Europe

You Can’t Keep a Good Ship Down:

Nor a Bad One, Such as the Vasa.

The crowd of travel bloggers moved with slow deliberation around the perimeter of the viewing area examining the Vasa from every angle. For some of us, it was seeking out the best shot of the massive hulk that dominated the entire museum. For others, it was drawing inspiration for our story of how a catastrophe waiting to happen happened, and how the Vasa came to be center stage in a Stockholm Museum bearing its name.

First View of the Vasa (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
First View of the Vasa (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

Simon, Otto and I were in Stockholm for TBEX (Travel Blogger Exhibition) Europe 2016, and the Vasa Museum party was a sponsored event following the first day of sessions. As you can see, Simon got his shots, and here is my story.

The Vasa Museum

Located on the island of Djurgården in the Stockholm Archipelago, the Vasa Museum is home to a magnificently preserved  slice of Swedish history from the 17th century.

Our party took place on the ground level, where we could see the Vasa towering above us, or peer over the barrier surrounding her to where Vasa rested over a dozen feet below. Observation galleries provided views of the ship at six levels of her structure.

The Vasa - Port Side (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
The Vasa – Port Side (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

We chatted with new acquaintances, and networked with fellow travel bloggers and industry representatives. While we circulated, spirits and hors d’oevres, in hand, we marveled at displays of artifacts salvaged from the Vasa that represented life in 17th century Sweden. But I couldn’t tear my mind away from the elephant – or should I say ship – in the room. I wanted to walk it. Touch it. Absorb its aura and learn her secrets.

No, I didn’t ask to do that, knowing what the answer would be. But the next best thing turned out to be very, very good. We were escorted to a touchable scale model of the Vasa, and my fingers were at last able to make sense of what we were seeing. I discovered the many sculptures that adorned the Vasa, the two levels where the gun ports were located, as well as the masts.

Touchable Model of the Vasa (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
Touchable Model of the Vasa (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

The Vasa Museum officially opened on June 15, 1990, and is the most visited museum in Scandinavia.

Since Vasa’s recovery in 1961 to her move to her permanent home in 1988, the ship rested at Wasavarvet (“The Shipyard”) where she was cleaned up, dried out, repaired and treated with polyethylene glycol.

By 1981, plans were in the works to build a permanent home for the Vasa, and capitalize on her fame, calamitous history and remarkable condition. Construction began, and on November 2, 1987. Vasa was towed into the partially completed building that would become the Vasa Museum we see today.

Portions of the Vasa that had been severely damaged or were missing altogether have been replaced. Left unpainted, these replacements stand out against the darkness of the ship’s original materials.

Part of the Elaborately Carved Stern of the Vasa (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
Part of the Elaborately Carved Stern of the Vasa (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

The building itself is a sight to behold, with a copper roof representing the height of the Vasa when fully rigged. Painted wooden panels in hues of dark red, blue, tar black, ochre yellow and dark green decorate both the exterior and interior of the museum. Inside, large sections of bare concrete including the large expanse of ceiling are unpainted.

Exhibits and models surround the Vasa telling the story of her, creation, ruin and resurection. Also, a film alternating in several languages  showing the ship’s recovery is well worth watching in the museum’s theater.

The Vasa Sinking

The colossal warship, which sank on August 10, 1628, within minutes of leaving on its maiden voyage, carried 64-guns on two levels of gun decks. She was rigged with 10 sails made of hemp and flax. Vasa was 226 ft long with a beam of 38 feet and a height of 172 ft. Her draft was 16 ft.

A Model of the Vasa with Part of the Real Vasa in the Background (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
A Model of the Vasa with Part of the Real Vasa in the Background (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

Vasa’s crew consisted of 145 sailors and 300 soldiers. Those familiar with basic physics, or simply know a good sailboat from a dud, probably have just figured out what went wrong.

What went wrong began during the Vasa’s construction, and some of the blame can be pinned squarely on the shoulders of then King of Sweden, Gustavus Adolphus. He had engaged the nation in a war with Poland-Lithuania, and was impatient to bring the mighty warship Vasa into the battle as his flag ship.

The King approved the plans presented to him by ship builder, Henrik Hybertsson. The Vasa was built at the navy yard in Stockholm. Custom-cast bronze cannons, ornately decorated to symbolize the king’s ambitions for the country and, of course, himself, occupied two tiers of gun decks. When completed, Vasa was one of the most powerful, heavily armed, magnificently adorned and grossly unstable vessels ever built.

There were those who understood the danger, but were reluctant to contradict the King’s orders. So the narrow, top-heavy Vasa set sail on the appointed date, caught a gust and over she went. Placement of weapons and provisions (the lower gun deck having been placed too close to the waterline) and a host of other factors combined to place the center of gravity far too high. And so it took little force to make the ship heel over, without enough momentum to right itself.

The Vasa’s Captain, Söfring Hansson, immediately ordered the lower gundeck ports closed., but by then it was far too late. These ports should never have been left open in the first place, but the King’s whims prevailed. Vasa sank like a stone.

One of the Many Gun Ports on the Vasa (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
One of the Many Gun Ports on the Vasa (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

The usual inquest was held. It should come as no surprise that a flurry of finger-pointing, denials and hind-sight ensued. In the end, also no surprise here, the blame was laid on the builder, Henrik Hybertsson, who had died the previous year. No one was punished for the Vasa’s fate.

The Vasa Recovery

Although the Vasa was raised from her watery grave after over 300 years on a bed of mud, 17th century techniques, coupled with modern machinery, were found to be the most efficient method of bringing her to the surface.

For two years, divers worked at digging six tunnels under Vasa where steel cable slings, were then run and attached to two lifting pontoons floating on the surface.

The pontoons were pumped full of air and the cables tightened. When the pontoons were pumped out, the ship was brought a little closer to the surface. In this slow and carefully choreographed dance, consisting of 18 lifts, the clearing of mud and debris by teams of divers, rendering the hull as watertight as possible, closing off those troublemaking gun ports using temporary covers, the Vasa was made ready for her moment of glory.

On April 24, 1961, Vasa loomed up from the water’s surface. The ship was then towed to safety.

The Vasa (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
The Vasa (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
The Vasa (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
The Vasa (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

Several salvage efforts took place between 1628 and 1961, causing damage to Vasa’s decks. The most severe disruption was caused by an expedition shortly after the sinking to retrieve some of Vasa’s guns. Add to this over 300 years of mud, crustations and harbor refuse and Vasa’s transformation from muddy monstrosity to museum ship was merely in its infancy.

The gun decks offered up gun carriages, the three surviving cannons, and other weaponry, Perhaps even more significant however, these were also the areas of the ship where many of the sailors’ personal possessions were found, opening a window to 17th shipboard life.

Chests containing clothing, shoes, tools, copper coins, stashes of private provisions, and many other everyday items required for living aboard a ship for extended periods.

Following Vasa’s departure, other important finds were made in the mud. Many of the ornate, brightly painted and gilded sculptures that had adorned Vasa’s exterior hull were discovered. Also found were the ship’s anchors. The human cost of the Vasa fiasco was represented by skeletons of at least four people.

The Ornate Stern of the Vasa (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
The Ornate Stern of the Vasa (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
Carved Detail Near the Foredeck of the Vasa (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
Carved Detail Near the Foredeck of the Vasa (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

Aware of the fragility of the Vasa, the museum consistently monitors the ship for signs of decay or warping of the wood.

A temperature of 64-68 degrees is maintained in the Vasa Museum, along with a humidity level of 53 per cent. The goal is to preserve the Vasa for future generations to admire its stamina, and learn from it’s past.

If You Go to the Vasa Museum

Mailing address:

Vasamuseet
Box 27131
SE-102 52 Stockholm
Sweden

Museum address:

Galärvarvsvägen 14
Djurgår, Sweden
Telephone: +46 8-519 548 00

Email Booking office: bokningen.vasa@maritima.se

The museum has a gift shop, restaurant and eating area for those wishing to bring their own food.

Thought and effort has been made to make the Vasa experience accessible to all. For people who are blind or vision impaired, a touchable model of the Vasa and Braille information in Swedish, English and German are available upon request. Two wheelchairs can be borrowed to tour the museum, which has elevators to all floors. Disabled parking spaces are available outside the museum entrance.

Information regarding museum hours, films, events, tours and other topics can be found on the museum’s website.

Our visit to the Vasa Museum was made possible through the generosity of Visit Stockholm and the Vasa Museum. However, all opinions, as always, are entirely my own.

2 Comments

  • avatar image

    Penny

    Oct 15, 2016

    Reply

    Thank you, Jane. Yes, the evening was definitely one to remember.

  • avatar image

    Jane Dempster-Smith

    Oct 14, 2016

    Reply

    Great story Penny - it was an amazing night.

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