Archive for the ‘Ship sinking’ Category

The sinking of the Swedish warship Vasa

June 25, 2017

In 1628, the 69 meter Swedish warship Vasa sunk on its maiden voyage out of Stockholm harbor.  The sunken ship was located in 1956 and was recovered in 1961. The ship has been displayed at the Vasa Museum in Stockholm since 1990.  Vasa is the world’s only preserved 17th century ship and is Sweden’s biggest archaeological tourist attraction.



Vasa had a width of about 11 meters and a maximum height of about 20 meters — not including masts.  (The ship was more than 50 meters tall from the keel to the top of the main mast.) The hull consisted of three layers and was approximately 40 cm thick. The ship weighed 1,200 tons.

It is concluded that Vasa, which was fitted with 64 cannons weighing 70 tons, was top-heavy.  It capsized and sank after sailing less than one mile.  The ship had more than 100 crewmen aboard along with guests including women and children.   More than 50 persons drowned.  When the ship was recovered about 25 human skeletons were found in the ship.

“Although Vasa was a Swedish warship constructed in Stockholm, it was designed and built by Dutch shipwrights. In the early 17th century, the Dutch rose to prominence as the premier shipbuilders in Europe. The quality of Dutch-built vessels were renowned and Dutch shipwrights were hired to build the merchant fleets and navies throughout Europe.”  Source: Kelby James Rose, The Naval Architecture of Vasa, a 17th Century Swedish Warship at 8 (doctoral dissertation submitted to the Office of Graduate and Professional Studies of Texas A & M University — 2014).

“Despite his pivotal role in the construction of Vasa and eminence as a royal shipbuilder, little is known about Henrik Hybertsson. He was born in the Netherlands . . . [and] in the early 1600s, Hybetsson moved to Sweden where he was commonly referred to as Master Henrik. . . . By the time he entered into the Stockholm shipyard contract, he was likely one of the most experienced shipwrights in Sweden. . . . Hybertsson eventually moved to Stockholm . . . [and] in 1621, Master Henrik joined the contract held by Anton Monier for operation of the Stockholm shipyard. Along with his partner Arendt de Groot, Hybertsson signed a new contract in January of 1625 and that was scheduled to take effect in January 1626.  Hybertsson was likely concerned primarily with organizational and administrative matters of the shipyard and left most practical construction matters to two other shipwrights in his employ, Henrik Jacobsson and Johan Isbrandsson (both Dutch). . . . Master Henrik’s health began to deteriorate in 1625. In the summer of 1626, he handed practical responsibility for the operation of the shipyard to his chief assistant Henrik Jacobsson who would oversee the completion of Vasa. Hybertsson was bedridden by the end of 1626 and died in the late spring of 1627.”  (Source: Rose dissertation at 45-46.)

“Although Vasa was the largest naval architecture project of Henrik Hybertsson’s life, this was not the case with Henrik Jacobsson. Following Vasa’s sinking, Jacobsson went on to build at least three more large and successful warships. . . . All three of Jacobsson’s warships had successful careers.”  (Source: Rose dissertation at 318.)

In an academic article by, Richard E. Fairley, a faculty member at the Oregon Graduate Institute School of Science and Engineering, Mr. Fairley wrote about Vasa’s sinking:

“Around 4:00 PM on August 10th, 1628 the warship Vasa set sail in Stockholm harbor on its maiden voyage as the newest ship of the Royal Swedish Navy.  After sailing about 1,300 meters, a light gust of wind caused the Vasa to heel over on its side. Water poured in through the gun portals and the ship sank with a loss of 53 lives. The Vasa lay in shallow waters off Stockholm harbor (at 32 meters depth) and after initial attempts to salvage it failed, was largely forgotten until it was located by Anders Franzen in 1956. In 1961, 333 years after it sank, the Vasa was raised and was so well preserved that it could float after the gun portals were sealed and water and mud were pumped from it.” Source: Richard E. Fairley,  Why the Vasa Sank: 10 Lessons Learned at 1.

Authors Lars-Ake Kvarning and Bengt Ohrelius described Vasa’s maiden voyage:

“Between three and four in the afternoon of Sunday August 10th, Captain Sofring Hansson gave orders to cast off.  Slowly, the Vasa was towed out from her place by the crane. Her maiden voyage had begun. In calm and lovely weather, with a light south-west wind the Vasa was towed along Skeppsbron. The great lion figure-head, glowing in its colours, gazed grimly over towards the slopes of south Stockholm. Men were all ready at the handspikes round the great capstan to start their circular march to wind up the huge anchor hawser. The march began and as the anchor hawser curled in, the Vasa moved slowly forward. In one of the ship’s boats, a new anchor was already being rowed in for the next round. The road from the palace down to the water outside the heights of Soder is long considering the anchors, manpower and capstan. There were many people out and about in town, vespers were just over and the churches emptying. A large number of Stockholm’s roughly 10,000 people had come out to enjoy this late summer evening and to witness the ship’s departure. . . . Everything on board was secured and made ready to go to sea. All gun tackle was secured and belayed — only one small one pounder, called falkon, lying on deck and with no gun-carriage, was not secured. . . . The stern cable was cast off, the wind not strong, the south cliffs providing lee. With only four sails hoisted, the ship was moving quite slowly with scarcely any steerage-way. Then the wind increased slightly. Water began swirling round the bows and rippling faintly round the sturdy oak hull. The Vasa fired svensk losen (two shots). A fierce gust from the clifftops made the ship heel over, but then she straightened up again. Slowly, the Vasa slipped along the southern shores, the evening sun high above the lake Malaren, its rays giving lustre to the colours and gold of the richly decorated stern, the cliff still providing lee. . . . Beyond what was then the bay at Tegelviken, the wind was suddenly given much freer play and again a gust of wind from inland made the Vasa unexpectedly heeled fiercely over. All at once, she straightened up again, but this fierce careening had caused some uneasiness. The captain shouted through his megaphone that all men should immediately go to their stations, and he gave orders to loosen the topsail sheets. But the wind was not even strong enough to pull the new rope through their well-greased blocks and help was actually needed to ease them through. She heeled over again. The list was even greater this time, and water began rushing in through the open gun-ports. The list increased even further until the Vasa’s railing was in the water. Her moment of destiny had come. Just off Beckholmen, she went to the bottom at full sail, flags and all. . . . No one knows with any certainty how many people were on board. According to available crew recommendations, however, the crew on the Vasa should have consisted of 133 seamen. . . . It is said that old Captain Hans Jonsson was drowned and that Ordnance Master Erik Jonsson and the captain got away after being for a long time under  water in great danger of their lives. No list has ever been found in any of the archives of those who were saved or those who died. At the most, fifty or so people probably died in the disaster. In the excavation after the salvaging, however, only skeletons and parts of skeletons of twenty-five people were found.”

Source: Lars-Ake Kvarning and Bengt Ohrelius, The Vasa: The Royal Ship 18-22 (1972 — reprinted 2002). (Paragraphing omitted.)

Here is another account of Vasa’s sinking:

“On her maiden voyage on August 10, 1628, the Vasa sailed out of port and into Stockholm’s harbor. Les than a mile out, her sails filled with wind, and she fired a salute. A cheer went up from the assembled onlookers. Suddenly, she heeled sharply onto her port side. She righted herself briefly before heeling again. This time, water rushed into her gun ports, and she promptly sank to the bottom of the harbor. Sweden lost 50 lives that day, and the crown lost a fortune. The Vasa’s guns, carvings, and majestic trappings plummeted into 110 feet (33 m) of cold, Baltic water.”

Source: Liz Mechem, Disasters at Sea: A Visual History of Infamous Shipwrecks 44 (2009).




King Gustav II Adolphus of Sweden was in Poland at the time of Vasa’s sinking.  The King demanded that those responsible be punished for “imprudence and negligence.”  After an inquiry, no one was found to be negligent or punished.

Admiral Baron Carl Carlsson Gyllenheim (1574-1650) was a half brother of King Gustav II Adolphus (1594-1632).  Gustav II was the King of Sweden from 1611-1632.




The King may have been partially responsible for Vasa’s sinking.  He insisted that the ship take up her station as the flagship of the Baltic fleet as soon as possible. Captain Hansson, the person with some responsibility for the construction of the ship,  had warned Vice Admiral Flemming that the ship had stability problems.  However, Captain Hansson and Vice Admiral Flemming were apparently too timid to discuss the ship’s structural problems with the King.

“That the Vasa was launched with known stability problems is the result of poor communication, pressure from King Gustav to launch the ship as soon as possible, the fact that the King was in Poland conducting a war campaign, and because no one had any suggestions for making the ship more stable.”  (Source: Fairley article at 5.)

“During his reign, Gustav Adolf invested enormous administrative effort and capital into the growth and improvement of the Swedish military. The king viewed military strength as a primary tool to advance the position of Sweden within the Baltic and as a defensive strategy against potentially hostile neighbors. Gustav Adolph began a campaign of strengthening his navy in the mid-1620s, which included the construction of several large and heavily armed warships.  The first of these was Vasa.”  (Source: Rose dissertation at 15-16.)

Vasa was not the only large ship to sink on its maiden voyage.  The list includes the RMS Titantic (British passenger liner that collided with an iceberg and sank in the North Atlantic Ocean on April 15, 1912), the MS Georges Philippar (French ocean liner that caught fire and sank in the Gulf of Aden on May 15, 1932) and the SS John Morgan (World War II liberty ship that collided with a tanker and sank off the coast of Virginia on June 1, 1943).

“The sinking of the Vasa was a major disaster for Sweden. The country was at war with Poland and the ship was needed for the war effort. No expense had been spared. The Vasa was the most expensive project ever undertaken by Sweden and it was a total loss. The ship’s captain survived the sinking and was immediately thrown in jail. On August 11th, the day after the disaster, a preliminary board of inquiry was convened. Incompetence of the captain and crew was ruled out and the captain was set free. A formal hearing was conducted in September 1628. No exact reason for the sinking was determined and no one was blamed.” (Source: Fairley article at 1.)

“Preliminary hearings by state councillors on the accident began at Stockholm Palace the very next day [after Vasa’s sinking], to which the captain, who had only just escaped with his life, and the Master Shipbuilder of Holmen were both summoned. Captain Sofring had been taken into custody at the palace as soon as he had come ashore, but was released a few days later. On September 5th, a major enquiry was held at the  palace by an especially arranged court consisting of seventeen people, of which six were state concillors. The Admiral of the Fleet, Carl Carlsson Gyllenhielm, acted as chairman. . . . The records of this major enquiry are preserved only i a fragmentary copy, but they nevertheless provide certain opportunities to assess the causes of the accident and a reconstruction of the trial. . . . The intention to try to find a scapegoat quickly is very clear. Not least with the knowledge of the severe punishments of the day, it is impossible not to feel pity for those involved in the drama. It is also understandable that the atmosphere must occasionally have been ominously tense.”

Source: Book by Kvarning and Ohrelius at 25-26.  (Paragraphing omitted.)

“During the formal inquiry, several witnesses commented that the Vasa was ‘heavier above than below,’ but no one pursued the questions of how or why the Vasa had become top-heavy.  There was no mention of the weight of the second deck, the guns, the carvings, or other equipment. In those days, most people (including the experts) thought the higher and more impressive a warship, and the more and bigger the guns it carried, the more indestructible it would be.  (Source: Farley article at 4.)

Technical data of Vasa: Total length (including bowsprit) — 69.0 m; greatest width: 11.7 m; Draught: 4.8 m; total height at main mast: 52.5 m; height of sternship: 19.3 m; displacement: 1,210 tons; area of sail: 1,275 sq m; number of sails: 10; guns: 64, of which 48 24-pounders, eight 3-pounders and six mortars; crew: 145 men, 300 soldiers.

Source: Book by Kvarning and Ohrelius at 31.

In 2011, a documentary was released on Vasa by Swedish director and screenwriter Anders Wahlgren.  The film is titled Vasa 1628 — The People. The Ship. The Era.  Books written about the Vasa include Carl Olof Cederlund, Vasa I, The Archaeology of a Swedish Warship of 1628 (F. Hocker ed. 2006); Fred Hocker, Vasa: A Swedish Warship (2011); Larso-Ake Kvarning and Bengt Ohrelius, The Vasa: the Royal Ship (1998); Hans Soop, The Power and the Glory: The Sculptures of the Warshipo Wasa (1986); Anders Franzen, The Warship Vasa: Deep Diving and Marine Archaeology in Stockholm (1974) and Lars-Ake Kvarning and Bengt Ohrelius, The Vasa: The Royal Warship (1972).

On May 31, 1564, the Swedish warship Mars sank during a naval battle with a Danish force allied with soldiers from Germany off the coast of Oland, a Swedish island.  At the time, Mars was the largest and fiercest warship in the world.  In 2011, a group of divers located the sunken ship in 246 feet (75 meters) of water.

“During the day of sailing ships, Dalaro was Stockholm’s outer harbour. . . . But ships have been lost even in the sheltered harbour of Dalaro. In the summer of 1676, the man-of-war Riksapplet [Apple of the Realm] was wrecked in a south-westerly storm on a small skerry and sank at sixteen metres in depth.  The little islet is today called Appelskar [Apple Skerry].  The Riksapplet had a crew of 500 men and carried 86 guns.  Yet another ship was lost in Dalaro harbour.  The same year as the Riksapplet sank, the Grone Jagaren [the Green Hunter] blew up and sank to the depth of thirty metres. . . . Inside Nybroviken in Stockholm lies the 44-gun ship Vastervik.  She caught fire and sank there during the 1676 year of misfortune, when Sweden also lost the sea battle against the Danish-Dutch fleet at Oland. In dramatic circumstances, the great ship Kronan [the Crown] was lost with 850 men on board.”

Source: Book by Kvarning and Ohrelius at 12-13. (Paragraphing omitted.)


Winter 1624-1625: King Gustav II Adolf signs a contract with Dutch master shipwright Henrik Hybertsson and his business partner, Arendt de Groote, to build four ship including Vasa.

1626: Hybertsson becomes ill and can no longer supervise Vasa’s construction. Hybertsson’s assistant, Hein Jakobsson, takes over for Hybertsson.

1627: Vasa is launched during the spring at Stockholm.  Hundreds of craftsmen work through the summer to finish the hull and rigging.

Summer 1628: Captain Sofring Hansson calls Vice Admiral Klas Flemming to report that he is worried about the stability of the ship.  Admiral Flemming is afraid that the ship might sink at tbe quay.  Under pressure from the King, Admiral Flemming orders Captain Hansson to carry on.

August 10, 1628: On Vasa’s maiden voyage the ship sinks within sight of the shipyard after water gushes in through the open gun ports.  Thousands of Stockholm residents witness the scene together with several foreign ambassadors.

Autumn 1628: An inquest is conducted.  It is concluded that the ship did not have enough hull to carry the heavy upper works.  Hybertsson is blamed for the ship’s design.  He cannot defend himself because he died the year before.

1663-1665: Repeated efforts to raise the ship all fail.  A team of divers led by Albrecht von Treileben and Andreas Peckell succeed in salvaging most of Vasa’s cannons.  The divers use a recently perfected invention, the diving bell.

1920: Brothers Simon and Leonard Olschanski apply for a permit to salvage ships sunk in Stockholm harbor.  They plan to blow up the wrecks and to sell black oak, waterlogged wood, which is popular for use in Art Deco furniture.  Their application is dened.

August 1956: Anders Franzen’s crew drags Stockholm harbor.  While dragging, an obstruction is found on the bottom in front of the island of Beckholmen.

September 1956: Per Edvin Falting, the Navy’s chief salvage diver, discovers Vasa standing upright on the bottom of the harbor.

September 1958: One of Vasa’s cannons is brought up from the deep.  Per Edvin Falting becomes a media hero.

August 1959: Vasa is lifted and moved in 18 stages.  By September the ship lies at a depth of 17 meters by the island of Kastellholmen.  Divers will spend another 1.5 years preparing the ship for the final lift.

April 24, 1961: Vasa is lifted to the surface.  The event makes headlines throughout the world.

February 16, 1962: Vasa is displayed to the general public at the newly-constructed Wasa Shipyard.  During 1962 nearly 440,000 people buy a ticket to see the ship and its contents.

April 1962: The operation begins to reconstruct and preserve Vasa. The ship is sprayed with polyethylene glycol PEG to prevent the ship from being destroyed. This treatment continues until 1979.

1979-1989: The ship continues to dry.  The drying process will go on for decades until the ship completely stabilizes.

1989: The graves of 11 people who died when Vasa sank are opened after having been buried at the National Naval Cemetery in 1963.  Research is conducted on the remains.  Ten of these people become part of a special exhibit at Vasa Museum in 2004.

June 15, 1990: A museum is officially opened to display Vasa.  The museum was designed by Swedish architects Hidemark Mansson Arkitekkontor AB.

Summer 2000: It is feared that Vasa is in danger of dissolving away due to high humidity combining with sulphur in the wood to produce destructive acids.  A new, state-of-the-art climate controlled facility becomes on line in 2004.

2011: Vasa celebrates the 50th anniversary of its recovery from the depths.  A records 1.2 million people visit the museum.

(Timeline credit: Vasa Museum)