When King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden ordered the building of a powerful new navy ship, its designers ensured that it was to be the deadliest in the world. Equipped with specially built bronze cannons, the vessel boasted a shot that was almost as fast as sound. And it would therefore be a demonstration of the Scandinavian country’s military might.
The ship would become known as the Vasa, and on the day of its launch in 1628, crowds of people turned out in Stockholm to see it. Presumably, those citizens hoped to catch a glimpse of their country’s prize military machine. But in a tragic turn of events, the spectators were to witness a lot more than they had bargained for.
Minutes into its maiden voyage, you see, the Vasa disappeared without a trace. And so it was that a stunned crowd looked on in horror as what had been intended as the most powerful ship on the planet succumbed to the most shocking of events. What’s more, little did onlookers know that the vessel would remain on the seabed for more than 300 years.
The 1600s marked a period of great change for Sweden. It was during this time that the country transformed from a poor and sparsely populated nation into a military force. That’s because during the years spanning 1611 to 1718 – known as Sweden’s “age of greatness” – the small Northern European state would seize control of the Baltic Sea by gaining land all around it.
The first part of this golden era of Swedish history involved King Gustavus Adolphus, sometimes referred to as Gustav Adolf II. Part of the so-called Vasa dynasty, the monarch’s royal family line went back to his grandfather, Gustav I. Gustav Adolf II would go on to become one of Sweden’s most successful monarchs. But the situation that he inherited was a difficult one.
When Gustav Adolf came to power in 1611, Sweden was involved in three wars, fighting with Denmark, Russia and Poland, respectively. And war would go on to become a defining factor in the king’s reign. Indeed, during his over two-decade-long rule, Sweden engaged in hostilities in all but three of those years. And it seems that one of Gustav Adolf’s primary concerns was maintaining the balance of Protestant power in Northern Europe.
With this in mind, Gustav Adolf was keeping a close eye on the Thirty Years’ War, which was raging in the region now known as Germany. From the point of view of the Protestants, though, the conflict was not looking positive. As a result, Sweden’s long-running battle with Catholic Poland became even more crucial. And if the king was to seize control of the Baltic region, he would require a mighty navy.
But unfortunately, the Swedish navy suffered many losses during the 1620s. In 1625 ten ships were wrecked following a storm off the Riga Bay. Then during 1627’s Battle of Oliwa, the Swedish navy lost a further two vessels. Three more losses came in 1628 as well, and many more ships were wrecked in the subsequent years.
Luckily, though, the Swedish military had a plan up its sleeve. You see, the authorities planned to launch one of the most technologically advanced ships that the world had ever seen. The sophisticated vessel’s name was Vasa, and work began on it in 1626 at Stockholm’s naval shipyard.
Built under the orders of King Gustav Adolf, the Vasa was certainly made for war. It was equipped with more than 60 bronze cannons capable of firing over 551 pounds of ammunition in a single shot. What’s more, once fired, the deadly load traveled so fast that it nearly broke the sound barrier. The vessel would therefore be a formidable force in the Baltic Sea.
But it wasn’t just the Vasa’s armament that was noteworthy. For one thing, the ruler spared no expense when it came to the decoration of the ship. And the vessel was thus adorned with a series of carved wooden images depicting tales of the Swedish royals, including King Gustav Adolf himself.
The Vasa’s rich decorations were a symbol of King Gustav Adolf’s ambitions for his reign as well as his country. And the king was certainly impatient to have the ship launched. The vessel’s maiden voyage was therefore scheduled for August 10, 1628 – despite some concerns over its stability.
The run-up to the Vasa’s maiden voyage saw a number of delays, mind you. There were problems with the gun supply, for instance, and even a switching of captains, but eventually things were in place. And when the day of the ship’s launch arrived, it was anchored outside Stockholm’s Tre Kronor Castle, ready to join the Swedish Navy’s reserve force on Älvsnabben island.
From there, the Vasa was set to go on any number of missions. Perhaps it could reinforce a blockade on the Polish city of Gdansk. Or maybe it would travel on to the German port of Stralsund, which was being protected by a Swedish force at the time. But in reality, the warship was never to make it out of Stockholm’s waters.
The day of the maiden voyage began much as any other Sunday morning in Sweden. Members of Vasa’s crew, like many other Stockholm natives, would have attended church and possibly received communion. But as the day went on, a festive atmosphere filled the city, and crowds began to gather around the quay in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the famed ship.
Some people even took to the water themselves, using small boats to get still closer to the Vasa. But the crew’s families had arguably the best seats in the house, as they were also on board the vessel in celebration of its maiden voyage. These relatives were due to leave the ship at nearby Vaxholm fortress before it continued on to Älvsnabben.
With everyone on board, then, the Vasa was ready to set sail at around five o’clock that afternoon. To mark the occasion, patriotic music most likely rang out across the quay. But because of strong winds, the ship’s launch ended up being quite a staggered affair. And as a result, the Vasa had to be pulled towards the current so that it could be carried down the harbor.
Then, with the Vasa finally asail, its crew were at the mercy of the elements and the vessel’s capability on the waves – and the first almighty gust of wind that filled the ship’s sails was almost enough to tip it over. The Vasa was, however, able to recover. And yet the warship would not be so successful the second time around.
After another powerful blast, the Vasa heaved to one side, and water was soon pouring into the hull through its lower deck gunports. It then became clear that the warship was sinking – much to the alarm of those on board. So, the captain ordered the crew to close the gunports and cast off the sails. And yet it was simply too late to save the formidable vessel.
In panic, many of those on board the Vasa jumped into the ocean to flee the sinking ship. And at the same time, below deck, people had to struggle their way up now-heavily tilted steps. So it was that in a matter of minutes, it was all over, and the warship succumbed to a watery grave more than 100 feet below sea level.
With the Vasa now at the bottom of the sea, some of those who had managed to escape clung to its masts for dear life. Meanwhile, the smaller boats following the sunken ship’s ill-fated maiden voyage rescued survivors. There were even some reports of people swimming almost 400 feet to the safety of the shore.
Sadly, though, 30 of those on board the Vasa didn’t survive; for the most part, they had become trapped below deck as it sank. And among them was Hans Jonsson, who had been intended as the ship’s captain before being replaced by Söfring Hansson – who had himself experienced a lucky escape after abandoning the vessel rather too late. Hansson had, you see, already been sucked under the water once.
Given that the Vasa sank in full sight of the onlooking crowd, the incident sent shockwaves through Stockholm. The city mourned the dead – while also breathing a sigh of relief for those who had survived. But most of all, there was anger and confusion about how such a tragedy could have befallen what was meant to be the most advanced warship on the planet.
The day after the tragedy occurred, authorities launched an inquest to investigate the sinking. At first, Captain Hansson was imprisoned on account of the incident. And yet he swore that the ship’s guns had been properly secured and that his crew had been sober. Instead, Hansson claimed that the vessel had been inherently unstable, and it seems that he was right.
While Henrik Hybertsson, the designer of the vessel, had been an experienced shipwright, the scale and the armament of the Vasa had been unknown quantities. Furthermore, experts at the time didn’t yet have the calculation that was subsequently used to predict a vessel’s speed and stability. And back in the 1600s it was normal for ships to be slightly unstable when they first set sail.
Usually, though, there was opportunity to fix the problems facing new ships before the worst happened. And yet the upper part of the Vasa had been way too heavy for its relatively small hull. The design of the vessel had made it quick to build – but meant that its center of gravity was too high above the waterline, making it susceptible to even light winds.
Even so, the Vasa could perhaps have been saved if Captain Hansson had closed the gun ports before setting sail. And yet it seems likely that the ship would have needed extra work anyway. So despite the king’s call for the punishment of those responsible for the sinking, no one was ever held accountable for the tragedy.
Then, after the Vasa’s expensive bronze cannons were retrieved from the seabed in the 1600s, the ship was largely forgotten. That is, until the vessel’s rediscovery more than 300 years after it had sunk. By that time, you see, the waters above the wreck had become a bustling shipping route in and out of Stockholm Harbor.
The rediscovery of the Vasa came in 1956. And, amazingly, the ship was pretty much intact. In fact, one of its masts was still erect, and its two levels of gunports were easy to see. Amateur marine archaeologist Anders Franzén was the person to make the discovery, and he later dedicated himself to the excavation of the wreck.
Franzén established a team of experts to work on the project. And over the next few years, this team planned how they would free the wreck from the seabed. In the end, the specialists dug tunnels under the ship so that they could insert cables beneath its hull and tug it to shore. The first lift occurred in 1959, 331 years after the Vasa had sunk.
Little by little, then, the Vasa was moved out of the harbor and into the shallower waters off the island of Kastellholmen. Here, divers spent over 18 months preparing the ship for its final lift. And to do so, they cleared over a thousand items from inside the sunken vessel, including tools, coins, gun carriages, personal belongings – and even the remains of five of those who had perished when the Vasa sank.
The date for the warship’s final lift was April 24, 1961. On that day, thousands gathered to catch a glimpse of the ship as it finally rose from the deep after centuries undisturbed. And when this happened, four carved warrior heads were the first features to emerge, shortly followed by the Vasa in its entirety.
But this wasn’t the end of the Vasa’s story. You see, there were still tons of water and mud inside the ship that needed to be removed in order to restore it to its former glory – and uncover any hidden treasures. Salvagers also discovered thousands of historical items that had been left behind on the seabed.
So after the Vasa was emptied of water and taken to Stockholm’s Gustav V dry dock, archaeologists spent the following five months recovering over 30,000 artifacts. The team worked in challenging conditions, as the ship needed constant spraying with water to prevent it from drying out. As a result, the experts often finished the day covered in stinky black mud.
But the team’s work proved to be invaluable. As more and more mud washed away, stacks of amazing artifacts appeared, lying in heaps upon the Vasa’s decks. Each item was carefully cataloged before being sent for conservation – and together they made for quite the collection. Among the objects were chests filled with possessions, countless cannonballs, coins and the skeletons of 11 people – some of which were still wearing clothes.
Explaining in a 2012 article for Archaeology magazine how the ship had been so well preserved, Lucas Laursen wrote, “The cold, oxygen-poor water of the Baltic Sea protected [the] Vasa from the bacteria and worms that usually digest wooden wrecks. Perhaps 95 percent of [the] Vasa’s wood was intact when Sweden finally raised the wreck in 1961.”
The team also found thousands of objects at the site in which the Vasa had sat – and that archaeologists later nicknamed “the pit.” Items of interest included sculptures, anchors, a longboat and parts of the ship’s masts. The team also uncovered the skeletons of four more people in the wreckage of the stern.
When the excavation of the Vasa was finally wrapped up, archaeologists had uncovered more than 40,000 items. Moreover, practically all of the ship was accounted for, including parts that had fallen off during its many years in the deep. And all of this meant that experts were able to reconstruct the warship almost in its entirety.
At the same time, the many items found in the wreckage gave a fascinating insight into the lives of the ship’s crew who had lived over three centuries ago. And so it was that the Wasavarvet – or “Vasa Shipyard” – opened to the public for them to view the vessel along with an accompanying exhibit.
In 1988 the ship was moved to its permanent home at the Vasa Museum. Then two years later, in 1990, the attraction officially opened, and it has reportedly since become Scandinavia’s most visited museum. That said, given the warship’s amazing story, it’s not hard to see why it’s proven so popular.