A short history of the Vasa (or Wasa)

Date: 2021-04-19

A brief summary of the whole ordeal

The Vasa was a Swedish warship built from 1626 to 1628 which was one of the largest and most heavily-armed ship of her time. She was a three-masted ship, the jewel of the reconstructed fleet of king Gustav II Adolph of Sweden, and at her inaugural trip, at the very moment the ship left the cover of the harbour, wind began breezing. The Vasa thus began to lean on port side and ultimately capsized because of this gentle breeze, trapping 30 to 50 sailors who drowned in the cold water at approximately 100 meters from the shore.

Why was this ship built

The Vasa was one of four large warships destined to fight in the Swedish fleet in the on-going war against Poland. These four warships were to be built by the shipbuilder Henrik Hybertsson collaborating with merchant Arendt de Groote over a period of four years. Two of them would have a keel length of 108 feet (about 33 meters), the smaller ones, and 135 feet (about 41 meters) for the two larger ones. The need for these ships only increased when a devastating storm sank ten ships of the Swedish Navy. The king then put a lot of pressure on the two shipbuilders to speed up the construction.

At the end of 1628, the Vasa would exit the Skeppsgården docks with a keel length of 135 feet and with 24-pound canons on its most upper deck. The very design of the ship and the armament were flawed and the Vasa never could have survived at sea.

How did we get here?

Poor project management

To say that this project was poorly managed is an understatement. The Vasa was to become one of the largest ship ever built, yet no plan of the ship has been found. Drawings of similar ships were shown to the king but no general plans are referenced in the material which made it until today. This can be explained because Henrik Hybertsson was a skilled and experienced shipbuilder who had built other similarly sized ships. However, two things had not been planned by Henrik Hybertsson.

Firstly, the king put pressure on the construction in an attempt to speed it up and made numerous changes which ended making Henrik Hybertsson lay a keel of 111 feet for the Vasa. This length was changed another time from 111 feet to 135 feet. This added length pushed Henrik Hybertsson to also extend the breadth of the ship, but it was mainly enlarged at the top of the ship, making it top-heavy. The king also asked for a second row of guns on the ship. This was not a trivial task and it did not help the top-heavy issue of the ship, whilst pushing the first row of guns close to the waterline.

Secondly, Henrik Hybertsson died. He died in 1627, one year before the ship could be finished. With no plan to go by, his successor, Hein Jacobsson, was left alone to deal with the ship and the king.

Stability tests were not conducted properly

With the added length, breadth and gun deck, the ship was not stable and it was realised before its maiden voyage. Admiral Fleming was present for a stability test which involved 30 men going from one side of the ship to another. This may seem crude but it may help the reader to know that Newton did not edict his laws before 1687. After this test, Admiral Fleming realised that the ship may not be able to withstand the sea. Any sea. However, he did not inform the king because he was also under a lot of pressure.

Stability issues were usually dealt with, at that time, by putting heavy rocks in the bottom of the ships. But the first row of guns was really close to water after approximately 120 tonnes of rocks were laid in the ship. No more rocks could be added.

The catastrophe

The Vasa made its maiden voyage in 1628 and the outcome should not he surprising. The Vasa sailed little more than a kilometre before a gust of wind made it lean on its side and let the water enter through the first row of gun doors which were left open.

At least 30 sailors died in this accident and the Vasa laid on the seafloor at 32 metres deep for more than 300 years.

After all this time, it was rescued and turned into a museum, greatly helping to understand why the sinking happened.

Epilogue

After the sinking, a culprit was looked for and the captain of the ship was even put in jail awaiting trial. However, it was made clear that no one was really blameable and that the king did agree on the drawings presented to him. Thus, no one suffered any legal consequences.

Bibliography

Why Wasa capsized, Curt Borgenstam, Anders Sandström, ISBN 91-85268-23-2