The Vasa: an elegant seventeenth-century warship in Stockholm

Stockholm, Vasa
Sweden’s capital Stockholm has a lot to offer-fine dining, good shopping, lovely parks, access to some interesting day trips (the old Viking capital of Uppsala being my favorite) and a unique museum. The Vasa Ship Museum is one of Sweden’s most popular tourist attractions and it’s easy to see why. It houses a beautifully preserved 17th century warship.

The Vasa was meant to be the pride of the Swedish fleet at a time when the nation was one of Europe’s major powers. The galleon was 226 feet long, carried 145 sailors and 300 soldiers, and sported elegant woodwork over much of its exterior. Its 64 cannon could blast out 588 pounds of iron from port or starboard, giving it more firepower than any other ship then in existence. It must have been a major letdown when it sank barely a mile into its maiden voyage in 1628. It turns out the whole thing was top heavy.

While the Vasa was a bad ship, it’s an awesome museum piece. The cold water, silt, and pollution of Stockholm harbor kept it safe from microorganisms that would have eaten it up. When archaeologists raised it from the sea they retrieved thousands of artifacts such as weapons, utensils, coins, clothing, tools, and hemp sails and rigging. Some parts of the ship still had flakes of paint and gold leaf adhering to them, so its once-vivid colors could be reproduced in a scale model in the museum.

This year is the 50th anniversary of its raising from the bottom of the harbor. This was a tricky operation that required 1,300 dives and a great deal of delicate underwater work in low visibility. Divers had to dig six tunnels under the shipwreck in order to run steel cables through them and attach them to pontoons on the surface. After that, the pontoons lifted it to the surface without a hitch.

The next step was to reassemble the ship. All of the nails had rusted away, so the archaeologists were left with a massive jigsaw puzzle with many of the pieces missing. Some 32,000 cubic feet of oak timber and more than 26,000 artifacts had to be preserved, cataloged, and archived. To house the restored ship, the Vasa Ship Museum opened in 1990.

Now the Vasa may get some companions. Five other ships dating from the 16th to the 18th century have been discovered during the renovation of one of Stockholm’s quays. This was the site of the old shipyards where the Vasa was built. They’re said to be in good condition and some are as long as 20 meters (66 feet).

If you love the sea, you’ll also want to check out Amsterdam’s Maritime Museum and Madrid’s Naval Museum. And if you’re going to Stockholm, check out our budget Stockholm guide.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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