VASA: A SWEDISH WARSHIP by Fred Hocker

Two months ago my wife I found ourselves in Stockholm, Sweden. During our time in the city we visited one of the most extraordinary museums we have ever experienced, the Vasa Museum. Housed inside this enormous structure was a Swedish ship, the Vasa that was built under the reign of Gustavas Adolphus in the 1620s. The ship had a very short lifespan, despite the fact that it was commissioned by the Swedish monarch to fill the role as the jewel of the Swedish navy during the Thirty Year’s War. For the king the ship “would be a new milestone in his and the country’s journey from the European backwoods to the forefront of the international stage. (47)

Expectations were high on August 10, 1628 when the Vasa was launched. However after sailing about one nautical mile it heeled too far to the port side and sank as water filled the gunports below. I was fascinated by the history of the ship and how it was built and was amazed that after 300 years underwater it could be salvaged and become the focus of such a wonder museum. As a committed “bookaholic” I went to the museum shop and found what I was looking for, a history of the entire project, both past and present in Fred Hocker’s VASA: A SWEDISH WARSHIP.

Mr. Hocker begins his narrative by providing insights into the imperial rivalries of the 17th century that culminated in the Thirty Year’s War (1618-1648). I was surprised to learn that at that time Sweden controlled Lithuania and Finland and their main rival, Denmark controlled Norway, Skane (the site of Henning Mankell’s mystery series!), and Gotland. The author provides a detailed discussion as to how the Vasa was built including copies of the contracts, ledger entries, and a breakdown of all materials purchased to create such an imposing structure. What was amazing to me was that “trees had to be selected carefully, so the natural curves would suit the eventual shape of the timber as close as possible.” (42) Oak trees were chosen by the “Forest Master” for the ship’s hull, and pine for the decks. Over 1000 trees were needed to build the ship, but thousands more were used for fuel to create the necessary bolts, nails, and anchors.

The Vasa was Gustavas Adolphus’ plan to develop a navy strong enough to make the Baltic a “Swedish lake.” The Vasa was a multi-cultural project as is exemplified by the ethnic heritage of those who built her, i.e., Swedes, Danes, Dutch, German and English. The ships name, carvings, and color reflect the glory of the king and its subjects represented throughout the ship leads one to Ancient Rome and highlights the Renaissance influence in Northern Europe. Meticulous detail is evident on each carving and sculpture putting forth its own message and all were painted with colorful pigments. Hocker does a wonderful job explaining the types of sails the ship employed and other technical aspects of how the ship would be powered, steered and set on its proper course.
The author ‘s description of all aspects of life on board allows the reader to imagine that they were present for the first voyage. Whether a discussion of the crew’s clothing, living quarters, the food they ingested, health issues and a myriad of other details one gets the feeling that the clock has been turned back to 1628 and you are on deck as the Vasa is plowing the water of the Baltic Sea.

The tragic sinking of the Vasa in August, 1628 resulted in 30 deaths including women and children. The major reason for the calamity was that the decks were overbuilt and its reinforcing timbers created a poor weight distribution. The hull itself was too heavily built above the waterline and the underwater portion of the ship was to small for the amount of hull above the waterline. In simple terms, the gun decks were farther above the waterline than necessary. An immediate inquest was summoned and it concluded that the admiralty actually knew in advance that the ships design was flawed. The result was that the ship was too narrow at the bottom and it should have been built wider and deeper. No one was personally blamed, but the Captain and others “lacked the courage to tell the king that his glorious ship, named for his family was an accident waiting to happen.” (141) The significance of the Vasa was that it had a major impact on future naval construction as Hocker points out that “her loss was tragic but necessary element in building up the knowledge needed for the development of the ship of the line, the pinnacle of naval technology for nearly two centuries.” (155)

Hocker describes numerous attempts to raise the the ship over the next half century, but all ended in failure though they did recover 61 out of the 64 cannons, most of which were sold as salvage to the Danes who then would use them against Sweden in the Scanian War of the 1770s! The Vasa would remain under water until it was rediscovered by a diver, Per Edvin Falting on September 4, 1956. During the next five years preparations were made to salvage the Vasa and bring her to the surface. Employing the latest technology the Swedish navy and many private companies worked to float the ship on pontoons to recover her. On April 4, 1961 the Vasa broke the surface and ten days later she was completely afloat. The author provides the engineering details with diagrams to supplement the text so even the “nautical novice” would understand the complexity of the task. Experienced Archaeologists were brought in to excavate the Vasa and over 30,000 artifacts ranging from human skeltons, tools, guns, and other equipment were studied. These artifacts have given us a very accurate picture of what life was like during 17th century Sweden. Once the Vasa was floated the decision was made to preserve her and build a museum to house the ship. Hocker describes the process of preserving the Vasa, caring for the artifacts, and the technological process of moving the ship into its new home and building a museum around it that includes numerous exhibits. The museum opened in 1990 and over one million people visit annually to witness a 60 meter structure, 7 stories high enclosed in a weather controlled environment that has taken a moment of history and frozen it in time. (198) The book is fascinating for its narrative, but also for its diagrams which makes the complexity of what is being described understandable for the maritime laymen. I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in maritime history, engineering, technology, or just a wonderful adventure story. Lastly, if you are ever is Stockholm you must put the Vasa Museum on your list of places to visit.

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