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Monday, August 13, 2007

The Vasa Sinks, August 10, 1628

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Today in 1628, the Vasa, a Swedish warship, foundered during her maiden voyage off Stockholm. Vasa was more than another cannon-carrying ship---she was the pride of a nation, built on the direct orders of a king who was mired in a war and desperately in need of a world-class navy. Today, she serves as a reminder of Sweden's ocean-going past and as a rare example of early 17th century shipbuilding.

King Gustavus Adolphus the Great was from the Royal House of Vasa, a line that had ruled Sweden since the second decade of the 1500's. Gustav Adolf, as Adolphus was known, became king in 1611, at the age of 17. His reign took place during the Thirty Year's War, a conflict in which Sweden played a part. Gustav Adolf was considered one of the greatest military leaders of his day; some consider him the greatest general of all time. As such, he understood the need for a strong navy, not just for warfare, but to showcase the glory of Sweden.

Disaster struck the Swedish Navy in 1625 when ten ships ran aground in the Bay of Riga during a violent storm; all were damaged beyond repair. The King, fighting in Poland, immediately ordered the building of four warships for quick delivery---two smaller ships, 108 feet along the keel and two larger , 136 feet. As was the custom of the day, the design specifics were left to the master shipbuilder, who was as much an artist as engineer. The ships were to be built at the naval shipyard in Stockholm by Master Shipwright Henrick Hybertson, a highly respected expert in his field.

In November, 1625, a message arrived at the shipyard, delivered by one of the King's admirals. His Majesty had decided that two of the ships needed to have keels 120 feet in length and be 24 feet long. The timbers for the keels were already present, so Hybertson reported to the king in March that his 120' ship was under construction. This would be the Vasa. Later, it would be discovered that the keel was, as in the original order, 136' long.

Hybertson died in 1627, leaving his assistant, Hein Jacobsson, in charge of the project. Jacobssen was not the manager Hybertson had been, nor was he as good a shipbuilder. Hybertson carried all his plans in his head, a common practice at that time. This meant that Jacosson was on his own in terms of finishing the Vasa.

Soon after Hybertson's death, the Navy delivered the list of armament for the Vasa. She was to bristle with 68 heavy guns and 10 smaller pieces, although on her maiden voyage she only carried 64. This would give her the heaviest broadside capability of any ship afloat at that time. In fact, it would be a generation before any ship could match her destructive power. This firepower, however, came at a price: another enclosed deck had to be added to the ship, making her top-heavy.

Fitting out the Vasa required a small army of artists, for she featured more than 500 sculptures of all types: angels, devils, gods, lions and warriors adorned her. This added still more weight to the ship. As 1627 turned to 1628, another message arrived from the King: the Vasa was to be ready for battle by July 25 of that year. If this date was not meant, those responsible would "be subject to His Majesty's disgrace." One can only imagine what fate would befall someone who fell on Gustav Adolf's bad side.

In late July, Vasa was ready to sail. Her stability had been tested by the method used at that time: several dozen sailors ran from port to starboard in an attempt to rock the ship as the builders monitored the movement from shore. Observers would later write that the ship appeared ready to roll over during this test but, amazingly, the master shipwright was not present. Vasa would go to sea, regardless of her condition. The orders of the King would be followed.

On the morning of August 10, 1628, the Vasa set sail on her only voyage with Captain Sofring Hansson at the helm. The day was calm with only a light breeze. The ship's gun ports were open, as she was set to fire a salute. Suddenly, a strong gust of wind hit the Vasa, causing her to heel quickly to port, but she recovered. The next gust was stronger and pushed the vessel so far over that seawater poured into the open ports. She heeled over further as the weight of the onrushing water pulled her down. She was less than 140 yards from shore. The exact number of crew members onboard is unknown but between 30 and 50 of them did not escape. The survivors clung to whatever debris they could find and waited for the fleet of small boats that would rescue them. All that remained visible from the mighty ship were her main and fore masts, both sticking out of the water with their flags still intact.

The inquest into the sinking of the Vasa began immediately. The captain and his officers were detained and, when questioned, revealed nothing that would point to negligence or sabotage. Jacobsson, the shipbuilder, testified that he was only acting on orders from the King, who had ultimately approved all dimensions and had even specified the number of guns.

In the end, the sinking of the Vasa was proclaimed to be an act of God; no one was punished. The King could not be punished for his actions, and the shipbuilders and armorers had acted directly or indirectly on his orders. Fifty of the ship's cannons were recovered in 1664 as they still possessed military value. The ship was was not forgotten, but 17th century technology could not raise her. It was not until April, 1961 that the Vasa saw daylight again. She was in excellent condition for having been underwater for more than three centuries, but she still required years of conservation work. Today, the ship can be found at the Vasa Museum in Stockholm. More than 25 million people have visited her, making her one of the most popular destinations in Sweden.

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