powerful ships ever built.

The ship was packed with 64 cannons, most 24 pounds. A 24-pound cannon is built to fire bullets weighing 24 pounds or more than 11 kg. Of Sweden’s about 20 war ships, no one had as many or heavy cannons as Vaasa. The new flagship would represent Sweden’s military and political power, and the authority of Gustav II Adolf as a king of war.

Photo: Pål Stagnes
Photo: Pål Stagnes

The fleet’s chief, Admiral Klas Larsson Fleming, who led the equipping of Vaasa, conducted a stability test on the initiative of Captain Søfring Hansson. 30 men ran three times from one side to the other to make the ship crush. According to Skipper Jöran Matsson, who testified during the Explanation of the Sea, the ship struck the first time a shelf width, the second time two shelf widths, then three shelf widths before Fleming interrupted the test. Had the men run several times, the ship would have canted. A normal stability test was to run six times back and forth. After Vasa in the 1960s was salvaged, it was calculated that the ship did not withstand more than 10 degree curvature. The twist angle at three shelf widths was exactly 10 degrees.

To mark the solemn occasion when the ship sat sail, a salute from the cannons were fired from out from the canon doors alongside the ship sides.

When the powerful ship slowly slid towards the entrance to the harbor, a sudden windshield made Vasa crook, but she straightened up again. Another windshield let the ship on the side. Water poured through the open cannon ports. Vasa sank to the bottom and took at least 30, maybe as many as 50, of the crew of 150 with her.

In the early 1950s, a private investigator, Anders Franzén, began searching for Vasa. From his childhood he had been fascinated by the wreck near the parents’ home in the Stockholm archipelago. In 1956, he rediscovered Vasa.

After several years of preparation, Vasa was lifted and on April 24, 1961, the ship broke the watercourse. A wreck that has been underwater for so long time has to be handled carefully, and now the job of preserving the ship started.

Together with Vasa, over 14,000 loose wooden objects were collected, including 700 sculptures. These were conserved separately and then put back in their original place on the ship. Several thousand objects and remains of 16 people were revealed in and around the wreck. Among the findings were clothes, weapons, guns, tools, coins, food and drinks and six of Vasas ten sails. The site and the ship have provided a great deal of insight into everyday life, sea battle and shipbuilding technology in the early 1600s.

Photo: Pål Stagnes
Photo: Pål Stagnes

In order to preserve the ship, Vaasa was sprayed with water while the experts prepared an appropriate preservation method. The preservative chosen was polyethylene glycol (PEG). PEG is a water-soluble wax product that slowly penetrates the tree and replaces the water. Spraying with PEG continued for many years.

War ships from the 17th century were not just war machines, they were floating palaces. The raised sculptures carried traces of gilding and paint. Modern analyzes show that they were painted in bright colors on a red background. The sculptures reproduce lions, biblical heroes, Roman emperors, sea creatures, Greek gods and much more. Their purpose was to glorify the Swedish monarch and express his power, formation and political aspirations.

Why did it go wrong? Today we can accurately calculate how a ship must be designed to be seaworthy. In the 1600s they used tables that had worked well earlier. Documents from that time show that the plans for Vaasa were changed after the work on the ship had begun.

The king wanted a larger number of cannons than usual on board. This meant that the targets chosen for the ship no longer fit and the builders were in deep water. She was built with a high superstructure with two closed battery tires. The ship’s bottom was filled with large rocks that acted as a ballast to keep her steady in the water. But Vasa was too big and the 120 tons ballast she went with was not enough.

At the Vasa Museum you can see Vasa. The museum is considered one of Stockholm’s biggest tourist attractions. Every year, approx. 800 000 visits the museum.

Vasa Museum. Photo: Pål Stagnes