Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Ships: Royal Warrior

On the 10th of April, 1628, Sweden’s largest and most impressive line-of-battle ship to date was launched at Stockholm. The breeze was light, causing the crew to move the ship, named Vasa after the Swedish Royal family, out of the harbor to Slussen. Without warning the skies around mighty Vasa grew dark, a squall quickly mounted into a gale and the warship was caught with her topsails and courses out and her gun ports open for show. Vasa listed to starboard, the lower decks flooded with seawater and literally within minutes the 1,300 ton vessel sank with a loss of over 400 lives.

Vasa was built on the orders of King Gustavus Adolphus whose navy was the premier fighting force in the Baltic at the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War. With tensions escalating between Catholics and Protestants, Hapsburgs and Bourbons, Gustavus sought to protect the sovereignty of his country and her territories by increasing his naval force. Vasa, designed by Henrik Hybertson de Groot and Henrik Jacobson was built at the Royal Dockyard in Stockholm in a fairly short time. With the campaign in the Baltic heating up, Gustavus wanted a large warship to take the lead at the siege of Danzig, which his navy had begun to blockade in 1627.

De Groot and Jacobson complied with a 180 foot ship, 38 feet at the beam with a draft of a little over 15 feet. Fully mounted, she would carry sixty-four guns including two 62 pounders, three 35 pounders and forty-eight 24 pounders. Her firepower was formidable but her compliment of men was surprisingly small. Vasa carried only 145 sailing men with the remaining crew being made up of approximately 300 soldiers. She was not only fierce but beautiful, with ornate carvings fore and aft that would serve as models for European royal yachts of the 18th and 19th century.

Because she was a true gem of the shipbuilder’s art, efforts to salvage Vasa began immediately. Englishman Ian Bulmer managed to haul Vasa up on her keel, but the 115 foot depth to which she had sunk was too daunting to make raising her possible. Although some of her guns were salvaged in 1664, further attempts were set aside and Vasa sat beneath the cold waters off her home port for over 300 years.

In 1956 the wreck was “rediscovered” by amateur marine archaeologists who took a sample of the hull to the Swedish Navy. Their divers confirmed the find and immediate plans to raise Vasa were underway. Channels were dug in the mud around her, and straps were placed under her hull which were then hooked to pontoon vessels. Vasa was moved, while still submerged, to a water depth of 50 feet. Over the course of a year, patches and reinforcements were made on her hull and on April 24, 1960 she was not only raised but floated into dry dock on her own hull. This was the first major salvage of an intact vessel attempted in the modern age, and the raising of Vasa has become a blueprint for other salvage projects such as that of Mary Rose in Britain and Whydah in the U.S.

All of Vasa’s remaining elements, from loose artifacts to sails, woodwork and structure were meticulously preserved. The Vasa project has become the gold standard for nautical preservation. The ship in her entirety along with all artifacts associated with her are on display at the Vasa Museum in Stockholm. She is a living testimony to the ingenuity, craftsmanship and pride of not only our ancestors but our contemporaries, nautical and otherwise.

Header: Vasa, larboard side and stern, from the Vasa Museum, Stockholm


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Isn't it due to the cold waters of the Baltic sea that the Vasa was able to be salvaged whole rather than in pieces? I think I saw something about that on a show on Nat Geo, but I could be mistaken.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy and yes, exactly. The cold and higher salinety of the water keep the wood-eating pests down making salvage at much later dates possible. That's why you don't see a lot of ships being pulled up intact from the Caribbean or the Gulf of Mexico, just as an example.

Isis said...

I live in Stockholmn, so vists to the Vasa museum has been numerous over the years. I remeber when it was still being preserved and everything was awfully slippery and it smelled funny. You had to walk on a construction on several levels and it would have been sooo easy to slip and fall. But they admitted people ON the ship back then, in controlled groups, so I have actually been on the Vasa.

The "new" museum is a treat though and despite many visits, it's still breathtaking to come in and see the Vasa above you.

BTW, there are mermens's on Vasa. I tried to say that a while ago when the someone asked if mermen's were unusual, but blogger was hiccuping and didn't let me.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Isis and thank you! I was hoping you'd stop by and give us a little glimpse of what experiencing Vasa in person is like. How amazing it must be to actually be aboard her. I can certainly understand why they don't do that anymore, though.

And I won't even go into the Blogger issue. Seriously!