Monday, June 5, 2023

The Doomed Swedish Warship "Vasa" - Part Two: Raising It from the Watery Depths!

 By Mary Dodge Allen

Painting of the Vasa by Francis Smitheman

Last month I described the doomed maiden voyage of the Vasa. It sank soon after it was launched on August 10, 1628. This warship was one of the most magnificent of its time - with two separate gun decks carrying a total of 64 brass cannons. Its hull was adorned with painted and gilded hand-carved images depicting Swedish history and mythology. 

And yet, the Vasa sank less than twenty minutes after its launch. Why?

Swedish King Gustav II Adolf made many changes to the original warship design. He issued orders to increase the warship’s length, construct an unprecedented second gun deck, and place elaborate wooden carvings on the warship’s hull.

Unfortunately, these changes made the Vasa unstable and top-heavy. When a strong gust of wind filled its sails, the warship leaned far over to port, took on water and quickly sank. To add to the tragedy, officials had allowed the crew to take family members as guests on the first part of the Vasa’s maiden voyage. It is estimated that approximately 50 crew and family members died. The rest of the crew and guests were rescued. To read Part One of my blog... the details of the Vasa's construction and tragic launch, click on this link:

When was the Vasa found... and resurrected?

The warship sat at the bottom of Stockholm harbor, untouched and well-preserved by the darkness and low salinity of the frigid water... until...

September 1956, when shipwreck-hunter Anders Franzen confirmed that he had finally found the Vasa, and that the ship was amazingly intact.

Scale model of Vasa underwater. (Vasa Museum)

Anders Franzen put together a team of experts to work on raising the Vasa. The Swedish Navy assigned Commodore Edward Clason to run the project, and Edvin Falting was chosen to supervise the dive team. Franzen arranged for Bostroms, the largest marine salvage company in Scandinavia, to conduct the lift, working with Neptune Diving and Salvage Company. 

The Swedish royals took a keen interest in the project. The reigning monarch, King Gustav VI Adolf was a trained archaeologist. His son, Prince Bertil became chairman of the foundation created to support the raising of the ship, and the Swedish public also enthusiastically supported the project.

From 1957 to 1959, six tunnels were dug under the Vasa by navy divers. Huge steel cables were pulled through these tunnels and attached to two floating pontoons, named Oden and Frigg. The plan was to fill the pontoons with water, tighten the cables under the Vasa, and then drain the water from the pontoons. In this way, the Vasa could be lifted free of the muddy bottom, as if cradled in a basket made by the cables.

Divers at work (Public Domain)

During the two-years of tunnel digging, divers found many artifacts, including elaborate wooden carvings that had fallen off the hull, and even a brass cannon, which was lifted from the water in September 1958.

Ornate brass cannon from the Vasa. (Vasa Museum)

Diagram of the lift stages. (Vasa Museum)

On August 20, 1959 the first of several lift stages began, successfully liberating the Vasa from the grip of the muddy bottom. This lifting and moving process was repeated eighteen times... until the Vasa reached the shallow depth of 55 feet. 

Over the course of the next several months, divers went to work preparing the Vasa for its final lift -- plugging holes, fitting covers over the gun ports and rebuilding portions of the hull. The decks were cleared of mud and debris to make the ship lighter, and many artifacts were salvaged, such as coins, tools, games, and the bones of passengers who perished.


Facial reconstruction of Vasa passengers found. (Vasa Museum)

Backgammon game found, complete with dice and markers (Vasa Museum)

The Vasa's Final Lift:

On April 24, 1961 – nearly 333 years after it sank – the Vasa was lifted out of the water. Thousands of onlookers lined the shore to watch. People were thrilled to see the ship slowly emerge into sight. TV crews were there, filming the lift, and it was broadcast live across Europe.

The Vasa - lifted from the depths. (Public Domain)

After the Vasa was lifted, it was moved to its own pontoon dockage. Over the next several years, archaeologists and conservators worked on the huge task of removing the remainder of the mud, debris and artifacts. Divers continued recovering hundreds of loose pieces from its decks and hull, while plans were made to house and display the Vasa in its own museum.

Salvage crew at work. (Public Domain)

The Vasa had been well-preserved underwater, due to the cold, the lack of salinity in Stockholm harbor, and protection from ultraviolet light on the dark sea bottom. To keep the ship's hull from shrinking and cracking now that it was out of the water, conservators sprayed polyethylene glycol – a waxy substance - on all of its wooden surfaces.

The Vasa Museum Opens:

The Vasa Museum opened to the public in June 1990. It is located in Stockholm, on the island of Djurgarden. In June 2001, I visited this museum with my family. The warship itself is magnificent, and many fascinating artifacts and scale models are displayed throughout the museum. It is well worth a visit.

The Vasa Museum (Photo by author)

Scale model of Vasa leaving port. (Photo by author)

Painted and reconstructed wooden carvings. (Vasa Museum)

Figure on Left: Actual Vasa Warship on display at the museum. 
Figure at Right: Vasa scale model - painted and gilded. (Vasa Museum)

Unfortunately, the Vasa is undergoing a slow process of degradation, deforming a few millimeters every year. Even so, there is no immediate risk of structural failure. In 2004, the museum upgraded its climate-control system to keep the humidity levels stable and to help slow the process of wood warping. An effort is also underway to remove the corroding steel bolts - used in the 1960’s during the original reconstruction - and replace them with bolts made from a higher grade of stainless steel. The conservators are also working on a computerized design for a new support structure. 

There are many ironies with the Vasa. It was well-constructed but not well-proportioned. It was an example of magnificent craftsmanship, and yet it had basic structural faults -- its high center of gravity and the excess weight of cannons and ornamentation on her upper decks made her unstable to the point of being unseaworthy. 

Perhaps the biggest irony: The Vasa warship sank on its maiden voyage in less than twenty minutes, and yet it now exists as the only fully-intact example of warship construction from the early 1600’s. 

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

Link to Mary's Spotlight Interview:   Mary Dodge Allen Author Spotlight EA Books


  1. Thank you for telling us about this remarkable ship. The reconstruction process is fascinating.

  2. Very interesting! Thanks for sharing.

  3. Seeing the reconstructed Vasa in the museum was amazing - the sheer size of it, and all the intricate carvings.