By Mary Dodge Allen
Painting of the Vasa by Francis Smitheman
The Vasa was one of the most spectacular Swedish warships ever built. It had two separate gun decks holding a total of 64 brass cannons, and its hull was adorned with elaborate painted and gilded wooden images.
But on August 10, 1628, less than twenty minutes after setting sail on its maiden voyage, the Vasa sank in Stockholm harbor.
It was the most advanced warship of its time. How could it sink so quickly?
Swedish King Gustav II Adolf; reigned from 1611 - 1632
The Vasa’s story began in 1625, when Sweden’s King Gustav II Adolf commissioned well-respected Stockholm shipbuilder Hendrik Hybertsson to build a new warship. Design plans were drawn up for a warship 108-feet long with a single gun deck, and construction began.
Problems arose when the King started ordering modifications to the warship design. He had heard that the Danish were building a 135-foot long ship with two gun decks, so he issued orders to make the warship longer and add a second gun deck. Hybertsson was an experienced master shipwright, but this would prove to be a challenge. Until then, no Swedish shipbuilder had ever built a warship with two gun decks. It is believed that the King pressured him to build the warship as quickly as possible, so Hybertsson simply “scaled up” the design of the original 108-foot warship to meet the 135-foot long dimension.
Scale model of Skeppsgarden shipyard, where the Vasa was built. (Photo by author)
Unfortunately, during the Vasa’s construction, Hybertsson became ill and died in 1627, a full year before the ship was completed. Since the warship’s many modifications had not been adequately documented, building teams worked out the final construction details independently. The construction of the second gun deck widened the upper portion of the warship, and this changed its center of gravity, making it top-heavy.
To complicate matters, the King decided he wanted the warship to look impressive, since its name was derived from the “House of Vasa” - the name associated with the Swedish royal family at the time. On the King’s orders, the ship was decorated with hundreds of hand-carved painted and gilded images depicting Swedish history, mythology and knights in armor. These wooden carvings added even more weight to the Vasa’s top-heavy hull.
At the time, shipbuilders lacked the engineering and mathematical expertise to calculate a ship’s performance in advance. Shipbuilders based their designs on experience and then conducted short trial-and-error sailing tests to determine what modifications needed to be done to improve the ship’s performance.
Admiral Clas Larsson Fleming and Vasa’s Captain Sofring Hansson conducted a preliminary “lurch test” – where 30 crewmen ran from side-to-side to check the ship’s stability. After three rounds, the Vasa rocked so violently, they feared it would topple over and sink. It was clear the top-heavy warship had stability issues, but nobody knew how to fix the problem. The hull was already filled with over 120-tons of stone ballast. Adding additional weight would place the lower deck gun ports at the water line.
It is believed that the naval officers and shipbuilders were reluctant to tell the King that the Vasa had stability issues. It is also believed that the war with Poland-Lithuania placed pressure on King Gustav II Adolf to put the warship into action as soon as possible. So... the Vasa was launched on August 10, 1628. And disaster resulted.
Vasa's move from the shipyard to its anchorage near the old royal castle in Spring, 1628, where she was fitted, rigged and armed with heavy cannons and added carvings.
Then its maiden voyage August 10, 1628 across the harbor before sinking. (Vasa Museum)
To celebrate the warship’s maiden voyage, the crew was allowed to bring their entire families on board as guests. Family members were scheduled to disembark when the Vasa reached the fortress of Vaxholm. Then the ship was to proceed to the navy’s summer fleet base on the island of Alvsnabben and await orders on the role it was to play in the war against Poland-Lithuania.
It was late afternoon when the Vasa set sail. Crowds of people had come to watch. They cheered and waved as the warship began sailing across the harbor. The huge warship looked magnificent, adorned with vivid painted and gilded images on its hull, and 64 shiny brass cannons on its two gun decks.
As the Vasa got underway, a strong gust of wind filled the sails, pushing the ship far over on its port side. Before the lower deck gun ports could be closed, water gushed inside and began dragging down the ship. Pandemonium broke out... people struggled to climb to the top deck on tilting ladders... many jumped overboard. It is estimated that at least fifty people died, trapped inside the ship. But the rest of the crew and guests were rescued.
Illustration of Vasa sinking (Vasa Museum)
Thirty-five years later, in 1663, Swedish inventor Albrecht von Treileben used a diving bell to locate the Vasa in Stockholm harbor. He found the ship resting on the muddy bottom, 100 feet below the water’s surface. He and his team then worked to retrieve most of the ship’s valuable brass cannons.
After this, the Vasa remained in the dark murky depths... untouched and well-preserved by the low salinity of the frigid water... until...
Part Two: Raising the Vasa from the Watery Depths.
In my blog next month, on June 5th, I'll describe the amazing recovery of the warship – intact - from the depths of Stockholm harbor.
Mary Dodge Allen is the winner of a 2022 Christian Indie Award, a 2022 Angel Book Award, and two Royal Palm Literary Awards (Florida Writer's Association). She and her husband live in Central Florida, where she has served as a volunteer with the local police department. Her childhood in Minnesota, land of 10,000 lakes, sparked her lifelong love of the outdoors. She has worked as a Teacher, Counselor and Social Worker. Her quirky sense of humor is energized by a passion for coffee and chocolate. She is a member of the Florida Writer's Association, American Christian Fiction Writers and Faith Hope and Love Christian Writers.
Mary's novel: Hunt for a Hometown Killer won the 2022 Christian Indie Award, First Place - Mystery/Suspense; and the 2022 Angel Book Award - Mystery/Suspense.
Click the link below to buy Hunt for a Hometown Killer at Amazon.com:
Link to Mary's Spotlight Interview: Mary Dodge Allen Author Spotlight EA Books