Vasa, the Swedish Navy Ship That Never Sailed

When King Gustav II Adolf of Sweden commissioned the Vasa in 1628 he had high hopes for her. The warship was to be part of the military expansion he initiated in order to maintain Sweden’s military position in Europe. She was going to be big and powerful, armed primarily with bronze cannons that were cast specifically for her. She was to become a symbol of Sweden’s naval supremacy, meant to strike fear in the hearts of its enemies. But the Vasa didn’t accomplish any of that. Instead, she became a symbol of engineering failure and will always be remembered as the ship that never sailed. 

A Faulty Design

Construction of the Vasa began in early 1626 at the navy yard in Stockholm. The King spared no expense. He hired Henrik Hybertsson, an experienced Dutch shipbuilder who had already worked for his predecessor, but who had never built a ship with two gun decks before. Since at that time there were no plans or drawings used in the construction, a shipbuilder would just use proportions, general criteria and his own experience in the process.

When the construction was finished, the Vasa looked magnificent. She was adorned with hundreds of painted and gilded wooden sculptures. Her hight was 69 meters and her width was 12 meters. The ship displayed ten sails that would make for 1275 square meters. She was the most powerfully armed warship in the world, with 64 bronze cannons. The gun decks were supported by half 50 cm thick beams that added to the weight above the water line, but no one was aware of any problems with the ship’s stability at that point. 


The Vasa


The first signs of Vasa’s bad stability showed up when Captain Hansson noticed that thirty men running to and fro on the upper deck made the ship sway so badly that she almost capsized in the harbor. The Captain pointed that out to Admiral Fleming who the King’s liaison, but neither of the two acted upon their suspicions. They both knew King Gustav Adolf was in a rush to get the ship ready to sail, as the Swedish fleet had lost several ships to a storm in the autumn 1625. The pressure was high and no one dared to postpone Vasa’s maiden voyage any further.



Doomed to Perish

It was a sunny afternoon with little wind on August 10, 1628. Several hundred spectators filled the beaches around Stockholm to see the Vasa spread its sails. The ship was ready: ballast, cannons and ammunition stored and a crew of 150 people on board. The crew had been allowed to bring their families, as it was the ship’s maiden voyage. The guests, including women and children, would disembark at the fortress of Vaxholm before the ship continued to the summer fleet base where three hundred soldiers were supposed to join.

Twenty minutes into her journey, just after passing the Södermalm Cliffs, the ship was hit by a strong wind. It heeled to port and water started gushing in. A second gust made her heel again and now the water began pouring in through the gun portals. The Vasa began to sink after having sailed only 1300 metres. Within minutes, the ship was on the sea bed at a depth of 32 metres. Most of the crew and guests managed to save themselves by swimming or clinging to the rigging that was still over the waterline. But 30 unlucky ones were trapped inside the ship and died; 16 of their skeletons would be found more than 300 years later. 



Recovering the Vasa

In 1658, about 30 years after the Vasa sank, Hans Albrecht von Treileben went to Stockholm and presented his knowledge of using a diving bell. A few years later he obtained the right to salvage the cannons, so between 1664-1665 all the cannons from Vasa have been hauled up using a diving bell. After that the ship became forgotten with no trace of her position. The Vasa laid in the shallow waters of Stockholm harbor for more than 300 years until 1956 when it was located by Anders Franzen. A Vasa Committee was formed and decided to salvage her. At first all the objects from the boat have been brought up and numbered, catalogued and washed. Then began the tedious work of drilling tunnels beneath the keel of the boat. It took almost a year to complete the six tunnels that were later used to insert strong cables intended to raise her up to the surface.

In 1961, 333 years after it sank, the Vasa was raised to the surface. The ship was so well preserved that it could float after the gun portals were sealed and water and mud were pumped from it. There were several factors that contributed to the good condition in which the ship was found: the low salinity of the Baltic Sea, the lack of oxygen in the water and the low water temperature (between +1 and +5ºC).



The Vasa Museum

The conservation process was long and tedious. After being removed from the harbor’s cold waters the ship began to dry. If it dried too quickly the hull could shrink, crack and the wood could collapse. So for 17 years the Vasa sat in a dark warehouse where it was sprayed almost continuously with a solution of polyethylene glycol, which gradually soaked into the hull, displacing the sea water. After the water was displaced from the ship, the Vasa began to gradually dry over a period of nine years. By the late 1980’s the ship was stable enough to be moved to a place where she could be displayed permanently. In 1988 the Vasa was towed into a dock and the new Vasa Museum was built around it. The museum was opened to the public in 1990. For a more personal approach to seeing the Vasa Museum you should check out Rachel Keller’s post entitled “The Vasa Museum: Exploring an Epic Fail.”



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25 Comments on “Vasa, the Swedish Navy Ship That Never Sailed

    • Many big ships sank on their maiden voyage, Suze. The Titanic is another one that comes to mind. And in both these cases it was human error that caused it.

  1. I’ve known about the Vasa for ages but never actually read the details about its resurrection from the deep. I also hadn’t realized how the water conditions had contributed so much to its preservation, though I pity the poor divers who had to endure those freezing temperatures.

    I was surprised when you said that they built a museum around the ship. I had always assumed it had been an exhibit in a larger museum. The carvings are exquisite! Are there photos or a video of the interior? How much time should someone plan to spend at the museum?
    Linda Bibb recently posted…Sedlec Ossuary: Macabre Bone Church of Kutna HoraMy Profile

    • There are better photos of the Vasa on the Museum’s website, Linda. Unfortunately, they keep the lights very dim in the museum for preservation reasons. That was the best I could do. It doesn’t take that long to visit the Vasa Museum. I’d say at the most 45 minutes. It’s just one big room, as you can expect.

  2. We just visited the Vasa Museum in Stockholm too! It’s much more impressive and interesting than we thought it would be. It’s not just about looking at an old ship, as you point out. It goes into the recovery and preservation process. And the part we found fascinating – it covers the life of the seamen at the time (foods they ate, what their living quarters looked like, even the horrible diseases they caught and simple surgeries performed).

  3. I just read another post about the ship this week. Your photos gives me a different perspective of the vessel. Have to say the carvings are very impressive (as the ship itself). The story is interesting. Didn’t know the crew’s family was in the ship when is sank. What a failure! It reminds me of projects, I have been involved in, that are doom to fail since the beginning but nobody has the courage to talk because of the pressure. #TheWeeklyPostcard
    Ruth recently posted…What and Where to Eat in BudapestMy Profile

  4. What an interesting article Anda, I love details and your post is full of them together with stunning photos. How well preserved the wood is and your photos clearly show that. I must admit I had never heard of this restoration project. Imagine being a member of the Vasa Committee or the museum curator and patiently overseeing the project for 34 years (1956 – 1990)!!
    annette charlton recently posted…#PhotoFridayMy Profile

    • Thank you, Ahila. If I ever go back to Stockholm I’m going to visit the Vasa Museum again for sure. This time I’ll bring a tripod with me.

  5. The Vasa Museum is my favorite museum in Stockholm. When I entered it last year I was speechless. I have seen already some oldtimer ships in England, but the Vasa is the best preserved I have ever seen.

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