Updated: May 15, 2022
It was a maiden voyage. A confluence of bad luck, human miscalculation, and failed leadership would mean disaster. No, we're not talking about the RMS Titanic. This is the Swedish warship Vasa that ignobly sank in Stockholm Harbor on August 10, 1628.
The Vasa was one of four ships commissioned by King Gustav II Adolph, or who is sometimes referred to as King Gustavus Adolphus. During his reign, King Gustav helped turn Sweden from a regional Baltic power to one of the most influential powers in Europe. Sweden was a key military force in the later stages of the Thirty Years War, a series of continental conflicts over religious and political balances of power. Gustav II Adolph is considered one of the great military commanders of the 17th century, and part of Sweden's rise was due to his establishing a more modern and efficient government bureaucracy. King Gustav was of the Vasa family dynasty. Vasa is derived from the Swedish vase meaning a bundle of sticks. (Called a fascine in English from the Latin fascia. The word fascist is from the same root.) The vase was the family heraldic symbol, and by the time of Gustav's reign, it came to look more like a sheaf of wheat. The stern of the ship that would bear the family name displayed a gilded sheaf between two cherubs.
When Gustav II Adolph ascended the throne in 1611 at the age of 16, he inherited three ongoing wars from his father. Two of these were border wars with Denmark and Russia. The other was a dynastic conflict with his cousin, King Sigismund III of Poland. In early 1625, during another round of the latter conflict with Poland, King Gustav II hired master Stockholm shipbuilders Henrik Hybertsson and his partner Arendt de Groote. (Hybertsson would die before the completion of the Vasa.) Originally four ships were ordered. Two with keels of about 135 feet and two with keels of about 108 feet. A recent loss of ships created an urgent need for replacements to help maintain supply lines across the Baltic between Sweden and Poland. When Hybertsson asked which ship to build first, he was advised to start constructing two medium-sized vessels. Hybertsson declined because timber and other raw materials were already cut to the original specifications. The shipbuilder decided to begin construction on one of the larger keeled ships.
The king was known to have demanded changes in the ship's specifications during construction. No diagrams or documentation survives that shows the evolution of these changes. The builders were experienced men, and they most likely relied upon traditional, standard practices in order to incorporate any deviations from the original design. The biggest, and probably the most impactful modification was the number of gun decks. King Gustav received word that the Danes had built a ship with two gun decks. Not wanting to fall behind in a naval arms race, the king immediately requested that the Vasa be modified to a two-deck ship. Two gun deck ships were a recent development in naval architecture, and no one in Sweden had any experience in constructing such a vessel. Despite this and under pressure from the king to hurry the completion of the ship, the builders continued the construction. Upon completion, the Vasa was impressive.
No costs were spared in the building of the ship, and it was perhaps the most ambitious ship to date in Europe. It had three decks in total with 64 guns (twice as many as originally planned). It was highly decorated and adorned with gilded wood carvings depicting the history of the royal family, biblical scenes, and mythology. The ship was moored at the royal palace in Stockholm while final preparations were made for her maiden voyage. Early in the summer of 1628 Vice Admiral Klas Fleming conducted a test of the ship's seaworthiness. Fleming had thirty men run from side to side, called a lurch test. After three rounds the ship shook so violently, and he called off the test in fear that the ship was going to capsize. No one could provide any suggestions on how to resolve the problem. Fleming, in fear of the king's response, gave the go-ahead anyway.
The Vasa was ready on the afternoon of Sunday, August 10, 1628. Crowds of onlookers gathered around Stockholm harbor. A band played an appropriate martial tune. The wind was light and coming from the south. As the ship caught the current to take her out of the harbor, the sails were unfurled to catch the breeze. About two nautical miles out, the sails caught a gust of wind, and the great ship heeled or toppled to the port side. Water began filling the gun ports. Within moments the ship sank to the bottom of Stockholm harbor taking fifty-three lives. A day that started with fanfare ended with disaster.
For nearly three centuries the ship remained at the bottom of the harbor. After the valuable bronze cannon were salvaged, the wreck was mainly forgotten. In the autumn of 1955, Swedish shipwreck expert Anders Franzen rediscovered the wreckage. He envisioned salvaging the ship and setting it up in a museum. The combination of high salinity and low oxygenated waters of the Baltic Sea helped preserve much of the wooden structure of the Vasa. It wouldn't be until 196, though, when they finally lifted the wreck up from the water. Thousands of tons of water and mud needed to be pumped out, and then the ship was placed on its own floating pontoon. Then came the hard work of restoration. It took over seventeen years of applying polyurethane and then drying for the decay to stabilize.
After this lengthy period of restoration, archeologists were able to finally study the ship. There had been many theories regarding the causes of the sinking, but in the end, it has been generally agreed that the ship was simply top-heavy. The main culprit for this was the addition of the second gun deck. The decks were thicker, the number and the weight of bronze cannons were unprecedented, and the lack of counter ballast contributed to raising the center of gravity of the ship. The builders had lacked the proper tools and knowledge in ship design and testing to adequately address such an ambitious project. Couple this with an impatient king and a lack of planning.
Today the story of the Vasa has become a staple in business management schools. It is held up as a lesson in how human problems in communication and management cause projects to fail. It even has its own name - the Vasa syndrome. “An organization’s goals must be appropriately matched to its capabilities,” wrote Eric H. Kessler, Paul E. Bierly, III, and Shanthi Gopalakrishnan in the Academy of Management Executive journal (2001) in which they discussed the sinking. There was an overemphasis on ornamentation and firepower. Not enough on more critical issues such as stability and seaworthiness. The wreck of the Vasa has become a cautionary tale for those attempting large scale projects or the development and testing of new technologies.
The ship can be seen at the Vasa Museet in Stockholm, Sweden.
Vasa Museet, Stockholm, Sweden
The Bizarre Story of "Vasa", the Ship That Keeps on Giving: Kat Eschner (Smithsonian Magazine)
Why the Swedish Vasa Ship Sank: Ajay Harish (SimScale)
The Great Ship Vasa: Greta Franzen