Articles, Lecture Series, Maritime History

Vasa – 50 years on


Illustrated Lecture, (abridged) given to the Maritime Institute of Ireland, by Cormac F. Lowth, in the Stella Maris Club,Thursday, October 20th 2011.
Vasa, from port (Peter Isotalo)

Vasa, from port

2011 is the fiftieth anniversary of the successful raising of the almost intact early seventeenth- century Swedish warship Vasa from the mud at the bottom of Stockholm Harbour. It represents one of the greatest maritime archaeological recoveries ever carried out. After the salvage of the ship in 1961, it was conserved and restored and can be seen in a specially built museum where it has attracted millions of visitors over the years.

One of the first lectures that the Author attended at the Maritime Institute in 1962, dealt with the raising and conservation of the Vasa and the subsequent conservation of the ship, involving what was then the first large scale and innovative use of the chemical, polyethylene glycol, a water- soluble waxy substance that gradually replaced the water in the timbers.

A recent visit to Stockholm was the realisation of a long held ambition to see the ship.

The results of the achievement of recovering, conserving and displaying the ship is just stunning. Anders Franzen was a Swedish Engineer who devoted most of his spare time from 1945 through to the 1950s to searching for the wreck of the Vasa in Stockholm Harbour.

In 1956, his efforts were crowned with success when a probe he was using brought up sections of well preserved oak timber from a depth of thirty-two metres near the island of Beckholmen in the archipelago that makes up Stockholm’s harbour.

Vasa was one of the largest and most heavily armed warships in the world. The King himself took a particular interest in the building, and it is said that he had an inordinate influence on the final design of the ship. No expense was spared in the building, and the resources of the country were lavished upon the latest armaments and ornate carvings. Gustavus Adolphus was known as ‘The Lion of the North’ and this title is reflected in much of the carved and gilded imagery aboard the vessel.

About one thousand trees or forty acres of forest were used in the construction. The dimensions were, length – 69 metres, including the bowsprit and the elaborate false prow, beam – 11.7 metres, and a depth below the waterline – 4.8 metres. The combined thickness of the outer and inner planking and the frames amounted to about 45cm. of solid oak. There were three masts, the tallest of which measured 52.5 metres from the keel to the top truck. She displaced about 1300 tonnes. There were a total of 64 bronze guns located on three gun-decks including forty-eight 24-pounders, eight 3-pounders, two I-pounders, and six mortars. These guns represented the forefront of weapons technology of the day. There were some ominous indications of what was to come as the ship was being tested for stability.

This involved getting thirty men to run several times from one side of the ship to the other. Before the test was completed, it was abandoned because the ship was showing dangerous signs of instability, despite the large amount of stone ballast that had been placed aboard.

It is generally acknowledged that this was to be a significant factor in the sinking of the Vasa. She sank at the very beginning of her maiden voyage in 1628 in full view of the King of Sweden, Gustavus Adolphus Vasa, after whom the ship was named.

Having sailed merely about one and a half kilometres, she heeled over and sank with her sails set as water rushed in through the open gun-ports. The top-heavy configuration of the gun-decks and inadequate ballast, plus the tumblehome shape of the hull, were all contributory factors in the sinking. About fifty people are thought to have drowned.

In the immediate aftermath of the sinking there was understandable consternation and the King and his courtiers were anxious to find someone to blame for the loss. A commission of inquiry was convened on the very next day and the first to be questioned was Captain Sofring Hansson who had been arrested and detained. All of the people involved in the building and outfitting of the ship were to give evidence. Ultimately, no scapegoat was found and nobody was found guilty.

Salvage was attempted immediately, which was unsuccessful, however, most of the many bronze guns were recovered by Albrecht Von Trieleben using a small diving bell. The ship sank into the deep mud of the harbour and lay there all but forgotten until it was rediscovered by Swedish engineer Anders Franzen in 1956.

It was determined that the ship was still largely intact and the decision was taken to raise and restore the vessel using Swedish Navy divers. Tunnels were blasted under the ship and hawsers were passed to floats on either side. After several years of work underwater, that included closing off the open gun-ports, the ship was finally raised, and incredibly, floated into a small dry-dock, where conservation work began immediately.

Stern of Vasa (Peter Isotalo)

A copy of the stern of the Vasa with the magnificent carvings that were meant to impress the viewer with the power and the majesty of the state.

A temporary museum was built around the dry-dock. Conservation was achieved by the innovative use of Polyethyleneglycol, a wax-like chemical that penetrated the ships timbers and displaced the water. The ship was sprayed for several years until finally the chemical was allowed to harden, thus retaining the original shape and density of the wood. Every available scrap of timber from the Vasa was recovered from the seabed and restored to the original positions on the ship. Approximately ninety-five percent of the original material of the ship is intact. Thousands of artefacts were recovered from the ship and conserved.

Most of the ornate carvings from the ships stem were recovered and replaced, as was the three metre magnificent carved figurehead of a lion, which weighed two tonnes, the ships rudder which weighed 3.5 tonnes and a small keg of rancid butter. One of the three remaining 24 pounder guns was taken up, a process that took a whole day.

In 1989 the Vasa was once more re-floated on a pontoon and moved to a new museum site at Djugarden that was built around the dry-dock of the old Royal Naval dockyard, a few hundred metres from the place where Vasa was built and launched. The Museum was officially opened in 1990.

Today, Vasa is on display, restored to its original condition The ship can be viewed at several different levels in this magnificent new building. Many of the recovered artefacts are on view, including personal possessions, clothing of the crew, weapons, coins, games, eating uten¬sils, and everyday items of seventeenth century life. A large longboat was also recovered and is on display.

Vasa once represented the power and majesty of the Swedish state and stands today as a wonderful evocation of past history and a testament to Anders Franzen, the man who rediscovered the ship, the Museum authorities who conserved her, the Swedish government and people who undertoke such an ultimately rewarding task.

Vasa stands near another historic ship with an Irish connection, which is moored in Stockholm Harbour. This is the large steel hulled sailing ship Af Chapman, once called Dunboyne and owned by Richard Martin & Company of Dublin. Today the ship is a floating hostel.