A Fatal First Voyage – How Europe’s Mightiest Warship Foundered Moments Into Her Inaugural Cruise

The pride of the Swedish navy, the Vasa, had a short career — a VERY short career. (Image source: WikiCommons)

“In a single gust of wind, Sweden’s military prestige had been publicly shattered.” 

By John Danielski 

AUGUST 10, 1628 was a great day that the citizens of Stockholm; it was one they’d long anticipated. Over the previous three years, residents of the city had patiently watched 400 workmen constructed Sweden’s newest warship on an island opposite the Royal Palace. Now with the construction of the massive vessel completed, throngs of onlookers gathered to see if her sea-handling would match her majestic appearance.

A carnival like atmosphere took hold at the waterfront as a good portion of Stockholm’s 10,000 inhabitants, from lowliest paupers to the noble born, turned out to take in the first voyage of the mighty warship Vasa.

Foreign observers also lined the shore to see what competition this innovative fighting ship was to offer to their navies of Europe. The vessel herself carried guests too, since her first voyage was meant to be just a showy day trip.

The great military chieftain and Sweden’s King, Gustavus Adolphus ll, had proclaimed: “Second to God, the welfare of the Kingdom depends on its navy.” As such, the Vasa was to be the most powerful warship Sweden had ever built; it represented the capstone of a major naval expansion begun in 1620. That effort was intended to make the country a major player in the Baltic and beyond. And since Gustavus was involved in a war with Poland, the Vasa would likely see action very soon.

Sweden’s admirals were eager to unleash the Vasa in their king’s war with Poland. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Loaded for Bear

The ship was built to an advanced design, although featuring a high stern castle reminiscent of an earlier age. She was the equivalent of a seven-story building with five floors. She was 226 feet long from stern post to bowsprit and 38 feet in beam. Her oak hull was 18 inches thick and the top of her main t’gallant mast reached 190 feet. She had a draft of 15 feet and boasted a 1,200-ton burden.

The Vasa was also armed to the teeth. Outfitted with two gun decks carrying 64 bronze cannon, chiefly 24 pounders with some of a newer, lighter designs, she could deliver a 753-pound broadside, unmatched by any other ship of the time.

The vessel was adorned with 500 dramatic sculptures — fine specimens of Dutch/German baroque art. The largest of these carved statues were a full two meters tall. Among them were angels, devils, imps and mermaids, as well as Roman emperors, Gothic warriors, and even some of the King’s foreign enemies, albeit portrayed as cowering under tables. The colors adorning the carvings were bright, almost garish, and seemed at odds with her intended purpose as a fighting platform. Allied to the huge gilded Swedish Lion that was her figurehead, all proclaimed the glory of the House of Vasa, Sweden’s ruling dynasty. A full 20 per cent of the ships construction budget was spent on decorations and joinery.

But just like a modern-day weapons system, military cost over-runs plagued the Vasa project. She exceeded her allotted budget by 27 per cent. In fact, her Dutch designers, the Hybertsson Brothers, actually lost money on their contract.

The Vasa was still within sight of the shore when disaster struck. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Putting to Sea

But all that was forgotten that bright summer’s afternoon in 1628, when the Vasa first put to sea. As she sailed out at 4 pm, her yardarms were awash in colorful bunting, a host of noble banners and flags fluttered slightly atop her masts and stern. Bands played, her cannons fired a salute, and people cheered themselves hoarse as sailors set three of her ten sails and she glided into the cold waters of the Baltic.

There was almost no wind that afternoon, so the Vasa’s rudder did not bite, making her hard to control. The captain noted she was handling drunkenly and rolling badly, almost like a sailor after too much rum.

Just 10 minutes into the voyage, things began to go wrong. A sharp gust of wind hit and the Vasa rolled dangerously. The passengers were alarmed, but the ship righted herself. Five minutes later, a second, more powerful gust hit. This time, she heeled over to a 60-degree angle. She would never recover. Dangerously off-balance, the Vasa continued heeling and swiftly transitioned to a 17-degree angle, far beyond the point of no return.

The Vasa foundering.

A lone seaman, who historians have called only Helge, grabbed hold of a ringbolt in front of his cannon. He braced his feet as water poured in through the gun port and the severe list of the ship sent objects sliding crazily across the lower gun deck. The sailor pushed himself off and lunged toward the companionway to escape but lost his footing and was thrown sideways. He hit his head against a deck beam, fell and became wedged between his cannon and the hull. The last things he likely saw and heard was a cascade of roaring seawater. When his body was recovered 337 years later, his feet were still in his shoes. A portion of his brain was visible through his crushed skull.

For the crowds watching helplessly from the shore, the joy of the day ended with a collective gasp of horror. They looked on as water rushed in through all of the open gun ports on her lowest tier; the openings had been designed to sit less than five feet above the waterline. All of Vasa’s forward motion stopped as the water accumulated in the hull. Moments later, she began to sink, bow first. Finally, only her quarterdeck and stern remained about the water.

Within minutes, the Vasa disappeared beneath the waves, taking 50 of her crew of 133 with her. Only the tips of her masts marked her grave 18 fathoms below. The maiden voyage had lasted fewer 20 minutes; she’d sailed less a nautical mile. In a single gust of wind, Sweden’s military prestige had been publicly shattered.

Sweden’s king Gustavus II Adolphus was abroad when news of the sinking reached him. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Fallout

Remarkably, given the magnitude of the disaster, not a single soul faced punishment. Within 12 hours, a Council of the Realm had been convened and an inquiry launched. The king normally would have chaired such an assembly, but he was away on an important diplomatic mission to Prussia.

Finger pointing ensued as those involved in the ship’s construction rushed to deflect blame for the mishap. Amid the flurry of recriminations, two groups of scapegoats quickly emerged: the sailors and the ship builders. Captain Solfring Hansson, who was arrested directly after he had clawed his way ashore barely alive, swore he had done nothing wrong. He reported that the ship was properly ballasted, the guns were correctly secured and that absolutely no one in his crew had been intoxicated. Instead, he charged the ship’s Dutch architects with incompetence, claiming the Vasa was too unsteady. The ship’s master backed up the allegation adding that the keel was too small in relation to the size of the vessel’s massive hull.

Interestingly enough, the dockyard captain pointed out that he had conducted a stability test on the Vasa days before the launch. He ordered 30 men to race the decks back and forth, but Admiral Karl Fleming called off the experiment when the vessel risked capsizing. Fleming nevertheless ordered the maiden voyage anyway.

Although the ship’s chief architect, Henrik Hybertsson, had died the previous year, his brother Arendt maintained the two had successfully built many ships without incident. And since the Dutch were the premier naval power of the time and boasted Europe’s finest shipyards, Arendt’s words carried weight. He also pointed out that the king himself had approved her design specifications and allotment of cannon. While the monarch had no naval expertise, he was a noted artillery enthusiast who often participated in the proofing of guns. Mention of the king proved to be a trump card as few in authority risked questioning the infallibility of the sovereign. The investigation was effectively shut down and no cause of the disaster was ever officially identified. Only now do we have a definitive answer.

A modern examination of the Vasa’s hull with computer-aided mathematics reveals she was dangerously top heavy. The portion of her hull beneath the water was too small to counterbalance her height. With her narrow beam, she would have been fast in certain situations but would have had to have been sailed very carefully and handled with a gentle touch.

While King Gustavus never actively interfered in the construction, his eagerness to make her fast and powerful likely influenced the design. Hoping to please the sovereign, the builders armed her with too many cannon and fitted her with masts that were too tall. Had the towering columns been 15 feet shorter and had she been carrying 40 cannon instead of 64, the entire debacle likely could have been avoided.

Perhaps if Captain Hansson had closed his gun ports immediately after the salute, the ship’s shortcomings might have gone unnoticed and the Vasa might have had an actual career. Yet he knew of the stability tests and sailed out aware he had a dangerously flawed ship.

The restored Vasa in its Stockholm home. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Re-Discovery

Even with the disaster, the name Vasa was very nearly lost to history, since she was never able to log a voyage or fight a battle. In the years 50 years following her demise, various men made efforts to salvage her cannon. Eventually, all but three were recovered. Soon after memories of the sinking faded, and the Vasa passed into the realm of legend becoming a cautionary tale for all Swedish mariners. But nature conspired with a determined marine archeologist to grant the ill-fated warship an unexpected kind of fame.

In almost any other sea, the Vasa would have decayed entirely leaving little more than some shards of timber and bits of iron bolts. But the Baltic was different. The sea is insufficiently saline for the teredo navalis worm to live. As such, this sea-going termite, which is the chief culprit in the destruction of wrecks, never got the chance to prey on the Vasa’s hull. Also, the water surrounding the wreck contained little oxygen, limiting decay. Further, the currents and ice did not do the wreck any damage either. Indeed, the very coldness of the Baltic acted as a preservative as did the deep mud at the bottom of Stockholm harbour which finally covered her.

An engineer with an interest in history named Anders Franzen became intrigued with Vasas story in the early 1950’s. He was one of the Sweden’s foremost experts on 16th and 17th century naval warfare, as well as a pioneer in the field of marine archeology. Franzen began to systematically search the state archives and found that sources indicated not one, but several possible sites for the ship’s final resting place. Franzen began a careful examination of Stockholm’s harbour. After three years of painstaking exploration, he found the wreck in 1956.

Divers made a close examination of the wreck and found the Vasa to be mostly intact. There were no textbooks, formulae, or models of experience to serve as guides for raising her. Everything had to invented and improvised — all manner of ideas were entertained. One expert even suggested filling her hull with tennis balls so that when sufficient buoyancy had been achieved, she would simply float to the surface. The method selected to make her rise blended the new and the old.

For two years, members of the Swedish Navy flushed tunnels under her hull using specially powered hosepipes. Firing jets of water in pitch blackness was exacting, dangerous work. Steel cables were inserted into the tunnels and used to steady the wreck.

Pontoons called camels had been used in dockyards for centuries to lift hulls, although no one had tried to raise a wreck more than 50 feet. The modern camels resembled cargo containers filled with water and were attached at strategic intervals along her hull. Each had a lifting capacity of 600 tons. Twelve hydraulic pumps on surface vessels then flushed out the water in each and pumped air in causing her hull to rise.

The lower deck of the Vasa. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Restoration

Once lifted her from the seabed, the Vasa was moved to shallower water. Divers then spent years methodically patching the holes in her hull. Finally, on April 24, 1961 she made the final leg of her journey to a world she had not seen for 333 years. Once on the surface, the cables and camels were released and to everyone’s delight, the Vasa actually floated. She was towed to a dock near her original building site to begin an extensive restoration. The process took a full 17 years to complete.

Over the next year, 1,080 tons of water were pumped out of her hull. It took several months to rid the ship of the mud that coated the planking. Once cleaned, she was sprayed with a mixture of polyethylene glycol and water to preserve her timbers and prevent shrinking and cracking. She initially yielded 13,000 components of various sizes including 500 sculptures and 200 larger ornaments. 12,000 additional artifacts were brought to light during her restoration.

Those artifacts included boots, gloves, jerkins, hats, tankards, table ware, muskets, knives, and sundry other items in everyday use in 1628. Six of her ten sails were also intact, along with barrels of salt pork that had survived un-punctured. The breeching ropes for her three remaining cannon retained surprising strength.

A diorama of the crew of the Vasa during its ill-fated first voyage. (Image source: WikiCommons)

A total of 15 skeletons were also found, including two women who were probably servants. Years later, those bones would be analyzed and much was learned about the health and eating habits 17th Century Europeans. Forensic pathologists would construct full recreations of those people that may be seen in the Vasa museum today. Even the bones of the ship’s cat were discovered. Taken together, the recovered components, artifacts, and bodies opened an unprecedented window into naval life of a bygone era.

In 1990, the Vasa was encased in packing material and towed to a futuristic looking home on the Stockholm waterfront. The museum was open to the sea and contained a dock: once the Vasa was inside, the water was drained, and the final wall of the museum was constructed. The structure is carefully climate-controlled to maintain the integrity of the hull and artifacts. The museum enjoys over one million visitors a year.

The Vasa retains 95 percent of her original wood: the USS Constitution and HMS Victory, her only competitors in a very exclusive category, contain only about 15 percent of their original timbers.

The Vasa is remarkable not for what she was in her brief life but for what she has become after death. She and the objects recovered from her provide visitors an opportunity to step back into the 17th century and feel that they are not merely viewing history but actually living it. The Vasa never fired a shot in battle but as a museum piece she has won a victory over time itself; a distinguished record unequalled by any other ship.

John Danielski is the author of the Pennywhistle Quartet, a series of novels set in the Napoleonic period. These include: Active’s MeasureThe King’s Scarlet, Blue Water, Scarlet Tide, and Capital’s Punishment. Danielski has worked as a living history interpreter at Fort Snelling, a journalist and has taught history at both the secondary and university levels. Visit his website here

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