The Swedish Navy of the 1600s was a military force to be reckoned with, and it dominated most of the Baltic Sea during the reign of King Gustavus Adolphus.
Ironically, their most prized ship, the Vasa, the glory of the Swedish fleet, sank just minutes after setting sail on her maiden voyage. Yet it was recovered from the bottom of the ocean 333 years later, in the mid-20th century, and restored, and today it remains one of the most well-preserved ships ever, from that era.
Once brightly painted and decked out in gold in the 1620s, the Vasa, now displayed in her own museum in Stockholm, is but a shadow of her former glory, though her marvelous, grandiose woodwork gives us a sense of how regal she must have seemed.
The 17th-century vessel was commissioned by the Swedish king during the Thirty Years War between the Protestant and Catholic Churches, and she was intended to represent Sweden’s Great Power Period when it was one of Europe’s most powerful countries.
With much of her symbolism—lions to depict the king, and cowering Poles, hiding in fear, depicting their enemies—the ship was as much a propaganda piece designed to be seen as she was a military vessel for defending and waging war.
She was 226 feet in length, 164 feet high, weighed over 1,200 tons, and was outfitted with an arsenal of some 64 cannons, leading many to dub her as the most capable warship in the fleet. And with literally hundreds of sculptures on board as well as 100 tons of ballast, the Vasa ended up much heavier than originally intended—a likely contribution to her untimely demise.
King Adophus signed the contract to build the Vasa with shipbuilder Henrik Hybertsson in 1625. She was intended to be one of two larger vessels to go along with two smaller ones. Hybertsson died not long after, and his assistant Hein Jakobsson took over the project.
It is believed that the king’s rushing the work to finish was partly to blame for her sinking, while some issues suggest that the builders may bear some of the responsibility. There is evidence that they found errors during testing the ship’s seaworthiness, and thus, she set sail prematurely.
On Aug. 10, 1628, with crowds of Swedes in attendance, including royals and ambassadors, the Vasa embarked on her maiden voyage from Stockholm Harbor. And within minutes, after firing a salute while passing the palace, a strong gust of wind tipped the vessel, causing water to pour in through the still-open, bottom-level gun ports. And not 30 minutes after departure, the glory of the Swedish fleet sank to the sea bottom, taking 30 to 40 passengers, including crew family members, with her.
It was a scandal and a disgrace that Swedes simply tried to forget. It not only hurt their reputation, but the ship had also cost a fortune. Although an investigation was conducted, little could be done; efforts to raise the vessel failed due to limits in technology, while the shipwright had gone down with the ship. And so, the inquiry was ended.
For centuries, the Vasa remained forgotten—until in 1961 when a wreck was discovered in the harbor and identified as the famed warship. It is believed that the dark, cold environment, as well as pollutants, helped preserve the wood by preventing UV light and bacteria from decomposing it.
After the vessel was raised, for a time, conservationists had to keep the wood flooded with water to prevent it from drying out and deteriorating. They have since treated the wood and are still trying to slow the degeneration process.
The Vasa is currently open to the public and is 98 percent original, complete with cannons, although old bolts are being replaced with stainless steel ones for the sake of preservation. Nevertheless, much of the Vasa’s grandeur lives on, and it’s a sight to behold. It may be some consolation that the once-proud vessel’s untimely end is redeemed by becoming one of the most gloriously well-preserved ships in the world today.