It could be a Monty Python script. Build a warship, convince everyone it’s the epitome of sea worthiness and launch it only to have it unceremoniously list to port when a sudden squall causes it to sink one nautical mile from shore. A funny scenario?
The sinking of what was then considered the greatest ship ever built all happened on a sunny Sunday on August l0, 1628, while hoards of well-wishers lined the shore to see the maiden voyage of the Vasa, set sail. Over l00 people were aboard the war ship and within one minute, the boat took on water and sank, drowning approximately 40 people.
The specifications of the structure of this Swedish battle galleon came directly from the King himself and as time has shown, he should have stuck to regal ruling. However, the Vasa, had it performed as anticipated, would have been a formidable weapon on the high seas. But it sank.
Straight off the overseas Finnish Air flight, still groggy, my first stop was to the Vasa Museum, located on Djurgarden, the third largest of the 14 islands, which make up Stockholm. Once a hunting ground for the Royals, this area now is home to a leisure and amusement park, the location of the oldest open air museum, Skansen dating back to l892 and the Nordic Museum. It’s here that the Vasa Museum sits among a trimmed garden environment. My enthusiasm won over my jet lag condition.
I knew little of the history of this unfortunate venture in shipping annals when I entered the huge, angular, no-nonsense building, housing this once sunken treasure. There it was, almost as glorious as the day it set sail.
As I walked around this beautifully resorted carved ship constructed from 40 acres of wood, I soon realized it soared like a skyscraper, all l09 meters. What makes a visit here memorable is the Vasa’s many lost years. It sat on the dark bed of the Baltic Sea for over 300 years until l956 when Anders Franzen, a man obsessed with discovering old wrecks, arduously began the process of salvaging and having this significant ship restored to its original beauty. The Vasa was finally raised in l961 from its resting-place, 30 metres below. In l990, the museum opened and the 1,300 metre long ship went on display. Remarkably, either because it was built of black oak or sat in the “sweet” waters of the Baltic Sea, it was reasonably well preserved.
The restoration process itself, is a major success story. I had the opportunity to speak with one of the restorers who told me how they set about sealing the thousands of holes before the Vasa could be raised from the cold darkness of the sea. If it had been exposed to sunlight after the centuries in the dark waters, the waterlogged ship would have had more devastation. Archaeologists had literally wrapped the entire ship in plastic, a monumental task. The slime had to be flushed out and the wood carefully washed and rubbed down. Almost a year later, with constant attention, the restoration was complete but the fear of more damage could have been created had they not used hot air fans and infra red rays to melt the polyglycol which had been inserted into the wood, ensuring that it did not dry out. Now, low, light intensity and moist atmosphere help maintain the ship’s condition
Over 800,000 visitors annually come to view this wondrous massive ship, with its two gun decks holding 64 bronze cannons, each weighing l ton. They delight at seeing the 500 carved sculptures originally painted in gold and bright colors. Although the original bright shiny exterior wasn’t restored, there is a small replica off to one side, showing gold and various primary colors of a sheaf of wheat which is what Vasa means and was on the bow of the ship. A snarling lion’s head, mounted on each gun, was supposed to strike fear in the hearts of the enemy.
As I walked up to the next level of the museum for a view from another vantage point, it was interesting to see the two gun decks – an unusual design for that time. My guide pointed out that with the ship’s width of 117 metres, it was far too narrow for the 69-metre length with a l9.34 metre high stern.
In another area of the museum is one of the original, very ornately decorated bronze cannons. Equally impressive on level 5, were the displays of artifacts and well preserved clothing, kitchen appliances and even postcards and literature. A miniature replica of the Vasa is a stickler for details and shows the interior of the ship. The barbershop caught my attention and since there was only one doctor aboard, he would have done double duty as the barber. But then no one had time to even grow 5 o’clock stubble before the Vasa went down.