How An 'Unsinkable' Swedish Warship Found Itself At The Bottom Of The Stockholm Harbor (2022)

By Natasha Ishak | Checked By Jaclyn Anglis

Published January 12, 2021

Updated September 2, 2021

The "Vasa" ship was supposed to be a feat of engineering in 1628. But then, it buckled under its own weight and sank to the bottom of Stockholm Harbor.

How An 'Unsinkable' Swedish Warship Found Itself At The Bottom Of The Stockholm Harbor (1)

Public DomainVasa was a formidable 17th-century warship built under the Swedish Royal Navy.

In 1628, the Swedish Royal Navy debuted Vasa, an impressive 226-foot-long war vessel. The ship had the astounding capacity to carry 64 heavy gun cannons, which was an unprecedented armament aboard any battleship at the time.

(Video) Saving the Swedish warship, VASA

But within minutes of its departure, the ship sank to the bottom of the Baltic Sea where it stayed for more than 300 years before it was finally rediscovered. Resurfacing the ship was one of the biggest archaeological excavations of the 1960s.

But how did Vasa find itself at the bottom of Stockholm Harbor in the first place?

Vasa Was A Beacon Of Sweden’s Power

How An 'Unsinkable' Swedish Warship Found Itself At The Bottom Of The Stockholm Harbor (2)

Wikimedia CommonsThe ambitious warship was commissioned by Swedish King Gustav II, pictured here.

In the 17th century, Sweden rose to power as a major European empire after winning wars against Denmark, Poland, and Russia, and it ruled over most of the Baltic region.

It was King Gustavus Adolphus, or King Gustav II Adolph, that led Sweden through this series of triumphant wars. Indeed, for 18 of the 21 years that he reigned between 1611 and 1632, the Swedish Army was embroiled in battle.

As a testament to the kingdom’s strength, the king commissioned a larger-than-life battleship that would become known as the Vasa. The distinct name of the Swedish ship Vasa, which was designed by shipmaster Henrik Hybertsson, was inspired by the Vasa dynasty from which the king had descended.

How An 'Unsinkable' Swedish Warship Found Itself At The Bottom Of The Stockholm Harbor (3)

Public DomainThe Vasa ship was supposed to signify the growing power of the Swedish Empire.

The wooden vessel stretched over 226 feet with an exterior covered in ornate carvings that portrayed stories of the royal family and the king himself. While there were other Swedish warships that were bigger and stronger, Vasa carried an unprecedented amount of bronze armory.

(Video) The Incredible Story of Sweden's Vasa Warship (4K)

Equipped with 64 cannon guns, the Swedish warship Vasa was among the most formidable sea vessels under the nation’s royal navy. It was heralded as an engineering feat during its construction and was expected to strike fear among the empire’s enemies.

How The World’s Most Spectacular Warship Sank

How An 'Unsinkable' Swedish Warship Found Itself At The Bottom Of The Stockholm Harbor (4)

Public DomainThis backgammon game board was among the 40,000 items excavated from the sunken ship in the 1960s.

Despite its ornate exterior, Vasa was riddled with design flaws.

For starters, the ship was originally only supposed to carry 36 cannon guns at 24 pounds each — nearly half the number it wound up with. According to an archaeologist who studied the ship after it was rediscovered, Vasa‘s gundeck was far too heavy. Additionally, the ship appeared to have been designed by someone with no experience building a ship of such epic proportions.

The ship was likely also overburdened by the weight of its flamboyant wooden decorations. The king’s desire to debut the ship as quickly as possible likely only made its construction that much more flawed.

Yet on August 10, 1628, the great Vasa ship was revealed to the public and set sail on its maiden voyage from Stockholm Harbor. It was supposed to carry a portion of its crew and guests to the fortress of Vaxholm, where the guests would disembark.

How An 'Unsinkable' Swedish Warship Found Itself At The Bottom Of The Stockholm Harbor (5)

Public DomainThe Vasa was adorned with intricate wooden carvings and sculptures.

Vasa was then scheduled to continue its journey to the summer fleet base on the island of Älvsnabben, where it was meant to become the flagship of the reserve squadron. Its terrifying arsenal of cannons would act as naval reinforcements at the Gdańsk blockade against Poland-Lithuania or join the rest of the squadron at Stralsund.

(Video) How Europe's Greatest Warship Was Destroyed by a Breeze

But within 20 minutes of its departure at sea, Vasa was hit by a strong wind and slowly began to sink in front of thousands of horrified onlookers, including the king.

Spectators watched as a small gust of wind nearly toppled the giant ship onto its side. The ship recovered but was hit by another gust which tipped the vessel over onto its gun side.

That was all it took for the ship to become flooded with water, pushing it into its watery grave less than a nautical mile off Stockholm Harbor.

Oversight Sunk Sweden’s Prestigious Vessel

Roughly 30 people drowned in the sinking of the Vasa, and the crown consequently launched an investigation. It was carried out by a special commission made up of 17 councilors and naval officers.

The special commission was chaired by the king’s older half-brother, Admiral of the Realm Karl Karlsson Gyllenhielm. The surviving officers and senior petty officers were questioned before the commission.

The officers and crew members said they weren’t aware of any wrongdoing and that everything had been in tip-top shape before the launch of the Vasa warship.

But an admission from the shipmaster Jöran Matsson stunned the commission. According to Matsson, a demonstration ordered by Captain Söfring Hansson had been carried out the month before the launch.

The demonstration was witnessed by Vice Admiral Klas Fleming, Gyllenhielm’s deputy, and involved 30 crewmates running back and forth across the deck to test its stability.

They found that the ship was incredibly unstable. Despite this disturbing discovery, Fleming failed to report it back to his superiors, possibly due to pressure from the king to carry out a successful launch of the ship as quickly as possible.

(Video) The Vasa Museum - 17th Century Swedish Warship, Stockholm, Sweden | 2017 4K

Just as the inquest had found, modern studies on the ship’s remains confirmed that the ship’s ambitious design caused its untimely demise.

All this, combined with the king’s orders to rush the Vasa’s debut, led to its final, catastrophic result. The shipwreck remained at the bottom of the Baltic Sea for over 300 years.

Excavating The Swedish Warship Vasa

Vasa’s sinking might have been a stain on Sweden’s history at one point, but today, the reconstructed ship has become a massive tourist attraction.

In 1961, formal efforts to recover the sunken ship were launched by archaeologists. But the vessel’s vulnerable wooden structure made its retrieval challenging.

Thankfully, the cold temperatures and low oxygen levels at the bottom of the Baltic Sea preserved the integrity of the ship and protected it from bacteria and “shipworms,” which typically attack sunken vessels in warmer climates. About 95 percent of the ship’s body was successfully rescued fully intact.

After the ship’s retrieval, a team of divers worked for another three years to collect parts that had fallen off the ship, such as parts of the foremast and mainmast, a few sculptures, and the collapsed beakhead. The Vasa ship’s 39-foot longboat was also recovered from the water.

After the ship was resurfaced, its entire exterior was sprayed down with a waxy substance called polyethylene glycol, or PEG, to prevent it from shrinking.

Archaeologists successfully recovered more than 40,000 items from within the ship’s hull. It took 30 years to catalog the bounty and it is considered one of the biggest scientific endeavors early on in the field of maritime archaeology.

In 1990, Vasa was publicly displayed for the first time at the Vasa Museum in Stockholm, where it remains today. It remains the only preserved 17-century warship that exists in the world.

Now that you’ve discovered the little-known story of the sinking of Sweden’s impressive Vasa ship, take a look at these rare photographs of the Titanic before and after the famous tragedy. Then, read about the discovery of the SS Cotopaxi shipwreck, the vessel that notoriously disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle.

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FAQs

What caused the Swedish warship Vasa to sink? ›

The wind was so light that the sails were extended by hand and just one person was sufficient to hold the sheets out. Even with such a light wind, the ship heeled (toppled) on its side, water filled the ship through its gun portals, and it eventually sank in the harbor, taking 53 lives with it.

Where was the Vasa ship found? ›

When was the Vasa ship found? ›

The rediscovery

“Perhaps 95 percent of Vasa's wood was intact when Sweden finally raised the wreck in 1961.” Although keeping the wooden structures stable while raising the ship proved to be a huge engineering feat, it was managed. Preserving the ship was a process that took almost three decades, Laursen writes.

Did anyone survive the Vasa? ›

All but 30 of the crew and guests survived when Vasa sank. Most of the dead were trapped inside the ship.

How did the Stockholm not sink? ›

Following the shock of the collision, both crews scrambled to take stock of their vessels. While Stockholm was found to be in no danger of sinking, the Doria had sustained critical damage and was listing over 20 degrees to its starboard side, allowing seawater to spill through its watertight compartments.

How did they recover the Vasa? ›

These cables were taken to two floating pontoons, named Oden and Frigg, at the surface. By pumping the pontoons almost full of water, then tightening the cables and pumping the water back out, Vasa could be broken free of the mud and lifted and moved into shallower water.

Can you go inside the Vasa ship? ›

You cannot go inside the ship , but you can watch the whole external part and the deck through many angles and from different floor levels (6 or 7) ..

How was Vasa found? ›

On 25 August 1956, a small piece of black oak stuck in a coring device that had been dropped into Stockholm's harbour. It does not sound like much, but is by far one of the most important events in the modern history of Vasa.

How much did the Vasa cost? ›

In the “King's Currency” the Vasa cost more than 200,000 Rex Dollars to build, a little over 5% of Sweden's GNP. One twentieth of the nation's annual economic product now lay at the bottom of the Stockholm harbor. The Council of the Realm raised questions immediately: Why did it happen?

Who discovered the Vasa? ›

Amateur archaeologist Anders Franzén found Vasa in 1956 after three years of failed search attempts. Workers salvaged the 300-year-old ship in 1961, and today, the reconstructed vessel serves as the centerpiece of Stockholm's Vasa Museum.

How many people died in the sinking of the Vasa? ›

Vasa, 17th-century vessel, the mightiest warship of its day, that sank on its maiden voyage. DEATH TOLL: Although the warship was very near to shore, some 30 to 150 people onboard drowned during the vessel's first voyage.

Why is the Vasa museum famous? ›

The Vasa is one of the best preserved 17th-century ships anywhere in the world. It consists of 98% original parts and is adorned with hundreds of sculptures.

How many guns did the Vasa have? ›

Vasa carried 64 cannon when she set off on her maiden voyage in August 1628, but eight of the gunports were empty; the navy yard could build a ship faster than the royal gun foundry could cast its guns. The main armament was 48 24-pounders, powerful bronze cannon that fired round shot weighing ten kilograms each.

How was Vasa found? ›

On 25 August 1956, a small piece of black oak stuck in a coring device that had been dropped into Stockholm's harbour. It does not sound like much, but is by far one of the most important events in the modern history of Vasa.

How many died when the Vasa sank? ›

Vasa, 17th-century vessel, the mightiest warship of its day, that sank on its maiden voyage. DEATH TOLL: Although the warship was very near to shore, some 30 to 150 people onboard drowned during the vessel's first voyage.

What did Vasa do? ›

Vasa Was A Beacon Of Sweden's Power

In the 17th century, Sweden rose to power as a major European empire after winning wars against Denmark, Poland, and Russia, and it ruled over most of the Baltic region. It was King Gustavus Adolphus, or King Gustav II Adolph, that led Sweden through this series of triumphant wars.

What was the biggest battleship ever built? ›

Meet the Yamato: The Largest Battleship Ever Built (With the Largest Guns Ever) Battleship Yamato during sea trials October 30, 1941. The Yamato was certainly a record-breaking battleship for many different reasons.

Can you go inside the Vasa ship? ›

You cannot go inside the ship , but you can watch the whole external part and the deck through many angles and from different floor levels (6 or 7) ..

How much did the Vasa cost? ›

In the “King's Currency” the Vasa cost more than 200,000 Rex Dollars to build, a little over 5% of Sweden's GNP. One twentieth of the nation's annual economic product now lay at the bottom of the Stockholm harbor. The Council of the Realm raised questions immediately: Why did it happen?

How many guns did the Vasa have? ›

Vasa carried 64 cannon when she set off on her maiden voyage in August 1628, but eight of the gunports were empty; the navy yard could build a ship faster than the royal gun foundry could cast its guns. The main armament was 48 24-pounders, powerful bronze cannon that fired round shot weighing ten kilograms each.

Which battleship had the most guns? ›

As an Iowa-class battleship, the most powerful class of battleships, the Missouri was armed with nine huge 16-inch guns, 20 five-inch guns, 80 40mm anti-aircraft guns, and 49 20mm anti-aircraft guns.

What is the smallest battleship in the world? ›

The ships were the only dreadnoughts completed by Spain and were the smallest of the type built by any country.
...
España-class battleship.
Class overview
Speed19.5 knots (36.1 km/h; 22.4 mph)
Range5,000 nmi (9,300 km) at 10 knots (19 km/h)
Complement854
Armament8 × 305 mm (12 in) guns 20 × 102 mm (4 in) guns 4 × 47 mm (1.9 in) 3-pounder guns
19 more rows

Which battleship had the biggest guns? ›

The largest calibre guns ever mounted on a ship were the nine 45.7 cm (18 inch) guns installed on the Japanese battleships Yamato and Musashi. The shells weighed 1,452 kg (3,200 lb) and could be fired 43.5 km (27 miles). Yamato and Musashi were the largest battleships ever to sail.

Videos

1. The Vasa: Saving a 17th Century Shipwreck
(Terra Incognita)
2. Who Sank the Vasa?
(Atomic Frontier)
3. DOCUMENTARY - Vasa 1628 (ENGLISH SUBS) Part 1 of 2
(Abram Ivanov)
4. Most Incredible Shipwrecks Ever Found! What The Divers Discoverd is schocking!
(DeepSea Mysteries)
5. DOCUMENTARY - Vasa 1628 (ENGLISH SUBS) Part 2 of 2
(Abram Ivanov)
6. Creepy Reason Nobody Talks About The Deadliest Ship Disaster In History
(The Infographics Show)

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