Skip to content

Skip to table of contents

The Vasa—From Disaster to Attraction

The Vasa—From Disaster to Attraction

 The Vasa—From Disaster to Attraction


AUGUST 10, 1628, was a beautiful summer day in Stockholm, the Swedish capital. People thronged the quays of the harbor as the grandiose royal warship Vasa, after three years of construction, set out on her maiden voyage to join the Swedish navy.

The Vasa was no ordinary warship. King Gustavus II Adolphus Vasa wanted her to be the mightiest in the world. Some say that he ordered a second gun deck built after he heard that the Danes were building a ship with two gun decks. He wanted the ship that carried his family name to be inferior to none.

Her departure was supposed to be a showy display of his royal power and glory. She was armed with 64 guns and adorned with more than 700 sculptures and ornaments. Her price equaled more than 5 percent of Sweden’s gross national product. This powerful war machine and floating art exhibition was probably the most glorious ship built anywhere at that time. No wonder people were cheering her on with pride as she passed the quays of Stockholm!

Disaster and Humiliation

However, the Vasa had sailed less than a mile [little more than one kilometer] when a strong gust of wind made her heel over. Water gushed in through the open gunports, and down she went. This was perhaps the shortest maiden voyage in naval history!

The spectators were stunned. The glory of the Swedish Navy was brought down, not in battle or by a violent storm on the high seas, but by a simple gust of wind in her own harbor. The death of about 50 people on board caused further consternation. Instead of being an object of national pride, the Vasa became synonymous with disappointment and disgrace.

A court was summoned to find the one responsible for the humiliating catastrophe. But no one was charged, likely because the testimony implicated both the king and the second highest commander in the Swedish navy, Vice Admiral Klas Fleming.

The king’s demands had made the builders experiment with designs unfamiliar to them. Thus, the Vasa became badly proportioned. Sometime before the capsizing, Admiral Fleming had arranged a stability test. Thirty men ran abreast from one side of the ship to the other. After three runs the admiral realized that if they continued, the ship would capsize right then. So he halted the test but did not stop the maiden voyage. With such important personalities as the king and the admiral implicated, the charges were dropped.

In 1664-65, an ex-officer of the Swedish army recovered most of the Vasa’s guns by means of a simple diving bell. The Vasa was then gradually forgotten as she sank deeper and deeper into the mire 100 feet [30 m] below the surface.

Out of the Mire

In August 1956, an amateur archaeologist, Anders Franzén, used a core sampler to bring up a piece of oak from the bottom. For years he had been examining old documents and searching the seabed looking for the Vasa. Now he  had found her. Through a delicate salvage operation, the Vasa was lifted out of the mud and carefully carried underwater in one piece to a waiting dock.

On April 24, 1961, the quays in Stockholm were again filled with cheering spectators. After 333 years at the bottom of the sea, the Vasa made her comeback—this time as a tourist attraction and a treasure for marine archaeologists. More than 25,000 artifacts revealed fascinating details about this 17th-century warship and also gave unique insight into contemporary shipbuilding and sculptured art.

Why were the Vasa and her artifacts so well preserved? Some factors were that she was new when she sank, the mud had a preserving effect, and the wood-destroying sea worm does not thrive in water with low salt content.

The Vasa had some 120 tons of ballast. Experts calculate that she needed more than twice that amount to make her stable, but she did not have the space. Also, such added weight would have brought the lower gunports closer to the water. Her appearance was glorious, but her poor balance made her destined for disaster.

Now, as the oldest preserved, complete, and fully identified ship in the world, she is safe inside her own museum. There 850,000 visitors a year get a glimpse of 17th-century royal ostentation, frozen in time by that catastrophe in 1628. It is a reminder of the folly of those in authority who, through ego and carelessness, chose to ignore sound shipbuilding practices.

[Picture on page 24]

King Gustavus II Adolphus Vasa

[Credit Line]

Foto: Nationalmuseum, Stockholm

[Pictures on page 24, 25]

After more than 300 years on the seabed, the “Vasa” is a world attraction

[Credit Line]

Genom tillmötesgående från Vasamuseet, Stockholm

[Picture Credit Line on page 25]

Målning av det kapsejsande Vasa, av konstnär Nils Stödberg