The Vasa is the world’s most important marine salvage bar none. She is the only almost fully intact 17th century ship existing in the world today. This makes her incredibly unique, especially when you learn that when these ships were built, they had a life expectancy of just 30 years.
So how is it that we can see this ship some 390 years after her launch?
Sadly for those involved at the time, including the 30-50 people who lost their lives, the 64-gun warship sank on her maiden voyage at 4pm on 10 August 1628 having traveled just 1,300 metres down the Stockholm harbour.
Salvaged in 1961, 333 years after her sinking, the Vasa rose to become world’s most significant historic marine artifact, as well as a momentous archaeological find.
Her resurfacing allowed marine experts an unprecedented look into the reasons for her demise. It also provided an opportunity for modern-day archaeologists to study the population from the 16th century including what they ate, their health and ailments.
Fifteen significant skeletons were found, some were still clothed and one sailor even had his shoes on. The brackish water helped to preserve the bodies and even the brain of one person was intact. The remains of these people are visible in the museum, complete with clothing and known facts on each person. Look carefully at the photo on the left, you can see the shoes still attached to the feet. On the right are the skeletons meticulously laid out. Unfortunately the naming of these people has not been possible, although it is interesting to learn that DNA testing has started. Could you imagine being told this is a relative of yours, after all these years?
Here are some stats about Vasa.
- Built by Dutch brothers Henrik and Arendt Hybertsson and constructed strictly according to the plans at the time. Unfortunately, there are no surviving blueprints for us to view today.
- She sank after sailing just 20-30 minutes when a gust of wind heeled her over, allowing water to pour into the open gun ports and she couldn’t right herself.
- She was built tall at 52 metres high, 69 metres long, 12 metres wide and weighed 1,300 tons. Back then there were no mathematical calculations to determine her stability. Clearly, she was built too narrow with insufficient counterweight below the waterline to keep her upright.
- She carried 64 cannons, each weighing more than one ton.
- There were between 135-200 people on board and she was on her way to pick up about 300 soldiers. Their lives were spared.
- Of the 64 cannons, only three originals remain today and are in the museum, having been preserved due to the brackish water of the Baltic Sea. With a cost of €25,000 each in today’s dollars, it’s no wonder that the others were salvaged back in 1660 and it is expected were used in future war vessels.
- Vasa is reportedly the most visited museum in Scandinavia.
Who found Vasa?
So the question remains, how was she first found and then salvaged? It’s an interesting story and part of the story about her future is still being written. Let me explain.
An explorer by the name of Anders Franzén recovered a core sample of wood from the suspected wreck site, and it was Per Edvin Fälting and Sven Persson who confirmed on 4 September 1956 that the small plugs of wood came from a ship. Further dives confirmed the identity as the Vasa.
Armed with the knowledge of the ship’s history and the divers’ reports, Franzén threw himself into building the coalition of institutions that could raise and restore the ship for the museum he envisioned. The task would require technical expertise of many kinds, from diving and salvage to preservation. It needed historical and archaeological knowledge of the early 17th century. Most of all, it would require money, manpower and heavy equipment.
Known by some people as Sweden’s Apollo Program, the dramatic and complex technical effort took several years to do something few thought possible: raise an intact 17th-century warship from the bottom of the sea.
How was Vasa Raised?
The first attempt at raising Vasa failed as they could not lift her from the top as she was too heavy and it started to inflict too much damage. The first salvage attempt was in the 1950’s, but she didn’t resurface until 1961 when technology had improved.
Between 1957 and 1959, navy divers dug six tunnels under Vasa and pulled massive steel cables through them to suspend the ship in a basket. These cables were taken to two floating pontoons at the surface. By pumping the pontoons almost full of water, then tightening the cables and pumping the water back out, Vasa could be broken free of the mud and was eventually lifted and moved into shallower water.
As the divers dug with high-pressure waterjets and dredges, they encountered a fascinating array of finds that had fallen off the ship, from rigging hardware to gunport lids, and the first of more than seven hundred finely carved sculptures. They also found the mainmast lying next to the ship, and the ship’s longboat.
One of the first things to be raised, on 5 September 1958, was a cannon.
What was involved in the Salvage?
For more than 18 months, a small team of commercial divers plugged holes where bolts had rusted away, fitted covers over the open gunports, and rebuilt the bow and stern to make them watertight. Steel rods were fastened across the hull to help hold it together. It was also important to make the ship lighter. The central part of the upper gun deck, which was covered with mud and debris, was cleared. More than a thousand objects were found: coins, personal belongings, gun carriages, tools and the bones of five of the people who had been on board when the Vasa sank.
Thousands of tons of mud and water had to be pumped out of the hull to refloat her and the ship had to be moved onto a pontoon of its own, where it could be excavated and conserved. Archaeologists had to come onboard to excavate the interior, and conservators had to begin the arduous process of treating the ship so she would not shrink and crack. Divers would spend five more years recovering thousands of loose pieces from the beakhead, sterncastle and upper deck, which lay around the hull where the ship had been, together with the ship’s longboat and anchors.
Finally, in April 1961 Vasa came to life once more.
The ship was raised and placed on a reinforced concrete pontoon and supported by temporary shoring struts. Excavation of the interior took place from May to September 1961, raising over 40,000 separate objects of different materials. All the while, the hull was sprayed with harbour water to prevent the wood from drying out.
When waterlogged wood is allowed to dry out without treatment, severe cracking and shrinkage can occur. The wood may look sound, but the wood cells are weakened by bacterial decay. Conservators chose the synthetic polymer polyethylene glycol (PEG) to treat Vasa’s wood. PEG is a synthetic wax that is soluble in water; it is a common component in cosmetics, such as lipsticks and face creams, and is widely used in the pharmacy and food industries.
Experiments showed that a PEG solution could diffuse into the wood structure to replace the water, and prevent cracking and shrinking.
PEG spraying began in April 1962. Initially, the work was carried out by hand which was time-consuming and not very efficient. It took five men five hours to spray the entire surface of the ship. More efficient spraying was achieved in 1965, when an automatic spray system was installed, with 500 spray nozzles directed over the inside and outside of the ship. The PEG concentration was gradually increased from a low concentration of 10% and ending up with a 45% solution.
Boron salts were added initially to prevent micro-organism growth but later also to neutralise acids.
The spray treatment lasted 17 years, from April 1962 to January 1979, followed by another 9 years of slow air-drying. A final surface layer of PEG 4000 was applied as physical protection to the ship and melted into the surface with hot-air blowers.
The photo below shows the effect of shipworms that eat wood submerged in saltwater. Thankfully the Vasa was sitting in brackish, low salinity water, where the worms can’t survive.
Vasa’s conservation began as a huge experiment but the pioneering research by Vasa’s conservators have paved the way for numerous other shipwreck projects around the world.
Work and studies continue on Vasa even today and the replacement of the 5,000 bolts with stainless steel ones is an ongoing process.
Below are remains of the sails, found in the sail locker. Read the plaque below in yellow to find out how the sails were preserved and how long it took.
Will Vasa survive another 100 years?
This is an interesting question. One thing that struck me upon entering the museum was just how dark it was. I tried to take a video but the lighting didn’t allow this to be successful.
We learned that in a dark, cold room without oxygen Vasa could be preserved forever. However, then she wouldn’t be a gift for us to ogle over.
Projects are currently underway to provide a better understanding of the chemical and biological processes in Vasa’s wood. The goal is to be able to preserve the ship far into the future.
So to answer the question above, no one knows today how long Vasa will survive.
Vasa stands as the world’s largest jigsaw puzzle and is 98% original in her current state. After more than five hours of visiting we were still learning about this historic vessel.
If this story has interested you, or you are a marine enthusiast, I suggest you add a visit to Stockholm on your bucket list. This is without question the most profoundly interesting museum I have ever visited, and I have been to countless.