In 1628, a new Swedish war ship set sail and demonstrated exactly how not to build a war ship.
By Adam Azra'el
Photo by Jamie Morrison
In the early 1600s, a little-known glacier called Sweden suddenly (and very violently) announced that it was now in charge of everything.
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Laugh all you want, but the Swedes weren't messing around. For a little over 100 years, they pretty much were in charge, eventually controlling the entire Baltic Sea and all the land that touched it.
The problem with taking over that much land and sea that quickly is that there's really only one actual way to accomplish it: through non-stop warfare. 17th-century Sweden is considered to be one of the most militarized states in human history, a nation pouring almost all of its resources into waging war. It's one thing to grab every patch of dirt that you see; it's quite another thing to actually hold onto it and convince the people who live there that they belong to you now. The Swedes found themselves in a near-constant state of battle on both land and sea as one half-subdued nation after another stepped up to politely suggest where they could shove their fancy wooden statues.
There was also plenty of trouble on the water for the intrepid Swedes. The Baltic is a fairly hospitable environment if you're a whale, but it leaves a little to be desired if you're a human sailor and Sweden lost as many ships to the elements as it did to skirmishes with foreign navies.
All of this led king Gustavus Adolphus (1594-1632) to place an order for several new ships, one of which was named The Vasa. At 135 feet long, it was a monster of a ship, with a gun deck that sat high over the water and afforded a terrifying range to the bronze cannons which were custom-made for the ship.
The cannons themselves were a particularly important point for the king, who was anxious for a ship that would out-float and out-shoot anything else on the water. He ordered a total of 64 cannons - which he notably failed to disclose to the shipbuilders, who were more than a little surprised when they arrived in far greater number than the ship was designed to hold. But with nobody willing to tell the king that his important floaty-shooty-boat couldn't handle all the firepower he'd ordered for it, five months into the Vasa's construction a second gun deck was added to the design.
Designing a ship is a fairly intensive process; everything has to be just right so that it can displace enough water to stay afloat, sit low enough to stay stable, and carry enough cargo / people / whatever to be useful. It's a delicate balance under the best of circumstances, and adding an entire second gun deck full of bronze cannons isn't just difficult....once you've determined how long and wide the ship is going to be, it's a complete non-starter.
Nevertheless, orders are orders and the king was impatient for his new pride and joy to be launched. In 1628 a vice-Admiral was sent to observe a stability test of the Vasa; thirty men ran back and forth across the deck to start it rocking. The Admiral panicked and stopped the test after the men had completed only three trips across the deck, fearing that the gigantic ship would capsize right there. Somehow, that wasn't a big enough red flag to make everybody sit down and be honest about the wobbly death trap that the king had ordered, and construction continued unimpeded.
Construction of the Vasa was completed under a barrage of increasingly agitated letters from the king, who was in the middle of getting pretty badly thrashed in some war or another and was extremely impatient to have his new supership put to sea. On as perfect a day as Sweden could muster, the Vasa set sail on her maiden voyage with a full crew and its beautiful bronze cannons sticking out of the gunwales as thousands of citizens of Stockholm cheered it on its way....
....and then, having sailed about 1400 glorious yards, the Vasa caught a gust of wind, flopped on its side like a big violent pancake, and sank like a rock.
Word wasn't sent back to Stockholm about the disaster....there was really no need, since the behemoth warship hadn't so much as made it out of the harbor before it gave up the ghost with the entire city still watching. An army of boats descended on the site to rescue survivors, but the ship had gone down fast....30 of her crew didn't make it off and went down with her.
Naturally, the king was livid. An official investigation kicked off, during which every member of the shipbuilding team and every sailor aboard the Vasa was thoroughly questioned under oath. Embarrassingly, no scapegoat was discovered....each person questioned seemed to have done his duty to the letter, exactly as prescribed by king Gustavus Adolphus. Eager to avoid finding any fault with the king over the incident, the inquiry board eventually quietly hung the whole thing around the neck of the man who had accepted the initial contract to build the Vasa, who had died some years earlier and had never seen it finished.
After spending 333 years on the bottom of the harbor, stuck firm in mud (which actually preserved the ship beautifully) and surviving several unhappy attempts at salvage, the Vasa was raised from the depths on April 24, 1961 in an almost absurdly dangerous operation which involved tunneling through the mud at the bottom of the brackish waters of the harbor to run cables underneath her. The ship is now housed in the Vasa Museum in Stockholm, and is considered a Swedish national treasure along with being an enduring lesson in the importance of speaking truth to power.
Photo: Javier Kohen
Adam Azra'el is the producer of The Lesser Stories podcast, a multi-instrumentalist, and a colossal fan of ham and cheese sandwiches. You can find him around the internet being a general pain in everyone's backside on facebook and instagram, and he has tweeted exactly once.
- The Vasa In Numbers - Vasa Museet
- Public Radio International
- The Swedish Fiscal-Military State And Its Navy, 1521-1721 - Jan Gelt