The mightiest warship of the 17th century was salvaged from the Baltic Sea in the 1960s. Today, it is one of the most fascinating museums in Northern Europe.
By Nicholas Sterling
On August 10, 1628, the Royal Swedish Navy’s battleship Vassa—named after Sweden's ruling dynasty— sailed from Stockholm in the presence of King Gustavus Adolphus and large audience.
Vasa was the most portentous warship of the 17th century. More than 200 feet long, it was armed with 64 large bronze cannons cast specifically for the ship. The mighty vessel took over two years to build under the expert instructions of Dutch shipbuilder Henrik Hybertsson. The shipyard had to employ about 400 workers, including carpenters, painters, sculptors, glassmakers and blacksmiths to finish this masterful piece of warfare equipment. It had three large masts, more than ten sails and weighed more than 1,200 tons.
Vasa was built to navigate the Polish waters, as Poland was Sweden’s frontal enemy at the time. Sigismund, King of Poland—and a cousin of the Swedish monarch—was intent on conquering and ruling the Scandinavian kingdom to the North.
As the ship glided through the waters of the Baltic Sea towards the harbor, a large gust of wind struck the starboard, and the water began to flood the gun ports. The alarmed sailors tried to stop the flowing water but—within minutes—Vasa foundered, taking with to the bottom of the sea more than 30 of the 200 crew members.
The story of the battleship Vasa fell into obscurity for centuries—probably because it was considered a national disgrace— until Anders Franzén, a naval researcher fascinated by the ship's history, discovered the exact location of the wreck in 1956.
With the help of the Royal Swedish Navy, Franzen resorted to many possible recovery methods and finally, after more than five years, his efforts paid off.
On April 24, 1961, and 333 years after the disaster, the Vasa was refloated. Witnesses to the event were astonished and stunned by what appeared before their eyes: the ship was dirty and covered with seaweed and sediment, but it was in an incredible state of preservation thanks to the cold waters of the Baltic, which are free from the shipworm Taredo navalis, which usually destroys submerged wood in warmer waters.
During the following years, delicate operations took place to restore the ship. And in 1990, the Vasa Museum opened its doors on the island of Djugarden, Stockholm. Since opening, it has received millions of visitors, becoming one of the most important museums in northern Europe.
Visitors can see up close— thanks to strategically placed ramps— the most famous 17th-century warship, fully restored. There are also multiple exhibits showcasing the battleship’s history, naval battles, living conditions on board, and documents and utensils found inside. In addition to the magnificent displays, an educational film is shown every hour.
On the ground floor, guests move around with the help of interactive computers, and there are programmed visits with specialized guides several times a day.
The impressive Vasa Museum brings us face to face with the history of a mighty European warship built more than 300 years ago. ■
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