The Vasa sank on her maiden voyage in 1628 but was salvaged intact in 1961 and is now a major tourist attraction on Stockholm's waterfront. The warship was one of the largest and most heavily armed of its time but the weight of its guns contributed to the disaster.
Stockholm – Been There

Preserving the past for a thousand years

Photo by Peter Adams

Stockholm – Been There Preserving the past for a thousand years

Stockholm has a long-standing association with attractive and practical design styles. There is a certain irony, therefore, that Stockholm’s most popular attraction – in terms of official visitor numbers – tells the story of a disaster linked to design failings on an epic scale.

Dan Hayes
Dan Hayes Travel Writer

In 1628, the Vasa, the newly built flagship of the Swedish navy, emerged from Stockholm’s harbor on its maiden voyage. Despite a relatively calm sea and a light breeze, the warship was soon yawing alarmingly and, just over a kilometer from port, capsized and sank. Settling in 32 meters of water, only short distance from shore, the wreck was still beyond the technology of the day to salvage.

Today, painstakingly and continually restored since being raised intact in 1961, the Vasa rests in a purpose-built building a few minutes’ walk from Skansen and virtually next door to the Nordiska Museet. It is not a place that is easy to miss, partly because three masts sprout from its pitched, grey roof.

Museum curator Magnus Olofsson is an enthusiastic mine of information about how the vessel came to grief and its reincarnation as one of the Europe’s most remarkable visitor attractions.

“The reasons for the ship’s sinking are complicated,” he says. “The easiest explanation is that it had been designed to be far too narrow. People seem to have realized that at the time. They certainly recognized that it wasn’t stable, but they were in a hurry and they just hoped for the best.” One of the reasons the shipwrights and sailors made what was in retrospect such a foolhardy decision was that nobody was keen to tell the Swedish King, Gustav II Adolf, that his flagship project (literally, in this case) had gone horribly wrong.

The current Vasa Museum opened in 1987 and the ship is kept in a large hall whose humidity and temperature is designed to slow the process of decay as far as possible. The vessel itself is an impressive sight, gunports open, intricate carvings still intact and masts rigged, it appears like a wooden cliff-face above the heads of visitors. That, says Olofsson, is the whole point. “The ship is bigger than almost everybody expects anyway,” he says, “but the space has been very cleverly used to make it seem even larger and more dramatic than it actually is.”

At a level with its keel, visitors look up with expressions of awe and surprise towards the bulwarks, gunports and decks above their heads. King Gustav would no doubt have approved of the emotions his mighty warship can still engender to this day. But it is more than just the ship’s size that lures visitors, adds Oloffson. “This is the only complete vessel from the 17th century anywhere in the world and it’s easy for people to understand its story. The mystery surrounding how it sank is also something that intrigues people and that’s partly because what was created that day was a time capsule that can take you back to 1628.”

Indeed, so complete and seemingly solid is the vessel, it is all too easy to forget that it spent three centuries beneath the waters of the Baltic Sea. Its very existence is a tribute to those who restored it and continue to labor so the ship can hold off the ravages of time and elements for as long as possible.

“The restoration and maintenance work is a never-ending story, it just goes on and on, all the time,” says the curator, with a hint of a shrug. “Wood that’s been under water for so long doesn’t really like to be exposed to the air. It begins to oxidize and that starts a chain reaction that basically means it isn’t as stable as it was in the 17th century. We know nothing lasts for ever, but we think Vasa should be here for at least another 1,000 years.”

stockholm6465s-8055

The island of Skeppsholmen guards the Baltic Sea entrance to Stockholm and was long associated with the military but is now better known for its museums. Its shoreline is dominated by the "af Chapman" schooner, a former Swedish Navy training ship, now a youth hostel. Photo by Peter Adams

Peter Adams

Peter Adams

Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III

Aperture
ƒ/11
Exposure
1/60
ISO
100
Focal
55 mm

The island of Skeppsholmen guards the Baltic Sea entrance to Stockholm and was long associated with the military but is now better known for its museums. Its shoreline is dominated by the "af Chapman" schooner, a former Swedish Navy training ship, now a youth hostel.

Other stories about Stockholm