Back to the Drawing Board: Vasa

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David Porter on military history’s doomed inventions

The early 17th century marked a period of rapid growth in warships as the galleons of the previous century began to give way to the ship-of-the-line, which would dominate naval warfare for the next 250 years. One of the first such vessels was the English 55-gun Prince Royal, completed in 1611, which remained in service until her destruction in 1666 during the Second Anglo-Dutch War.

Vasa today, lifted from the seabed and housed in a dedicated museum in central Stockholm.
Vasa today, lifted from the seabed and housed in a dedicated museum in central Stockholm.

The success of the Prince Royal may have influenced Gustavus Adolphus when he ordered the 64-gun Vasa in 1625 as part of a naval construction programme intended to give Sweden naval supremacy in the Baltic. Although Vasa was designed and built by an experienced Dutch shipbuilder, Henrik Hybertsson, she was larger than any vessel he had previously worked on.

The King’s close interest in the project proved to be a problem, as it seems that he overruled initial plans to mount 24-pdr cannon on the lower gun deck, with 12-pdrs on the upper deck. His insistence on a uniform main armament of 24-pdrs on both gun decks gave Vasa exceptional firepower, but it added a dangerous amount of weight to the upper deck. (Later two- and three-deckers all had their heaviest artillery on the lower gun deck, with lighter weapons on the middle and upper decks.)

One and only voyage

The other factor that contributed to Vasa’s loss was that she was designed as a shallow draft vessel for operating amidst the shoals of the Baltic but was completed with a high superstructure, which made her unstable. The instability was worsened as soon as the 24-pdrs were mounted on the upper gun deck.

Her captain, Söfring Hansson, was so concerned that he demonstrated the problem to Vice-Admiral Fleming whilst Vasa was completing her fitting out at Stockholm in the summer of 1628. Thirty men ran back and forth across the upper deck to induce rolling, but the admiral quickly stopped the test as the roll was so terrifying that he feared the ship would capsize.

This was the ideal opportunity to modify Vasa to make her more seaworthy, but the King was away campaigning in Poland and constantly urging that she should be commissioned as soon as possible. It seems that no one dared to tell him that her design was fatally flawed. So she set sail on her first and only voyage on 10 August 1628. The day was calm, with only a light breeze from the south-west. Vasa had all her guns run out, ready to fire a salute as she left Stockholm.

Within minutes, the ship heeled suddenly to port as a gust of wind caught her, but she slowly righted herself. Before clearing the harbour, however, Vasa was caught by a second, stronger gust, again heeling over. This time, her lower deck gunports were forced under water and she rapidly sank to a depth of just over 30 metres, barely 120 metres from the shore.

At least 115 of her 145-strong crew survived to give evidence at the enquiry ordered by a furious Gustavus Adolphus, which found the ideal scapegoat in Henrik Hybertsson, who had died shortly before Vasa was launched.

In 1961, more than 300 years after she sank, Vasa was raised from the thick mud of the harbour. She remained in remarkable condition, largely intact up to the level of the upper gun deck.

Now fully restored, Vasa is on display in her own museum in central Stockholm, which has become one of Scandinavia’s most visited tourist sites.

This is an article from the December 2020/January 2021 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.

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