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The Royal Ship Vasa

The swedish Navy.
The building of the Vasa.
The crew.
The capsizing of the Vasa.
Why did the Vasa capsize ?
The salvaging and the restoration of the Vasa.
What was found on board ?
The Vasa - facts and figures.
The decks of the Vasa.
What about the Vasa´s exterior ?

The sculptures of the Vasa - next page.


The swedish Navy.

In the 1620;s Sweden underwent a rapid transformation as society was modernized in many ways. Along with advances in state administration and increased commerce the need to improve the country´s armed forces was evident. This was essential if Sweden wanted to play a major roll in Europe. The army was reorganized and made more efficient with smaller units using light artillery. The new army proved itself successfull in combat in Poland and Germany later on.

The navy was modernized by building a number of large heavily armed warships. An effective navy was absolutely vital in order for Sweden to protect the newly won baltic ports. The warships were also used for troop transportation and for blockade operations. Around 1620 the swedish navy consisted of around one hundred small, lightly armed and aged vessels. It was vice-admiral Klas Fleming who was the foremost advocate of a modernized navy. The modernization of the navy began in 1620 and by 1625 about 25 new ships had been built. The navy also purchased ships from Holland. Unfortunately 14 ships were lost between 1620-25, mainly to storms.

About naval battle at the time.

The cannons carried by war ships of this age had a limited range of about 1500 meters. Because of this enemy fleets had to engage each other at very close range. Also the accuracy of the guns was poor. The ships at the time weren't much good at beating against the wind. A fleet of war ships was at a great advantage if it were on the windward side and had the enemy to leeward. If a fleet had this advantage at the beginning of a sea battle, it could win even if the enemy outnumbered them. Using the larger cannons, it was common to target the enemies masts to lessen their manoeuvrability. It was also common to target the enemy ships' water-line. After an exchange of broadsides with the larger cannons, an attempt was made to board the enemy ship. Just before boarding the ship, enemy soldiers on deck and rig were fired upon with pistols and light artillery. If the attempt to board the ship using grappling-irons failed, one had to try to blast the ship with cannons, aiming at the water-line, until it sank.When you study the Vasa with her numerous heavy guns, it becomes apparent that the strategy at this time was shifting towards ranged attacks with heavy cannons to undo the enemy ships.

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The building of the Vasa.

In 1625 the Crown signed a contract to build four warships, two larger and two smaller ships. The contract was signed with the dutch shipbuilder Henrik Hybertsson and his brother who both lived in Stockholm. The two Dutchmen ran a shipbuilding operation on a contract basis at the Royal Shipyard in Stockholm. The ships were to be built within four years. Holland was the greatest shipbuilding nation of the time. The Royal Shipyard was a large industry for its time, three hundred people worked there. The two larger ships were the Vasa and the Tre Kronor(Three Crowns).

The Vasa was named after the ruling Vasa dynasty. To be precise she was named after the heraldic emblem of the Vasa dynasty. The emblem was a sheaf of corn. These two ships belonged to a category called Royal Ship(in swedish Regalskepp). These were the largest warships in the navy. They were usually named after royal regalia, the Sword, the Crown etc. By 1628, the year of Vasa´s completion, there were eight large warships and 21 middle-sized ships in the navy.


Launching the Vasa

Early launching

The Vasa was built with oak from the Crown´s oak forests. These trees were protected by law. Approximately one thousand oaks were felled to build the ship. The timber was floated in the summer and drawn by horses in the winter across the ice to the shipyard. They didn´t have proper drawings in the early 17th century, instead they made some rough calculations of the ship´s dimensions, a so called 'reckonings'. The reckonings were often kept secret.

The Vasa´s hull was first built on a stocks, with the prow facing towards the water. As soon as the bottom and the sides of the hull were planked and the ship was able to float, she was launched into the water and construction was thereafter completed. The reason for this was weight. It would have been very difficult to launch a heavy ship built of oak later on.

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The crew.

The warships in the navy returned to port around september/october and remained there until april/may. Before setting sail again in the spring the ships needed to be looked over. They were tarred, careened(keeled over), painted and rigged. Then the artillery and ammunition were taken on board. Finally provisions were loaded and the ship was ready to sail. The provisions were meant to last for two or three months. Needless to say, life in the navy was very harsh. The crew was read the rules to be followed on board by an officer before embarkation. Failure to obey the rules often resulted in severe punishment.

The crew slept beside the cannons on the gun decks, and on the lower deck. They slept in their clothes directly on the deck planks. There were no blankets or mattresses. The hammock had not yet been developed. It entered service in 1676. The sailors sewed their own clothing. The food on board was mainly bread, grain, peas, dried meat and fish. They swallowed it down with beer. There were three different kinds of beer on board. The best kind was reserved for the high ranking officers, the second best beer was for the lesser officers while the main crew drank a simple watery kind of beer. Because of the poor food, the cold and lack of hygiene on board, diseases frequently raged in the navy. A barber-surgeon was responsible for medical care and haircutting.

The captain of the Vasa was Söfring Hansson. To assist him there were two sub-lieutenants. Then followed a number of lesser officers, non-commissioned officers. The mates were in charge of navigation, the skipper helped steer the ship. A bombardier was responsible for the artillery. There were two mates, two skippers and one bombardier on the Vasa. There were also about 90 sailors and 20 special soldiers who fired the cannons. On board was also one cook. Three hundred soldiers were to be taken on board later on, but luckily Vasa capsized before they embarked.

Some examples of the punishments the crew received in the navy include: If you said you didn´t like the food the punishment administered was to live on bread and water for 10 days. If you refused to obey a direct order you were keelhauled. If it happened again they shot you. If you were to blaspheme the name of God you were shot. Other cruel punishments were having to run the gauntlet and maiming.

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The capsizing of the Vasa.

In august 1628 the Vasa capsized on her maiden voyage. She had set sail from the Royal Castle at 3 pm steering eastward toward the archipelago of Stockholm. She fired a "swedish charge", a two-gun salute. A gust of wind from the south caused her to heel somewhat, nothing alarming in that though. The Vasa soon came inte more open water and the wind increased in force. Suddenly a few gusts of wind made her heel alarmingly to port and water began pouring through the lower gunports. Efforts by the crew to right her failed and the Vasa rapidly sank to a depth of 30 meters.

The water was clear back then and one could actually see glimpses of the Vasa as she lay on the seabed. She sank just off the tiny island of Beckholmen, a very brief voyage indeed. It has been estimated that the ship would have capsized had the breeze only been 4 meters per second! The Vasa carried a crew of 200, about 50 of them drowned. Of course the disaster was considered a bad omen for the nation. People were very superstitious back then.

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Why did the Vasa capsize ?

What caused this national disaster ? The Vasa was known to have been crank and she didn´t carry enough ballast, there wasn´t room enough. Also the lower gunports were dangerously close to the water-line. The ship was top-heavy and hadn´t passed lurch tests earlier. Lurch tests were carried out by letting 30 men run from side to side causing the ship to roll. Time was short though and the King, off in Poland at the time, ordered that the Vasa should set sail anyway. She was to help in a blockade operation.

After the disaster an investigation was made to find out why the Vasa had capsized, why she had been so poorly constructed. Nobody was held responsible for her sinking in the end. The king Gustav II Adolf had a part in the disaster. He had forced the shipbuilders to enlarge the Vasa so she could carry two gun decks. He gave this order early during Vasa's construction, but it still wasn't possible to build the Vasa with two gun decks and make her seaworthy. The shipbuilder had only had a single gun deck in mind.

The shipbuilder would have needed to completely rebuild the ship. There had been news about a new danish warship with two gun decks. Gustav II Adolf wanted a ship to match it. However, the king was in Poland when the Vasa set sail and it was vice-admiral Klas Fleming who allowed her to set sail. He knew about the problems with Vasa´s seaworthiness. He must have felt that the King wanted the Vasa to enter service as soon as possible, and disregarded the problems.

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The salvaging and the restoration of the Vasa.

News of the disaster spread rapidly and only three days later an englishman by the name of Ian Bulmer appeared in Stockholm and made an attempt to raise her. He wasn´t successfull but he did manage to move her so that the ship lay more upright. That was no mean feat considering the Vasa´s great weight. The artillery alone weighed about 80 tons. To this day nobody knows how Bulmer accomplished this. There is a possibilty that the Vasa "did this herself" over the years. When the Vasa was raised in 1961 it was pointed out that the fact that she lay upright tucked into the sea-bed made the work much easier.

Several more attempts to raise the ship were made but they lacked the equipment needed. Finally the diving-bell was invented and two Swedes used it to recover most of the bronze guns aboard the ship. Their names were Hans Albrecht von Treileben and Andreas Peckell. The work took place between 1663-64. Their recovery of the guns was documented by the italian priest and explorer Francesco Negri. He was staying in Stockholm at the time and he wrote that the diving-bell used was about 1.25 meters high and that it resembled a church bell. Negri also tells how the diver worked. He stood on a led plate inside the diving-bell. He wore warm clothes made of skin. His main tool was a long wooden pole with an iron hook on one end. The diver also brought rope with him which he tied around the gun. The bronze guns saved from the depths were worth a considerable sum and were sold to Germany.

Fishing for guns

Fishing for guns

After the guns had been recovered, the wreck slowly faded out of memory. The Vasa´s mainmast was visible above the water-line for about 100 years, but snapped at long last. The exact location of the Vasa was thereafter forgotten. The Vasa was finally raised in the late summer of 1961. Anders Franzén, an amateur marine archaeologist, had found the Vasa in 1956. Divers reported that the hull was intact and plans were made to raise her. Normally old ships are destroyed by the ship worm. Fortunately where the Vasa lay in Stockholm´s harbour the water is brackish. The ship worm can´t live in brackish water so the Vasa was in quite good shape.


Diver flushing tunnel beneath Vasa
Drawing: Bengt Wallén

The raising was a cooperation between the navy and the privately owned 'Neptunbolaget'. The dives were led by Per Edvin Fälting. Divers from the navy made six tunnels beneath the hull and pulled cables through them. This was very dangerous work! The Vasa was then raised to the surface using two special pontoons capable of lifting extremely heavy loads. Their names were Oden and Frigg. Before the Vasa hit the surface the hull had to be sealed. It was covered with holes after the long gone iron bolts. The holes (around 5000!) were plugged so that the Vasa could float without the help of Oden and Frigg.






On a pontoon a few months after the raising
On a pontoon

The hull contained a great deal of mud, some of it had to be removed immediately. A team of archaeologists made a preliminary search through the mud uncovering many items. After this the ship was towed into drydock and the task of emptying the hulls contents of mud were continued. Archaeologists found about 2000 items all in all. The Vasa was then placed on a concrete pontoon and an aluminum construction was built over it as a temporary means of storage. Finally the ship was towed to the 'Wasavarvet'. The year was 1961.

The second phase of work with the Vasa now commenced, the conservation and restauration of the ship. To prevent the oak wood of the hull from shrinking and cracking, the Vasa was sprinkled with a special chemical solution on a regular basis. This chemical solution, known as polyethylene glycol or 'PEG', had earlier proved itself successfull in preserving wood. PEG is an oil product found in lipstick. Boric acid and borax were added to prevent rot. This work of preservation continued for 18 years. In 1965 an automatic sprinkler system was arranged. All the loose wooden parts were placed in twenty meter long basins for treatment. Some small and fragile objects, such as spoons and bottles, were freeze-dried instead.

Between 1963-67 divers carefully searched the sea-bed where the Vasa had lain. They were able to find several thousand bits and pieces belonging to the wreck. Among the objects were a large number of sculptures which had fallen off the ship soon after her sinking. All of these pieces were kept in large basins for preservation. The sculptures that fell off the Vasa when the nails rusted were soon buried in mud. These sculptures were therefore remarkably well preserved in many cases, protected by their mud encasing. Water-currents have damaged the sculptures that remained fastened to the ship. Luckily some very important parts of the Vasa such as the foreship and the so-called 'aftercastle' on the stern had fallen off the ship at an early stage.

It was decided that the Vasa was to be restored to her original condition as far as possible. It was also stated that the ship and the sculptures would not be repainted. That would have meant "falsification" of the Vasa. Instead the foreship with its beak-head, the aftercastle and the sculptures were reassembled and replaced on the Vasa. Most of the original pieces of wood were found, so not many parts needed to be reproduced to substitute the missing ones. This work took a long time of course and one understands why the Vasa has been called 'the largest puzzle in the world'.

In 1990 the reconstruction and preservation-work were complete and she was moved from the temporary Vasa Museum at Wasavarvet(The Vasa Dockyard) to a new beautiful museum that could finally do the ship justice, and also maintain the right temperature and humidity. The Vasa Museum located on the island of Djurgården is Stockholm´s main tourist attraction. The Vasa of today is the most well-preserved 17th century ship in the world.

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The Vasa of today
The Vasa in her museum


What was found on board ?

One of the most interesting finds was the discovery of twenty skeletons. They were analyzed and, not surprisingly, proved that they had lived a life of hardship. One astonishing find was the remains of six sails. It was possible to piece them back together again. These sails are the only 17th century sails to have made it into our time. A number of objects belonging to the crew were discovered. Cutlery , pieces of clothing, seaman´s chests, tools, combs and a pewter mug were found. They even found a backgammon. On board the Vasa was a barber-surgeon. The barber-surgeon cut hair and was also the medic on board.

In a wooden tub the equipment of the barber-surgeon was found. The tub contained a grater, a stone jar and a wooden mortar to grind herbs with. Located approximately in the middle of the ship far down in the hold was the cook´s galley. A large iron pot(180 liters) was found there. On the lower decks beneath the two gun decks, the remains of about 100 barrels were found. Bones belonging to sheep, oxen and pigs were discovered. The meat had been heavily salted so it would not rot. The salt explains why so much beer was consumed in the navy.

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Facts and figures.

The Vasa was heavily armed with a total of 64 guns. 48 of these were large 24-pounders. The armament of the Vasa weighed 80 tons. The cannonballs for the 24-pounders weighed about 10 kilos each. These guns were very valuable and, as mentioned, were salvaged in the late 17th century. Only 3 of the large 24-pounders remained on board when the ship was raised. This was probably fortunate, the 80 ton weight of the guns could have damaged the ship had they remained there until 1961.

A few figures:

Weight of the hull: 1200 tons
Weight of ballast: 120 tons
Total length including the bow-sprit: 69 meters
Greatest width: 11,7 meters
Height from keel to the top of the mainmast: 52,5 meters
Draught: about 5 meters
Number of sails: 10 
The three largest masts: The mizzen-mast in the aft,
the mainmast midships and the foremast in the stern.

A picture of the Vasa showing her decks, text in swedish(read the text below instead).

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The decks of the Vasa starting from the hold

The hold was located under the orlop deck. It was not a deck really, but a storage. As deep down in the ship you could go, this was where the ballast was placed to balance the ship. The ballast was granite. The cook´s galley was placed here and some supplies were stored here. Fresh water, beer and meat. The powder-magazine was located here, at a safe distance from the galley.

Picture of gun deck

The orlop deck, the lower deck, was above the hold. This is where the sails and ropes were kept. Some food was stored here as well. Bread and peas for instance. The barber-surgeon worked on this deck.

Upper and lower gun deck were of course where the large 24 pounder guns were located. 52 of them were placed on these two decks. They were capable of firing 10 rounds an hour at most. The anchor gear was on the lower gun deck. The crew would have slept here between the guns directly on deck.

The Upper deck finally was the top deck. It was covered in some areas with small holes to allow daylight and fresh air to reach the decks below. The deck just below the upper deck was the upper gun deck. In the aft were the main cabins. The pilothouse was where the steersman steered the ship. It was located in front of the main cabin in the aft. The steersman used a long pole that was connected to the rudder to steer the Vasa.

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The Vasa´s exterior.

On the aft of the Vasa is the 20 meter high aftercastle, perhaps the most striking feature of the ship. The aftercastle was in fact a sort of building aboard the Vasa. Is is here that the majority of the ship´s sculptures are to be found. The aftercastle rises about eight meters above the upper deck, counting from midships. No wonder it catches your attention. Several important cabins are located there, the main cabin is where the commanding admiral had his quarters. It was the most magnificent room on the ship, adorned with small sculptures and decorative carving all of which were painted. It even had glass windows. Councils were held in the main cabin. The main cabin is on the same level as the upper gun deck. The pilothouse, as mentioned, is just in front of the main cabin. Above the main cabin is another smaller cabin. This is the captain´s cabin. It is on the same level as the upper deck. Here is a painting of the port side of the aftercastle.

Stretching around the aftercastle on both sides of the Vasa and on the stern are twin balconies, a small balcony being located just above a larger one. These are in fact double galleries. Galleries were a common construction but the double galleries of the Vasa were unique to her. Other Royal Ships only had one gallery on each side. When located on a ship´s side a gallery is called 'quarter gallery'. The upper quarter gallery, the smallest, is on the same level as the captain´s cabin and the lower quarter gallery is on the same level as the main cabin. There were doorways connecting the cabins with the galleries. Openings in the galleries allowed soldiers to fire their muskets at the enemy. Just like the rest of the aftercastle, the galleries were heavily adorned with sculptures.

A picture of one of the upper quarter galleries.
A painting of the double quarter galleries. The galleries and the rest of the aftercastle were not painted blue as the painting shows, they were painted red. The sculptures and other decorative ornamentations were painted and in some cases gilded. See next page for details.

An interesting fact about the galleries is that they in fact were a bit of a "curiosity" from earlier days when the battle tactic for warships was solely to engage in close combat and attempt to board the enemy. This was still a valid tactic at the time, but increased fire-power of the artillery meant that the ship relied on her guns more to undo the enemy at range.

Moving forward to the sides of the Vasa, the gunports are a dominant feature. Painted on them are lion masks which were supposed to intimidate the enemy. The masks are painted on the inside of the gunports and revealed themselves when the gunports were opened.

On the stem of the Vasa is a peculiar structure known as the beak-head. This structure greatly lengthens the ship´s prow. Its main function was decorative. The beak-head ´s dominant sculpture is the figurehead, a great lion. The lion is poised, ready to spring at the enemy. Later generations of war ships had the beak-head structure reduced in size. Here is a painting of the beak-head.

The crew used the beak-head in a very practical manner, as a toilet. There were several holes in the beak-head for this purpose. A large number of sculptures are located here as well, though not nearly as many as on the aftercastle.

Next Page - the sculptures

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