Today, the Vasa, the world’s only surviving 17th century ship, is visited by over one million people per year in its own five storey building on a Stockholm island. Similar interested crowds gathered to witness its grand launch in 1628 for battles against Poland, including the king of Sweden and numerous dignitaries. Imagine the shock as the pride of the Swedish armada, the royal flagship Vasa, sailed less than one nautical mile for only 20 minutes on its maiden voyage before it foundered in a gust of wind. Weighed down by 64 heavy cannons and with insufficient ballast, it listed badly and water gushed into the open gun-ports, the Vasa sinking with the loss of over thirty lives. Forgotten over time, it lay in its watery grave at the bottom of Stockholm’s harbour for over 330 years.
Discovered in the 1950s on the seabed, all the metal had corroded away but the wood of the ship was in remarkable condition. A combination of the polluted nature of the waterway, low salt levels and the frigid temperatures kept the shipworms and other nasty micro-organisms which normally devour wood at bay. Over a number of years, a recovery was planned and successfully executed.
The preservation was a long drawn out affair. First resurfacing in 1961, the Vasa was sprayed with a special glycol for a painstaking seventeen years to replace the water in the wood and to prevent shrinkage on drying. For a further nine years, the Vasa was carefully dried until it was ready for display.
Carefully monitored, it was moved into its own purpose-built five storey building (complete with fake external masts to show how tall the ship would have been in real life) on the Stockholm island of Djurgården, several blocks from the city centre. Certain elements required replacement such as the rigging and masts (all made to the standards of the time), though these are distinctly newer in appearance due to the lack of discolouration in the wood. To maintain the idea that it has sat on the sea floor for three centuries, it has been left in its natural state and not repainted with the vivid colours that scientists believe it was first adorned.
Though displayed in low light conditions to help preserve this old ship, the museum (Vasamuseet) is a superb experience with the imposing 70 metre ship standing majestically in the centre of the building from all five levels, showing the various levels of the ship itself. Around the edges on walkways are detailed explanations, videos on the restoration and life on the Vasa, walk-through recreations of parts of the ship, and displays of the many hundreds of objects and artefacts from clothing, crockery, cutlery, coins and the seamen’s personal effects to ship fittings, weapons and parts of the sails.
The Vasa is one of Sweden’s great travel wonders with the museum offering enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff and an excellent portrayal of not just the detailed craftsmanship in building wooden sailing ships, but in the seamen’s harsh life in past centuries.
More details are available at the Vasa Museum website.