Thursday, 10 August 2017

Vasa - the ship that wasn't

In many ways, Gustavus Adolphus (or Gustav II Adolf) was a great king. Together with his High Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna, he modernised the Swedish government, education and military, as well as earned the respect and adoration of the common man. But he has often been said to be the cause of the catastrophe that met the greatest ship of the era: Vasa. However, when we visited the Vasa Museum in Stockholm, we picked up a book by Fred Hocker that states that the king should not be blamed for what happened. As today marks the 389th anniversary of the disaster, I share the following with you:

In the beginning of 1625, Gustavus Adolphus commissioned the building of four new ships of war: two smaller ships conforming to the standard ship size of the time (about 30 metres in length) and two big ones. The bigger ships were commissioned as 40.1 and 47.5 metre long ships (stem to sternpost) and both with a 10.1 metre beam. The greatest of these was to be called Vasa and it was to be the greatest ship of war of the era: 69m long and the capacity to hold 450 men (150 sailors and 300 soldiers). He put Admiral Fleming in charge of the project and the shipwright Henrik Hybertsson to do the actual work with Dutch carpenters.

However, when Sweden lost ten warships in a storm near Riga, Gustavus Adolphus changed the orders for the smaller ships, asking the shipwright to make them a few metres longer. Hocker, in his book Vasa - The Swedish Warship shows that it may be that these orders and the ensuing conflict between the shipwright and the king has been confused with the building of one of the larger warships. He also points out that Vasa's armament was decided in 1626 before the construction began and this already concerned a two-decker rather than a single-decker that was later modified into a two-decker (so the king did not order the building of a second gun deck after the building had started).

Whatever the final cause for the disaster, the facts remain: the ship was too unstable and heeled in the side wind only a few hundred metres out from the Old Town quays in 1628. It first recovered, but then another squall hit it and the ship began to list, taking water in through the lower gunports. About fifty people, men and women, drowned when the ship sank. The exhibition at the Vasa Museum states that the Vasa only had 120 tons of ballast and that a heavier load would have been needed for it to stay upright in side wind. Unfortunately, there was no room for more: the lower gunports would have been submerged if the ship floated any lower.

The ship that was not really a ship - ships are things that float, right? - was raised in the late 20th century and is now exhibited at the Vasa Museum in Stockholm. The exhibit includes an extensive variety of items found aboard and around the vessel - including several skeletons of the men and women who drowned with it. There's also a small scale model of the ship right by the big hull to show what the ship looked like with full sails on.

Below, you can view a short video I took of the ship itself. Seeing all the detail up close, one cannot but admire the work hours invested and the wonderful craftmanship of the 17th century ship builders.