During the reign of King Gustav II Adolf (1611-1632) Sweden rose to become the dominant military power in Northern Europe on land. But her navy had failed to gain the upper hand over her Danish and Polish neighbours.
In order to dominate the Baltic Sea, Sweden needed a squadron of capital ships. So in 1625 the Dutch master shipbuilder Henrik Hybertsson was commissioned to construct four such vessels. The first of these would be Vasa, named after the King’s dynastic house. Built from 1000 oak trees, her masts were 50 metres high and she was armed with 64 guns, of which 48 were 24-pounder cannon.
Until then the most powerful ship in the Royal Swedish Navy was the galleon Solen, with 38 guns. Capable of firing a broadside of 300kg, Vasa would be the most powerful warship of her time.
On Sunday 10 August 1628, Vasa was hauled out of Stockholm harbour for her maiden voyage. She fired a salute and, once beyond the cover of the Sodermalm Cliffs her sails, she caught the wind. Vasa listed to port, then further until water rushed in through the open gunports causing her to heel over and sink. She had travelled just 1300 metres – less than a mile!
The king was furious at this ‘foolishness and incompetence’. Following the successful defence of the city of Stralsund he was poised to invade Northern Germany and the last thing he needed was such a public embarrassment.
An inquest was held, which concluded that Vasa was well-built but incorrectly proportioned. The portion of the hull below the waterline was insufficient for the weight of cannon and rigging and the the ballast was inadequate. But how could this have happened?
We know that Hybertsson died before Vasa‘s completion, that he had little experience of building ships with two gun decks and, as technical drawings were not used at the time, there would have been no plans to follow.
Prior to sailing, captain Söfring Hansson had demonstrated the ship’s instability to Admiral Klas Fleming by ordering 30 sailors to run backwards and forwards across the upper deck. Although still in port, by the third pass the ship seemed poised to capsize. Why the admiral ordered the ship to sail and why the captain failed to order the lower gun-decks closed once outside port we will never know.
What we do know is that Vasa‘s sister ship, Applet, continued in service until the 1660s, which suggests that the design itself was not flawed. Vasa was simply launched before the crew were accustomed to such a large vessel as a result of political pressure.
Incredibly, you can see Vasa today. Her wreck was located in the 1950s and she was salvaged in 1961. She is now on display in the Vasa Museum in the Swedish capital.