Shipbuilding at its worst - The death birth of the Swedish galleon "Vasa" in 1628

10 August 1628, the Swedish galleon “Vasa” sank on her maiden voyage, just twenty minutes after she put out to sea in Stockholm harbour.

“Then rose from sea to sky the wild farewell— / Then shriek'd the timid, and stood still the brave, /Then some leap'd overboard with fearful yell, / As eager to anticipate their grave.” (Lord Byron, “Don Juan”)

 A 20th century illustration of “Vasa’s” sinking found on:

The sun went down at noon, the Polish used to say after the Swedish galleon “Solen”, Sun, exploded off Gdańsk at the climax of the Battle of Oliwa in 1627. The Polish victory at the mouth of the river Vistula over the Swedish blockading squadron with the Northerners’ long naval tradition dating back to the Dark Ages came as a bit of a surprise. King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden was in a tight spot. The “Lion of Midnight”, Champion of the Protestant cause and leader of the hegemonic power fighting the Catholic Imperials on the continent in the Thirty Years’ War, depended on his lifelines across the Baltic Sea back home to Sweden. On top of it, the other major power in the region, the arch Catholic Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, threatened the Swedish beachhead on the European mainland in Mecklenburg, the king’s foothold among the Protestants of Polish Eastern Prussia. Thus, Gustavus Adolphus needed warships, large, powerful warships to gain the upper hand at sea. The keels of two large war galleons, “Vasa” and “Äpplet”, had already been laid in 1626 and when “Vasa” was launched Gustavus Adolphus declared a change of plans.

A contemporary depiction of the Battle of  Oliwa with "Solen" exploding to the left

The King wanted his war galleons armed with more and bigger guns to show the Poles what’s what and what followed became an object lesson in how a project goes down the drain. The “Vasa” already had been changed from a single decked vessel into a new concept with two gun decks during the first steps of the construction phase, when Gustavis Adolphus learned of similar designs planned by the Danes, yet another rival. Cramming even more ordnance into her without risking her seaworthiness was something the contracted Dutch shipbuilder Hendrik Hybertszoon couldn’t manage within the projected timeframe for “Vasa’s” completion. A redesign was out of the question, the king wanted her off the mouth of the Vistula, aweing the Poles and disrupting trade as soon as possible, thus, the major design flaw of every multi-decked warship during the Age of Sail was implemented. The vessel had not only far too less beam and was top-heavy but couldn’t actually open her lower gun ports in anything but calm seas without the risk of flooding her.

The bow of the salvaged "Vasa" in her Stockholm museum

When “Vasa’s” fitting out was completed, a test was made with 30 men running from side to side (38 ft) and had to be broken off, because the ship began to sway too heavily, even while she lay in her moorings. Crewed with 437 men, women and children, she sailed nonetheless. A first gust on an otherwise calm day let her heel dangerously to port already, then her captain, Söfring Hansson, ordered the customary gun salute, another gust made her list to port again and with her gun ports open, water predictably entered her lower deck, she quickly filled up and sank under the eyes of local and foreign dignitaries and the assembled crowd, claiming the life of 30 to 50 of her crew. The following inquest finally could lay the blame on nobody else but the king’s orders that had been followed to the letter and the reply on Gustavus Adolphus’ angry inquests about who was to blame for the disaster was: “Only God knows”.The masts of “Vasa’s” wreck that still reared up in Stockholm’s harbour entrance were finally cut, her expensive artillery was salvaged and she was forgotten until the amateur archaeologist Anders Franzén located her again, she was raised in 1959 and put into a sophisticated process of conservation for almost 30 years until she was finally put on exhibition in Stockholm’s “Vasa Museum” in 1990 and has been visited by 29 million people so far.