Visitors to Stockholm’s Vasa Museum can’t help but gaze in awe at the massive wooden warship known as Sweden’s Titanic. Like the ‘unsinkable’ White Star liner, Vasa went to a watery grave, but was raised after 333 years under the Baltic Sea. It now sits, in showroom condition, in a museum that was built around it and is, unsurprisingly, Sweden’s top tourist attraction.
The great Swedish warship Vasa, which was launched in Stockholm Harbour on August 10, 1628, had the briefest of maiden voyages. It had gone only 1,300 metres when a gust filled its sails and caused the top-heavy vessel to tip to port. As citizens and dignitaries on shore looked on in disbelief, water gushed in through the gun ports, which had been left open, and flooded the lower decks. Within an hour, Vasa was on the seabed and 50 of the 100-strong crew were dead.
Thanks to the absence of the voracious teredo worm, which can’t survive in brackish water but turns up frequently in crosswords, Vasa’s timbers remained undevoured as it sat upright and intact in the mud. But what would happen when, more than three centuries after it sank, the ship was brought up and exposed to the air? Would it collapse like a souffle? Would it disintegrate to the touch?
These were two of the many nightmare scenarios that haunted 38-year-old marine technician and amateur naval archaeologist Anders Franzen (1918-1993), who located Vasa off the island of Beckholmen on August 25, 1956 after several years of trawling the archives and dragging and sounding the harbour from a little rowing boat.
“My booty had consisted mainly of rusty iron cookers, ladies’ bicycles, Christmas trees and dead cats,” Franzen said, recounting his frustrating search which, unusually, failed to turn up any supermarket trolleys. Then, on that fateful summer afternoon, he struck gold – well, oak.
A couple of days later, Franzen’s friend and fellow Vasa enthusiast, the diver Per Edvin Falting (1911-1995), donned his cumbersome canvas suit, big brass helmet and lead-soled boots and went down to investigate. Reporting back to Franzen on the surface via a crackling intercom, he said: “I can’t see anything, it’s pitch black here.”
Franzen, a man of infinite patience, stood by. A few minutes passed before Falting was back on the blower. “I can feel something big – the side of a ship,” he said. “Here’s one gun port – and here’s another. There are two rows. It must be the Vasa.”
The discovery was reported in a snippet in the evening paper, Expressen, which read: “An old ship has been found off Beckholmen in the middle of Stockholm. It is probably the warship Vasa, which sank on her maiden voyage in 1628. For five years a private person has been engaged in a search for the ship.”
Franzen was no ordinary private person – he was Sweden’s foremost expert on 16th and 17th century naval warfare; and Vasa was no ordinary warship – it was King Gustavus II’s pride and joy. It was meant to impress and intimidate his enemies, especially Poland, with which Sweden was at war over control of the Baltic, but it never got the chance.
On April 24, 1961, Vasa broke the surface without breaking apart. In the six decades since then, it has impressed more than 30 million visitors, at first in a temporary museum at Wasavarvet and since 1990 in the custom-built Vasa Museum at Galarvarvet on the island of Djurgarden.
The three masts poking through the roof are steel replicas. The top of the main one is 52.5 metres above floor level, the ship’s original height as measured from the keel. When Vasa sank in 30 metres of water, the two and three-section masts stuck out above the surface, presenting a hazard to navigation. It’s believed they were removed not long after the disaster.
Vasa is Sweden’s Titanic. Like the Belfast-built liner, it was the greatest vessel of its time, was lost in disastrous circumstances and became a national embarrassment. Vasa was seldom mentioned in Swedish histories until that snippet appeared in Expressen, and Belfast people for decades shrugged off the loss of Titanic by saying “it was perfectly all right when it left here”.
Now, thanks to the Vasa Museum, Gustavus’s dreamboat is the centrepiece of a world-class tourist attraction that welcomes 1.5 million visitors a year, while the Titanic Belfast centre, which opened in 2012, welcomes close to a million.
What’s left of the great ocean liner that sank in April 1912 lies rotting away at the bottom of the North Atlantic, but 95 per cent of Vasa was recovered. Standing in the museum and viewing it from all angles, you’d think that if it were relaunched it could resume the voyage that was so surprisingly cut short, but you’d be wrong. From the moment Vasa cast off, it was a catastrophe waiting to happen – and it would be a catastrophe again.
Vasa went against every rule of seaworthiness and physics, and that was no one’s fault but the king’s, for it was he who insisted an extra gun deck be added. It was an act of supreme folly, but who was going to argue with the monarch?
As Vasa neared completion, Admiral Klas Fleming oversaw a stability test at the quayside. Thirty men ran back and forward across the main deck three times and had to stop or the ship, which was rolling dangerously, would have capsized; yet Fleming allowed construction to proceed, with appalling consequences.
At the official opening of the Vasa Museum on June 15, 1990, Franzen stood beside King Carl XVI Gustaf and admired the magnificent vessel that sank 362 years before and was recovered thanks to his dogged determination. The inauguration was, much to his relief, a ribbon-cutting ceremony – he said later he had feared the king would smash a bottle of bubbly against the ship’s bow and undo years of painstaking preservation.
Various crackpot ideas had been put forward as to how Vasa could be raised from the seabed, but the craziest suggested filling the wreck with ping pong balls that would make it float to the surface, much like holding a rubber duck under the water in a bath and then letting go.
Witnessing the ship shooting out of the Baltic like a missile from a submarine would have been almost as spectacular as watching it sink, but I’ll content myself with seeing it just sitting there in the Vasa Museum, my all-time favourite visitor attraction in the world.
VISIT: When it reopens, admission to the Vasa Museum will cost 170 kronor (€16.70) for adults (free for visitors aged 18 and under). Guided tours are included in the entrance fee. The museum is easily accessible by ferry, tram and bus and has a great restaurant that prepares fresh dishes from scratch.
GET THERE: SAS Scandinavian Airlines flies daily from Dublin to Stockholm Arlanda. Frequent Arlanda Express trains connect the airport with Stockholm Central Station. Express buses go from Arlanda to Cityterminalen, next to Central Station. A taxi to the city centre costs around 500 kronor/€48. See arlandaexpress.com and flygbussarna.se
MORE INFORMATION: See visitstockholm.com