Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Military History and Warfare: The Thirty Years War: The Warship 'Vasa'

A recent trip to Sweden gave me the opportunity to revisit one of my favourite museums, 'Vasamuseet'. The museum is unique in that it contains the world's only completely intact surviving seventeenth century warship. Designed for the Swedish navy by the Dutch ship builder Henrik Hybertsson, ships like the 'Vasa' were essential in Sweden's attempts to dominate the Baltic area prior to its involvement in the Thirty Years War in Germany. The Vasa museum in the picture was purpose built in the twentieth century.

The 'Vasa' was launched in 1628 and designed to be one of the most powerful warships afloat. Equipped with 64 guns and carrying a complement of 300 sailors and marines, the Vasa represents a link between ships designed for traditional naval tactics of boarding and capturing enemy warships and those designed for tactics employed later in the seventeenth century and throughout the age of sail. Improvements in cannon design allowed later ships to fight in line formation and exchange shots with the enemy at a distance rather than engage in close combat. The Vasa's large crew complement and array of heavy twenty-four pounder guns seems to suggest a vessel designed to both fight at close quarters and at a distance.

Unlike many other vessels launched by Sweden, the Vasa's career as a fighting ship lasted barely a few hours. On Sunday August 10th, 1628 the ship had its official launch ceremony. The launch of such a powerful vessel was a major propaganda opportunity for King Gustavus Adolphus. Therefore foreign diplomats were brought to watch (along with hundreds of other spectators) as the ship began its maiden voyage from Stockholm. The 'Vasa' drew anchor, set sail and fired a salute. A few minutes later a gust of wind blew across the harbour causing the ship to begin to keel over. The 'Vasa' corrected itself for a moment and then began to keel over again towards its sides. The crew had failed to close the gunports, thus water began to pour in and fill the ship. A few minutes later the ship had toppled over and sunk. 30-50 people were trapped and drowned in the vessel. Gustavus Adolphus, away campaigning in Poland, had been awaiting the arrival of his new ship. Instead he received a message reporting the disaster. An immediate inquiry was begun into the cause of the sinking.

In the seventeenth century, application of mathematics to ship building still remained somewhat haphazard. Ship builders worked on the basis of recorded ship measurements that had been tried and tested on previous ships. Unlike merchant ships, warships had a large amount of weight placed higher up on their decks (the guns). This made them much more vulnerable to tipping over and sinking. Previous ship designs worked on the assumption of having the heavy guns on the lower decks and the lighter guns on top. Gustavus Adolphus had insisted that his new ship have both decks filled with heavy guns. The design of the 'Vasa' did not take into account this extra weight. As a result the ballast at the bottom of the ship counter balancing the weight of the guns was not sufficient for the new design.

These beautiful carvings on the back of the 'Vasa' would have been exquisitely painted.

For three hundred years, the ship lay at the bottom of the harbour in Stockholm. In 1956 a determined ship-wreck specialist, Anders Franzén found the ship and began lobbying for an expedition to recover it. In 1961 the 'Vasa' was pulled off the sea bed and brought to the surface. Unlike the Tudor warship, 'Mary Rose' in England, the 'Vasa' was discovered almost completely intact. Thanks to a lucky combination of fresh and salt water found in the area, the ship had not suffered the kind of disintegration that normally occurs in the wood of sunken ships.

As the ship began to dry, a substance called polyethylenglycol was used to replace the water in the wood and preserve it from destruction. Thus, a tragic accident three-hundred years ago has brought us this fine example of seventeenth century ship design. Anyone visiting Stockholm would be well-advised to visit this museum.


erlking said...

Alex, that's a stunning vessel. Thanks for writing about her and keeping her "alive."

Richard said...

This is a fantastic post; I didn't realise that any other ship went the same way as the Mary Rose, but it's not unsurprising considering how unwieldy the ships of this period could be - particularly the big ones, like the Vasa or the Sovereign of the Seas.

I would be interested to see more photos, and to learn more about the Swedish 17th century navy.