Some have called it Sweden's Apollo Program, a dramatic and complex technical effort over several years to do something few thought possible: raise an intact 17th-century warship from the bottom of the sea. Even today, many still remember where they were when Vasa finally rose from the deep after 333 years in darkness.
Per Edvin Fälting and Sven Persson had confirmed on 4 September, 1956 that the small plugs of wood in Anders Franzén's corer came from a ship. Feeling their way in the dark, every step kicking up a swirling mass of silt, they had established that a large ship with two tiers of gunports, intact to the point that one mast was still standing, lay on the bottom of Stockholm harbour. The news was electric. The question was, what next?
Armed with the knowledge of the ship's history and the divers' reports, Franzén threw himself into building the coalition of institutions that could raise and restore the ship for the museum he envisioned. The task would require technical expertise of many kinds, from diving and salvage to preservation. It needed historical and archaeological knowledge of the early 17th century. Most of all, it would require money, manpower and heavy equipment.
Through his network of contacts, Franzén knew where to find the right people. He persuaded each in turn to join the project and commit the needed resources. The navy assigned Commodore Edward Clason, the commander of the navy's diving assets, to run the project and Fälting as the dive boss, as well as all of its divers, in the form of their annual training courses. The Heritage Board detached a conservator, Bo Lundvall, who would spend his entire career with Vasa. The museum assigned Edward Hamilton, a retired naval officer and historian and agreed to curate the finds. Broströms, the biggest marine salvage company in Scandinavia, with years of experience in raising sunken ships, assigned one of their divisions, the Neptune Diving and Salvage Company, to engineer and carry out the lift, and agreed not to charge a penny for it.
Franzén also interested the royal court in Vasa. The king, Gustav VI Adolf, was an archaeologist by training, and threw his support behind the ship built by his namesake. His son, Prince Bertil, one of the most popular members of the royal family, became the chairman of the foundation established to raise the ship, Wasanämnden (the Vasa Board).
Ping-pong balls and ice cubes
Vasa quickly became a national celebrity and suggestions for how to raise the ship soon started pouring in. Creative ideas, such as filling the hull with ping-pong balls, or freezing it in a gigantic ice-cube, were quickly discarded; the Neptune Company made it clear that they would only participate if they could use a reliable method for which they were already equipped. So between 1957 and 1959, navy divers dug six tunnels under Vasa and pulled massive steel cables through them to suspend the ship in a basket. These cables were taken to two floating pontoons, named Oden and Frigg, at the surface. By pumping the pontoons almost full of water, then tightening the cables and pumping the water back out, Vasa could be broken free of the mud and lifted and moved into shallower water.
As the divers dug with high-pressure waterjets and dredges, they encountered a fascinating array of finds that had fallen off the ship, from rigging hardware to gunport lids, and the first of more than seven hundred finely carved sculptures. They also found the mainmast lying next to the ship, and the ship's longboat. When one of Vasa's cannon was discovered, its raising on 5 September 1958 was covered live by Swedish Radio. The ship became a constant feature of the news, and Fälting, the tough, non-nonsense dive boss, became a national hero.
The first lift
On 20 August 1959, all was ready for the initial lift. Would the pontoons have enough power to pull the ship free of the mud? Would the hull hold together under the strain? The pumps were started, and the pontoons began to rise. Vasa was free again after 331 years! As the ship was lifted it was moved into shallower water, set down, and the process repeated, Each lift gained a little less than a metre, and in 18 stages the ship was moved into the lee of Kastellholmen, where divers could work year round at 17 metres depth to prepare the ship for the final lift.
For more than 18 months, a small team of commercial divers plugged holes where bolts had rusted away, fitted covers over the open gunports, and rebuilt the bow and stern to make them watertight. Steel rods were fastened across the hull to help hold it together. It was also important to make the ship lighter. The central part of the upper gundeck, which was covered with mud and debris, was cleared. More than a thousand objects were found: coins, personal belongings, gun carriages, tools and the bones of five people who had been on board when the Vasa foundered. .
Out of the darkness into the light
On Monday, 24 April 1961, thousands of people crowded the shores around Kastellholmsviken, much as they had lined the shore almost 333 years earlier. Radio, television and newspaper reporters filled special media boats at the centre of the action, and Swedish Television broadcast live to all of Europe.
The clock showed 09.03 when the tops of a few eroded frames peeked out of the water. Soon, the carved heads of four warriors emerged, followed by the outline of the whole ship at last. It really was a ship, come back from the dead, a sensation. Even today, many still remember where they were when Vasa rose from the deep.
Much remained to be done. Thousands of tons of mud and water had to be pumped out of the hull to refloat it, and the ship had to be moved onto a pontoon of its own, where it could be excavated and conserved. Archaeologists had to come on board to excavate the interior, and conservators had to begin the arduous process of treating the ship so it would not shrink and crack. Diver would spend five more years recovering thousands of loose pieces of the beakhead, sterncastle and upper deck, which lay around the hole where the ship had been, together with the ship's longboat and anchors. But April 1961 represent a milestone, a good start on the long road to the museum we have today.
Film from the salvage of Vasa. Photo: Vasamuseet
Diving on Vasa. Photo: Vasamuseet