The Swedish Titanic: The Tragedy of the Giant Ship That Went to the Bottom of the Sea on its Maiden Voyage

In the same interrogation in which he denied being drunk, the captain stated that the cause of the sinking was a small gust of wind, that is, the ship was too unstable and never had to leave the port. A breath; and goodbye to the dream of Gustavo Adolfo II

Sunday August 10, 1628 dawned with good weather in the waters near Stockholm. The wind was weak and the sky clear, so many onlookers came to the port of Blasieholmen, next to the Royal Palace, to see how the Vasa made its first crossing. After trailing the first hundred meters, the captain of the Vasa, Söfring Hansson, gave the order at the end of “Long ratchet, sail, topsail and crab!” Several sailors climbed the rigging and released four of the ten sails, while the guns fired a salute. The happy sign that the first voyage of the Vasa was beginning; the sad sign that the last journey of the Vasa was beginning. The galleon of Homeric dimensions and with a hundred crew, including women and children, covered only 1,300 meters. Then, it sank.

The Vasa intended to become the main ship of the Swedish Crown, whose emergence in the War of 30 years had amazed everyone. Backed by a profound military reform, King Gustavo Adolfo II showed Europe the virtues of his cavalry and, in the heat of the victories in Germany, he dreamed of extending his force also to the sea with the creation of a large army.

The Vasa, with 64 cannons and hundreds of sculptures adorning its stern and prow, represented the King’s pretension like no other vessel. The name of the ship referred to a beam (in Swedish “vase”), the symbol of the reigning dynasty. The ship began to be built in January 1626 and it was necessary to cut a thousand oaks so that, two years later, it was ready to enter combat.

At the exit of the bay, next to Tegelviken, the first sign that something was wrong was perceived when the Vasa began to heel much leeward. After straightening partially, in front of Beckholmen he fell sideways and the water began to enter through the embrasures. In a matter of minutes, the ship sank with the sails unfurled and the flags, as well as the sculptures vividly painted.

Admiral Erik Jönsson described how the water went into an avalanche in a few seconds and he himself “was so full of water and so bruised by the hatches” that he escaped with very little life. The Swedish admiral was dying for several days because of the wounds, but he was a lucky one compared to the fifty or so people who died inside the Vasa.

A whole flotilla of ships arrived at the moment next to the sinister ship to pick up the surviving crew members and to try to save the ship. But nothing could be done. Paradoxically, in less than a month Sweden lost two other ships of importance, each for different reasons. Admiral Klas Fleming’s flagship Kristina collided with another Swedish vessel and went adrift during a storm in Dantzig Bay. Lucky identical to that of the vessel Riksnyckeln, which ran aground and sank in the southern part of the Stockholm archipelago.

When Gustavo Adolfo II, who died three years later on the battlefield, was informed of the disaster he said that it could only be due to “the lack of judgment and recklessness” of those responsible for the construction. Immediately after the sinking Söfring Hansson, a Danish by birth, was imprisoned for questioning and to respond to accusations that the crew members were drunk and the guns were not properly lashed. According to the records preserved, Hansson defended himself as a panzarriba cat of the accusations:

– That they divide to me in a thousand pieces if all the guns were not lashed. And I swear by Almighty God that no one on board was drunk.

In the same interrogation in which he denied being drunk, the captain stated that the cause of the sinking was a small gust of wind, that is, the ship was too unstable and never had to leave port. The living work was too small compared to the hull, which did not support so much weight, the crew assured. In fact, they said that in the stability test before leaving port thirty men had been running from side to side, but at the third race decided to give up to avoid capsizing on the dock itself.

With the ball on the roof of the builders, the interrogations were transferred to the shipyards of Skeppsgarden. The shipbuilding master and the tenant were sworn under oath, as well as the designer who had died the previous year, arguing that all plans had been approved in person by the King. Nobody was found guilty of the sinking and only today can give an approximate cause.

One of the authors who has researched the most on the subject, Erling Matz, considers that the Vasa was as robust as any ship of the period and as unstable as any ship with many cannons in that period. It is not that it was badly constructed or had defective materials, it was only badly designed. Without precise mathematical calculations of stability, it ended up constructing a ship incompatible in its size with such a high number of heavy guns. A simple blow of wind ruined what was an experimental design.

Since the King himself was responsible for such an innovative design, which obliged him to add one more bridge and another double row of cannons to increase his capacity for fire, it is not difficult to understand why he gave up looking for guilty parties. The excessive ambition of Gustavo Adolfo could see in the sinking of the Vasa the first sign that his magnificent military adventure was nearing its end and that the Swedish universal empire could not be.

Already in the seventeenth century it was tried to remove the Vasa from the bottom of the sea, although it was soon discovered that it weighed more than the technology of the time could withstand. The widths and the anchors were useless … It was necessary that the German Andreas Peckell offered to take out the cannons with a tool called a diving bell when several decades had passed since the sinking. The bell, which formed an air pocket to breathe underwater for about 30 minutes, allowed the team to rescue more than 50 guns between 1664 and 1665.

Without further practical value, the wreck remained at the bottom of the sea forgotten for more than 300 years. All this until the 38-year-old engineer Anders Franzén, found him in 1956. This expert in Swedish naval warfare spent several years looking for the ship and fishing with dredges and homemade probes, especially rusty pans and dead cats from the bottom of the sea. At last, on August 25, 1956, he caught a piece of blackened oak that, after immersion, confirmed the location of the Vasa.

After discarding different proposals to get it afloat, among them filling the winery with ping pong balls or freezing it first, the archaeologists opted for a conventional and very laborious operation (it took six years) applying thick cables under the helmet to drag the remains to a shallower area.

Few believed that the ship would hold the rescue work in one piece. But he did. Once caulked, reinforced the hull and plugged thousands of holes with small tacos, was able to get it afloat on April 14, 1961 before the press and television around the world.

The remains of the Vasa were immediately given special treatment to prevent the wood from cracking and shrinking with the hot, dry air from the surface, if there is any of that in Stockholm. The use of special liquids made it possible to assemble the ship piece by piece and that still today it is conserved – in a museum in Stockholm that bears the name of the ship – as if it had never sunk. Not in vain, its good state of conservation was due both to the low salinity of the water and to that it was sunk in the mud, in an area of ​​very low temperatures. Besides, the Baltic waters do not have a bivalve mollusk called Teredo navalis that destroys wood in other seas. All these factors make the Vasa the best-preserved boat of all that can be visited today.

Current status of the sunken ship in the 17th century

The only memory that the ship remained centuries sunk is in the total lack of colors. And is that the Vasa was conceived as a picturesque and striking ship of sculptures painted red, green, yellow and violet. Modern research has made it possible to find out the color occupied by each corner of the sculptures through microscopic fragments of the painting originally used.


Source: ABC History