This is part 1 of A True Tale of Maritime Loss and Redemption in Two Parts
The Vasa was a biblically proportioned warship, 226 feet long and 172 feet high, constructed in Sweden from a thousand oak trees during the early part of the 17th century. It carried 64 cannons and was covered bow to stern in garish, brightly-painted sculptures of lions, cherubs, mermaids, warriors and too many other ornaments and figures to list here. It was a masterwork of Renaissance extravagance and military exhibitionism. And it sank as soon as it set sail for the first time.
The send-off for the Vasa was a ceremonial affair. It was a balmy, late-summer day in Stockholm and throngs of people had gathered around the harbor to watch the hulking warship set off on its maiden voyage. The ship had to be pulled through a sheltered part of the harbor using a series of anchors before it could raise its sails and get under way. As the ship maneuvered around an island and into an open stretch of harbor, the crew climbed into the rigging and raised four of the Vasa’s ten sails. No sooner were the sails raised than the winds of misfortune picked up, filling the sails and tipping the ship precariously to one side. For a moment the Vasa seemed to right itself and for a moment the hundred odd crew members, the families they had brought aboard for this special occasion, and the crowds watching from the shore must have breathed a collective sigh of relief. But then the winds of misfortune blew harder still, pushing the Vasa clear over. Seawater rushed in through the open gun ports, and witnesses watched helplessly from the shore as the largest ship many of them had ever seen disappeared beneath the placid waters of the harbor in slow motion.
And that was that. The Vasa capsized and sank on a bright, calm day after traveling less than a mile through Stockholm harbor, an absolute fiasco to say the least. Records indicate that around fifty people drowned during the tragedy, and these poor souls had hardly drawn their last breaths before a royal inquiry into the disaster began. The captain of the Vasa was immediately taken into custody. Had he been drunk during the Vasa’s short voyage? Were members of the crew drunk? The captain swore that neither he nor his crew had been intoxicated, and his testimony was corroborated by interviews with crew members. Who, then, was responsible for the loss of the Vasa? As far as the captain could tell, the ship was simply too top-heavy; its design was flawed. When the ship builder was questioned along these lines, he responded that the ship had been built according to measurements approved by the King himself. And that seems to have been the end of the matter – ultimately no one was punished.
Perhaps the inquiry was dropped because the King and his court simply didn’t want to draw any more attention to the incident. Sweden had pinned its national pride on the Vasa, so when it sank, the kingdom lost more than an expensive warship. In the early 17th century, Sweden was considerably more war-like than the neutral Sweden of today. When the Vasa was completed in 1628 the Swedes had recently defeated an invading Russian army, were at war with Poland, had fought on-again off-again wars with Denmark for decades, and were considering entering the Thirty Years War in Germany on the Protestant side. The Vasa was a crucial part of Sweden’s plan to assert naval control over the Baltic Sea, and its construction was followed anxiously by neighboring nations. So when the Vasa sank within sight of the shipyard where it was built, it was a deeply embarrassing, international spectacle.
Records from the time show that the Vasa’s untimely end may not have been entirely unexpected. Before the Vasa set sail for the first time, a group of thirty men ran back and forth across the deck in unison, tipping the ship from side to side to test its stability. After the men had run across the deck three times they were forced to stop because the ship was dangerously close to capsizing, even though it was safely moored in the harbor. The King was traveling abroad at the time, but a naval admiral witnessed the test and did nothing to delay the ship’s maiden voyage, possibly because he didn’t want to disappoint the King who was eager to see the Vasa join his Baltic naval fleet. If nothing else, the Admiral’s inaction reassures us that willful ignorance in the face of an obvious, potentially catastrophic problem isn’t a phenomenon that’s restricted to present-day politicians.
In the years after the Vasa sank there was a lot of interest in salvaging the ship’s cannons, which were made of bronze and were the most valuable part of the ship. For 36 years a series of enterprising individuals tried and failed to retrieve the cannons from the bottom of Stockholm harbor. And then in 1664 two men named Albreckt von Treileben and Andreas Peckell who had previous experience salvaging valuables from shipwrecks succeeded where others had failed. They used a diving bell, which was the most advanced diving equipment available at the time. As the name suggests, it’s a large metal bell that traps a pocket of air as it is lowered into the water, providing an air supply for a diver. The divers worked to extract the cannons from the wreck in the pitch-black, frigid waters of the harbor for up to 30 minutes at a time. Despite such abominable conditions, von Treileben, Peckell and their team of divers managed to raise more than 50 of the Vasa’s 64 cannons over the course of a year.
Once the cannons had been salvaged, people more or less forgot about the Vasa. By the early 1950’s no one was even sure exactly where the shipwreck was. And then in 1956, after a quixotic, five-year quest for the wreck, an amateur historian and archaeologist named Anders Franzen found it just off of the island of Beckholmen near the center of Stockholm.
Despite spending well over 300 years underwater, the ship was remarkably intact. Of course the rigging and other perishable parts of the ship had deteriorated and the sterncastle, or rear portion of the ship, had entirely collapsed, but overall the ship’s hull appeared so complete that someone decided the entire ship should be resurrected and raised to the surface. And with that, an intrepid, five-year-long effort to salvage the Vasa began. Divers dug six tunnels through the mucky harbor floor beneath the Vasa and strung steel cables through the tunnels. The cables were connected to pontoons, which, when inflated, lifted the wreck. In this way the Vasa was gradually raised into shallower waters over the course of several small lifts. Finally in 1961, after the gun ports and other holes in the hull had been patched and sealed underwater, the Vasa was lifted to the surface and was able to float unaided. The Vasa had emerged from the depths of Stockholm harbor into the 20th century, but even as it was towed to a nearby dry dock, the timbers of its hull were in danger of cracking as they dried, and several feet of mud covered the lower decks, concealing artifacts hastily abandoned as the ship sank 333 years earlier.
Will the Vasa be preserved? What will archaeologists find below deck? Read the dramatic conclusion here.