The Vasa: From disaster to success in 300 years

Known as the mightiest warship of its time, the Vasa’s appeal has persisted since it was salvaged from the waters of Stockholm intact and remarkably well-preserved. 

Sometime between the hours of four and five o’clock in the afternoon on August 10, 1628 the warship Vasa capsized and sank in front of hundreds of people gathered to watch its launch. The total voyage for this proud Swedish warship was about 1,300 meters. Between 30 and 50 people of the 150 sailors and family members on board died, while the rest were rescued.

This fate, to sink just moments into the maiden voyage, was just the beginning of Vasa’s remarkable and fascinating story: It would be more than 330 years before the Vasa once again saw the light of day.

Today the ship is housed in one of the world’s more memorable museums, and has been seen by millions of people from around the world. Visitors to the Vasa Museum are able to get a glimpse into what life was like for Swedish sailors and soldiers during the 17th century.

What has preserved the salvaged warship Vasa is the brackish water of the Baltic Sea. The low salt content of the water is not appealing to many pests normally found in the sea, which means they weren’t around to slowly take apart the ship.

It was Sweden’s King Gustav II Adolf who ordered the Vasa. The king wanted the ship to remind the world of Sweden’s – and his own – power and grandeur.  As a result the Vasa had two deck fitted with cannons and elaborate decoration that was set to make his enemies – and frenimies – green with envy.

Martina Siegrist Larsson, Information Officer at the Vasa Museum in Stockholm, believes that there is also another explanation for the interest in Vasa.

“These days, when you find shipwrecks, it is not at all obvious they should be salvaged. The air affects the wood, and when a salvaged ship is finally out of the water and into the air the impact is swift and the wood begins to decay. As a result you might instead decide to preserve a ship you find on the sea bottom. This is one of the reasons the Vasa is unique, since it is very likely that the ship is the only one of its kind in Sweden that will ever be salvaged and become a museum.”

The work to bring the Vasa to the surface began in 1957 and ended on 24 April 1961, under the full glare of television lights from around the world. Despite of the danger of the salvage operation at 30 meters depth, there were no fatalities during Vasa’s “second” voyage.

There are a number of fascinating things about the Vasa: the decorations in the form of sculptures are art treasures in and of themselves, with many different motives used, including various Roman Emperors, who were meant to create a feeling of military power.

In the 1600s, design styles were colourful and the ship was no exception. A variety of colours and gold decorated the entire ship and its characters.

“Vasa its time,” says says Martina Siegrist Larsson. “It was rich, magnificent, and had some frightening figures. One can say that the Vasa was a PR opportunity, for both king and the country.”

In total there are about 500 different figure sculptures onboard along with about 200 smaller ornaments. Everything is made of wood and carved by hand. Even the king himself, Gustav II Adolf, is pictured at the top of the stern; he is portrayed as a boy to illustrate that he inherited the crown when he was just ten years old.

Why the Vasa sank just minutes into its maiden voyage is part of the continuing fascination.  Today we know that this occurred because the ship’s dimensions were incorrect.

“The lower body is too small and lightweight in relation to the ship’s upper part,” says Martina Siegrist Larsson. “The reason why it was so high and heavy on the upper deck was that the King had ordered that there should be room for many more cannons than usual.”

The balance did not work, and when the wind hit the sails Vasa folded over on one side, resulting in water rushing in through the open portholes. The maiden voyage ended twenty minutes after it had started.

“Today, due to its fragility, you are not allowed to board the ship, which can be disappointing to some people,” says Martina Siegrist Larsson.

“But we have built a full scale copy of a section of the upper cannon deck. There, visitors are allowed to board and get the feeling of how life was on a Swedish warship in the 1600s.”

The mightiest warship of its time may have sank almost as soon as it set sail – but it’s found a new lease on life, right in the center of Stockholm.

Where: Galärvarvsvägen 14, Djurgården
When: Daily 8.30 – 18
How much: Adults 130 SEK; Students (with valid ID) 100 SEK; Children 0-18 free
Website: vasamuseet.se

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