It may be hard to believe, but Sweden was a real powerhouse during the 17-18th centuries. She was renowned for her skill on the battlefield and engaged in many successful wars, taking territory from Denmark, the German states and Russia (at one point, they controlled the entirety of the Baltic sea, including Estonia). Needless to say, they were a force to be reckoned with.
During the 1620s, Sweden was embroiled in a decades-long struggle against Poland-Lithuania. They were also making preparations to enter into the utterly catastrophic Thirty Years’ War (which began in 1618. I wonder when it ended?). If the Swedes were going to defeat Poland-Lithuania and be able to enter another war quickly thereafter, a powerful navy was required. This isn’t to say that it never occurred to the Swedes – y’know, the descendants of the Vikings – that perhaps an armada of ships was a valuable asset. Rather, circumstances brought the issue of naval power to the forefront. The Swedish navy had recently been devastated, with ships meeting their end either from the Poles or bad weather forcing them to run aground. Having sustained heavy casualties, the rest of the navy was overstretched along several fronts. Besides, how was one going to set up colonies across the world without a powerful navy (there was still plenty of ‘unclaimed’ land up for grabs)? It was critical that new ships be built – now.
Usually, a demand like this would mean building many small ships with a single gundeck for cannons. And they did build some of these, to be fair. But Gustavus Adolphus, the king of Sweden and a military genius renowned for his love for artillery, decided that there should also be a huge ship with two gundecks – twice as many cannons! Boom! Boom! I can almost hear his maniacal laughter. Also, he was definitely not motivated by Denmark attempting to build something similar and was certainly not trying to one-up his ancient rivals. This project was very ambitious; Sweden had never built something like this before, and very few ships with two gundecks existed elsewhere in the world – this was new technology. So, if this ship was gonna be biggest and best of Sweden’s navy, why not make it a statement of Sweden’s strength and a testament to the house of Vasa, the ruling family of Sweden? Thus, the ship was to be named Vasa. And it certainly left its mark on history…for all the wrong reasons…
Work on Vasa began in 1625 by sourcing materials and commissioning a shipwright to oversee construction. Before production even began there was a huge issue: the shipwright was a Dutchman named Henrik Hybertsson. Now, I’m not Austin Powers’ dad; no problem with the Dutch here! It actually made some sense for a Dutchman to oversee the project, since the Netherlands was renowned for its ship-building industry. But the thing is, Hybertsson had never built a boat like this before. Also, the Dutch were used to building ships that had flat bottoms, making it easier to navigate the shallow waters within the Netherlands. Naturally, Vasa’s hull ended up being very shallow and flat. This wouldn’t have been a problem if it wasn’t so tall – two gun decks meant the ship had to be built taller. This meant that Vasa’s centre-of gravity was too high, which was made even worse by the huge masts that towered above the ship. To top it all off, the ship was overloaded with statues and decorations, as heavy as they were beautiful, that extolled the might and valour of Gustavus Adolphus and his family. Having such heft on the top of the ship with no counter-weight on the bottom meant Vasa was incredibly vulnerable to capsizing. In fact, the standard stability test they performed (rushing from one side of the ship to the other to get it rolling in the water) had to be stopped due to fears it would tip over after just a few runs!
But surely a project like this was thought out carefully, right? Not so! Gustavus Adolphus constantly revised his demands in his desperate attempts to one-up the Danish, which meant any plans that got drawn up kept being rendered useless. In fact, this is probably why we can’t find any building plans or even a crude design for the ship – they became so disoriented by the barrage of royal requests they gave up and started winging it! There were several teams building the hull, but with no plans to refer to, they weren’t able to coordinate their work or resolve issues effectively, meaning they likely just did whatever they wanted! Furthermore, Hybertsson died in 1627, meaning a different shipwright had to be called in to oversee this anarchic construction. I feel nothing but sympathy for this new shipwright, who had no plans to work with, ridiculous deadlines and constant alterations and demands that were made on a whim! There was no way this massive warship could be put out as it was – it was a disaster waiting to happen. Yet the builders acquiesced to Gustavus Adolphus and his incessant calls for immediate deployment of Vasa, lest they upset the Lion of the North (That was the king’s nickname due to his military prowess, but he was nonetheless killed in the Thirty Years’ War not long after getting involved – Whoops!).
I think it’s also important to note that, despite humans sailing the seas for thousands of years, the principles of shipbuilding were actually not well understood until the early modern period. Yes, buoyancy as a concept was known since the days of Archimedes, but the maths required to calculate it hadn’t been discovered yet. So shipbuilding up to that point involved lots of assumption and estimation – they had no reliable way to determine just how stable a ship would be until it was sitting in the water. Hence, for centuries, ship makers were incredibly conservative and stuck with what they knew worked, even if they couldn’t articulate precisely why it worked. Remember, building ships was (and still is) an expensive, time-consuming endeavour, so naturally nobody wanted to rock the boat (pun intended) and frivolously test new things. But Vasa (and the king) demanded they throw caution to the wind and sail into uncharted territory…
Vasa finally set sail in 1628 to join the battle against Poland. However, it sunk after sailing a grand total of one kilometre – it didn’t even leave Stockholm! And it wasn’t a cannonball, or a submerged rock, not even an act of God that wrecked this ship. What took down the mighty Vasa? A gust of wind. Yep, the thing that sail ships rely on to move. The wind just plain knocked it over and sunk it into the harbour along with thirty lives, in full view of a horrified Swedish public. It took three years to build and it sailed for twenty minutes before it sank. What a great investment! So, that’s end of the story, right?
Not exactly. Vasa sat at the bottom of the harbour for the next 333 years and was forgotten about. Incredibly, this wooden ship hardly decayed! I’m not sure about the exact science, but it has something to do with the waters in Stockholm being cold, still and low in oxygen combined with mud acting as a preservative. I think that’s why shipworm, a water bug that likes eating wood, wasn’t present to gobble up the shipwreck as is what usually happens in warmer, oxygen-rich environments. It could also be due to the water in Stockholm being so disgusting for hundreds of years that it pretty much killed all the aquatic, boat-eating organisms. And who said pollution was a bad thing? Not only was the ship kept intact, but so was virtually everything on board: rope, sails, food, drink, personal belongings, skeletons (yep, they found some remains down there), even the intricate carvings that crowded the back of the ship (although they fell off when it sunk, they were submerged in mud, which kept them intact). Most of the original cannons were salvaged soon after it sunk, but some still remained, and in pretty good condition, too. After being chanced upon by an amateur archaeologist, Vasa was cleared of muck and carefully raised in 1961.
But before any investigation of the ship could begin, measures to preserve the ship needed to be implemented. First, it had to stay moist, otherwise the wood would dry out, crack and break. The ship had to be spritzed with a special solution for decades to ensure this didn’t happen! Also, apparently the wood contains sulphuric acid(!), which could eat the ship away entirely if we’re not careful about atmospheric conditions. That’s why the Vasa museum is essentially a hermetic chamber, with temperature and humidity kept constant. I remember walking into that hall and feeling like I was being steamed alive before I even set eyes on that magnificent boat. I mean, it’s not actually that hot or damp inside, but compared to the freezing temperatures outside and being covered with rain (luckily I had a pair of gloves with me), I might as well have been in Kakadu as far as I was concerned. Still, setting the uncomfortable sensory experience aside, the amount of work the museum has put into keeping this ship preserved is insane; it’s probably the biggest and best preserved ship from before the 1700’s. Like, hardly a piece is missing. It’s a shame you’re not allowed inside to explore!
So, what caused Vasa to fail? Mainly, overly-ambitious proposals, lack of technical know-how to implement said proposals, unfair time constraints from a superior, and last but not least no clear plan of action due to constantly shifting demands that were completely unreasonable. Did I just describe your workplace to a T? Did you just have flashbacks to that soul-sucking assignment that was doomed to fail from the start because it required twenty-five hour days to and everyone talked past each other and refused to cooperate? Y’know, there’s a term for that: Vasa Syndrome! Drop that tidbit next time you’re in a meeting where nobody appears to have learned from their mistakes.
But did the Swedish learn from the mistakes of Vasa? Why yes, they certainly did. In fact, amongst the Swedes, the name Vasa is more readily associated with the boat than the ruling family. And just like events such as Gallipoli or the Killdozer, you’d expect public sentiment towards Vasa to be overwhelmingly negative, but instead people are love the ship and talk about it proudly! Huh? How? It was one of the biggest failures in naval history! Well, contrary to my quip a few paragraphs ago, Vasa has actually been an invaluable investment, albeit accidently. Thanks to this shipwreck, Archaeologists have recovered so much information about life during that time period, including culture, technology, science, economics and even the daily lives of Swedes. Those who get to work with Vasa and its artefacts are kids in a candy shop! Vasa also brings to mind Sweden’s glory as one of the powerful nation-states in European history, as a kingmaker that could not be ignored. And although Vasa itself was a failure, Sweden’s navy flourished thereafter: Other double gundeck war-machines were produced soon after Vasa that actually saw combat and stuck around for a few decades, as well as managing to sail across the Atlantic and establish a couple (short-lived) colonies in North America and Africa. I suppose people derive a valuable lesson from Vasa: learn from your mistakes and don’t give up until you get the results you want. Pretty inspiring, no? But just as it was in 1628, the ship is still incredibly unstable; it’s practically on life support. So make sure you get there as soon as you can – it might not be around in another four-hundred years…
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Hey travellers! That was just a short post for you to enjoy before Christmas soaks up all our time! I’ll be heading off on a big trip and will be going to some faraway place. Therefore, I won’t be able to write much for the next two or three weeks, but I’ll be collecting plenty of stories to share with you once I get back, so stay tuned! In the meantime, I’ll have some videos that you can watch on my YouTube channel – unscripted but fun little stories that don’t quite merit an entire article but I think are great to tell. Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and see you guys real soon. Stay safe! – Jacob
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