Vasa: A 17th Century Warship That Sank, Was Recovered and Now Sits in a Museum

In 1628, the Swedish warship Vasa set off on its maiden voyage from Stockholm harbor towards Poland, where a war was raging in the Baltic. Built by 400 craftsmen at the royal shipyard at Stockholm, the ship was richly decorated as a symbol of the king’s ambitions for Sweden and himself. It was 69 meters long and was fitted with 64 cannons, and upon completion, it was of the most powerfully armed vessels in the world of that time. Unfortunately, Vasa was too top heavy and dangerously unstable.

Despite the lack of stability, the king was eager to see her in battle and pushed her to sea. On the day of departure, a swelling crowd gathered at the harbor to watch the ship leave. Over a hundred crewmen along with women and children were on board as the crew was permitted to take family and guests along for the first part of the passage. After sailing just 1,300 meters, at the first strong breeze, the ship foundered, leaned over and sank. Around 30 people lost their lives.

Once the ship’s valuable bronze cannons were salvaged, Vasa was mostly forgotten, until she was located and recovered from the shallow waters in 1961. With a largely intact hull, the ship was housed in a temporary museum called Wasavarvet (“The Wasa Shipyard”) until 1988 and then she was moved to the Vasa Museum in Stockholm. Today, the ship is one of Sweden’s most popular tourist attractions and is seen by a million visitors each year.

The news of the sinking took two weeks to reach the Swedish king, who was in Poland. He wrote angrily to the Royal Council in Stockholm demanding that the guilty parties be punished. “Imprudence and negligence” must have been the cause, he wrote. An inquiry was organized but in the end no one was found guilty of negligence and no one was punished.

Part of the blame lies on the king himself. The ship’s lack of stability was a fact – the underwater part of the hull was too small and she carried too much weight in relation to her size. A few months before the ship sailed, the captain responsible for supervising construction of the ship, showed the Vice Admiral how crank the ship was by having 30 men run back and forth across the upper deck. On their third pass, the ship was ready to capsize at the quay.

The admiral was heard to say that he wished the king, who was leading the army in Poland at the time, was present for the demonstration. The king was impatient to see the ship take up her station as flagship of the Baltic fleet and insisted that the ship be put to sea as soon as possible. The king’s subordinates were too timid to frankly discuss the ship’s structural problems or to have the maiden voyage postponed.

vasa-warship-4vasa-warship-5

Lying in a museum today, Vasa has become a popular and widely recognized symbol for a historical narrative about the Swedish stormaktstiden (“the Great Power-period”) in the 17th century, and about the early development of a European nation state. It is one of the best preserved warship of this period with a four-story structure and with most of its original contents largely intact. However, despite the efforts at preserving, the ship continues to decay away.

The ship sank in waters which were heavily polluted with toxic chemicals that penetrated the wood during the 333 years it spent underwater. Once the ship was exposed to the air, reactions began inside the timber producing acidic compounds that are slowly eating away at the ship inside out. The timber in Vasa’s hull contains sulphuric acid that has been estimated to be more than 2 tonnes, and more is continually being created. Enough sulfides are present in the ship to produce another 5 tonnes of acid at a rate of about 100 kilograms per year, which might eventually destroy the ship almost entirely

To prevent the inevitable deterioration of the ship, the main hall of the Vasa Museum is kept at a temperature of 18–20 °C and a humidity level of 53%. The ship itself has been treated with cloth saturated in a basic liquid to neutralize the acid. The original bolts rusted away after the ship sank but were replaced with galvanized ones and covered with epoxy resin. Despite this, the new bolts have also started to rust and are releasing iron into the wood, which further accelerates the deterioration.

Vasa might not last for long, but its legacy will certainly last for ever.

vasa-warship-11vasa-warship-12The lower gun deck of the warship Vasa.

vasa-warship-8vasa-warship-9vasa-warship-6vasa-warship-10vasa-warship-2A model of the ship at the Vasa Museum, Stockholm.

vasa-warship-1A model of the ship at the Vasa Museum, Stockholm.

Sources: Wikipedia / Vasa Museum

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