17th century battleship Vasa pleasure to see

Richard Collins visits a Stockholm museum to see a naval wonder from a bygone era.

BACK from the deep Gustav II Adolf, known in this part of the world as Gustavus Adolphus, was the Swedish equivalent of England’s Henry VIII.

There were many parallels between the two kings. Both were larger than life figures who changed the course of their country’s histories. Famous daughters succeeded them. Elizabeth, the English virgin queen, would repulse the Spanish Armada. Christina, the Swedish virgin queen, who spoke seven languages and employed René Descartes as her tutor, would abdicate, run away to Rome and become a Catholic. Appropriately for a monarch whose greatest campaigns were in the bedroom trying to acquire a male heir, Henry died of syphilis. Gustavus’ demise, too, was appropriate; his bravery was his undoing. Gustavus led his army from the front and Napoleon regarded him as one of the greatest military commanders ever to have lived. Leading a cavalry charge on the field of Lützen, he died in a battle which he won.

But there is another parallel between the two giants; their flagships suffered similar fates. The pride of Henry’s navy, the Mary Rose, sank in the Solent in 1545, during an encounter with the French. Gustavus’ magnificent Vasa also went to the bottom, but ignominiously. Centuries later, both ships would be resurrected. The Mary Rose, lifted from the seabed in 1982, is in Portsmouth. The Vasa, raised in 1962, can be seen in a marvellous museum in Stockholm.

Great ships were formidable weapons; they were also propaganda statements designed to intimidate potential enemies. Gustavus, the ‘Lion of the North’ and the ‘father of modern warfare’ needed a vessel to match his growing status and, in 1624, he commissioned the Dutch ship-builder Henrik Hybersson to construct a new warship. Called after Gustavus’ grandfather, Gustav Vasa, this would be the largest and most expensive warship built in Sweden up to that time. Sixty-nine metres long, she could deploy 1,275m squared of sail and carried 64 guns. !On August 10, 1628, the Vasa, with its magnificent painted carvings and colourful flags, set sail from the quayside beneath the Royal Palace in Stockholm. The families of the crew were allowed on board for the ship’s maiden voyage into the archipelago. The winds were light. Yet, 20 minutes later and 1.3 km from the shore, the Vasa capsized. About 50 people, and the ship’s cat, drowned.

Gustavus, away in Prussia eagerly awaiting the arrival of his new ship, returned to Stockholm. An inquiry was established. The ship’s captain and officers claimed that there had been no errors in seamanship. It being a Sunday, drunkenness among the crew was ruled out. The Vasa had capsized because it was top-heavy; a second gun deck having been incorporated in its design. The deck, however, was listed in the original specification; the ship-builders had faithfully carried out the King’s instructions. Nobody could be blamed. God and the King were infallible; no criticism could be made of them. The inquiry ceased and its report was never published.

So was the King to blame? Gustavus did not suffer fools gladly and you crossed him at your peril. Perhaps his shipbuilders could not pluck up the courage to tell him that the second gun-deck would render the ship unstable.

The Vasa’s sojourn, 30 metres down off Beckholmen, ended on April 24 1961, when the old ship, with six cables slung under her, was drawn slowly to the surface. Such was its state of preservation that the hull floated, once the pumps had emptied it. The waters of the Baltic are so low in salt that the great enemy of timber vessels, the tiny clam teredo or ‘ship worm’, can’t live there. Oxygen-free mud is an excellent preservative; 25 skeletons were recovered.

I first saw the Vasa almost 30 years ago. She was then housed in a purpose-built high-tech facility and bathed in artificial mist. When old wood dries, it cracks and disintegrates. Polyethylene glycol (PEG), an ingredient of lipstick and hand-cream, penetrates wood and displaces water. A PEG solution was sprayed from 500 nozzles, 25 minutes on and 25 minutes off, for 24 hours a day.

The present museum building, with the ship’s masts protruding through the roof, was opened in 1990. Spraying is no longer needed as all of the wood has now been treated. However, according to Fred Hocker, Director of Vasa Research at the National Maritime Museums of Sweden, a new problem has arisen, that of ‘acid rain’. During its long sojourn under the sea, sulphur from marine organisms became embedded in the wood. In the oxygen-free conditions below, this was not a problem. Now, exposed to the air, sulphur oxygen and water combine to form sulphuric acid, threatening to dissolve the delicate timber.

Stockholm is now a city-break tourist destination. There are direct flights from Dublin by Scandinavian Airlines for as little as €67 each way. The city has so many attractions that you might be tempted to skip the Vasa. Don’t! You will get a vivid, and slightly scary, impression of what it was like to sail in such a vessel. None of today’s travel insurers would cover you for a voyage on the Vasa!

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