HIS MAJESTY´S SHIP
It took almost two years (1626-1627) to build Vasa. From dawn to dusk, carpenters, sawyers, smiths, ropelayers, sailmakers, painters, carvers, gun carriage makers and other specialists struggled to complete the navy’s great, new ship. The king, Gustav II Adolf, visited the shipyard to inspect the work.
Vasa should be splendid, a hull built of more than a thousand oak trees with 64 cannon, masts over 50 meters high and hundreds of painted and gilded sculptures.
THE SHIPYARD – SKEPPSGÅRDEN
The shipyard where Vasa was built was called Skeppsgården and was located in what is now called Blasieholmen in Stockholm. Skeppsgården was one of the largest workplaces in Sweden at that time, where craftsmen and raw materials from all over Northern Europe met. The workforce was about half Swedish and Finnish, with the rest mostly from Holland. Wood from Swedish and Polish forests was shipped to Stockholm to become ship’s timbers. Iron and copper were mined in Sweden, while hemp for rope, sailcloth and paint were purchased from abroad.
The work on Vasa was led by a Dutchman, Henrik Hybertsson, an experienced shipwright. In this period, Dutch ships were not built from drawings, instead the shipwright was given the overall dimensions and used proportions and rules of thumb based on his own experience to produce a ship with good sailing qualities. Hybertsson became ill early on and died in the spring of 1627, so he never saw the ship completed. Responsibility for construction fell to his assistant, Henrik “Hein” Jakobsson, already in 1626.
THE MAIDEN VOYAGE
On Sunday, the 10th of August, 1628, Vasa lay rigged and ready for sea just below the royal palace Tre Kronor. Ballast, guns and ammunition were all on board.
On the quays and shores along Strömmen, an excited public waited to watch the ship leave Stockholm and celebrate her departure.
Over a hundred crewmen were on board, as well as women and children. The crew had permission to take family and guests along for the first part of the passage through the Archipelago.
For the first few hundred meters, Vasa was warped along the waterfront with cables from the shore. The ship did not begin to sail until she reached what is now Slussen. Sailors climbed the rigging to set four of Vasa’s ten sails. A salute was fired, and Vasa slowly began her maiden voyage.
Once Vasa came out from under the lee of the Södermalm cliffs, the sails could catch the wind, but the ship was tender and heeled over to port, then heeled again, even farther. Water rushed in through the open gunports and the ship’s fate was decided. Vasa sank, after sailing barely 1300 meters.
The crew threw themselves into the water or clung to the rigging until rescued, but not all managed to save themselves. Eyewitnesses differ on the exact numbers, but perhaps 30 of approximately 150 people on board died in the loss. After the ship was raised in 1961, the remains of at least 16 people were found.
WHY DID VASA SINK?
The news of the sinking reached the Swedish king, who was in Prussia, after two weeks. The disaster had to be the result of “foolishness and incompetence,” and the guilty must be punished, he wrote to the Royal Council in Stockholm. What exactly lay behind the loss could not be determined with certainty in the inquest held in the palace, but the ship’s lack of stability was a fact: the underwater part of the hull was too small and the ballast insufficient in relation to the rig and cannon. The leaders of the inquest believed that the ship was well built but incorrectly proportioned. After Vasa, many successful ships with two or even three gundecks were built, so something must have been learned from the disaster.
WHOSE FAULT WAS IT?
Vice Admiral Klas Fleming, partly. He had been present before the ship sailed, when the captain demonstrated how crank the ship was by having 30 men run back and forth across the upper deck. On their third pass, the ship was ready to capsize at the quay. The admiral was heard to say that he wished the king were there.
King Gustav II Adolf, partly. He ordered a large ship with so many heavy-calibre cannon, and approved the ship’s dimensions.
Master shipwright Henrik Hybertsson, partly. He was a talented shipbuilder who had delivered several successful ships to the navy, but he had too little experience with building ships with two gundecks.
Captain Söfring Hansson, ultimately. Vasa’s sinking can also be blamed on the captain. It would have been safer to sail the ship with the lower gunports closed, since he knew the ship was unstable. It might have been possible to redistribute weight in the ship or even rebuild it. If the inquest were held today, the captain would probably be held responsible.