What started with church services and a festive atmosphere ended in a watery grave. It was the 10th of August 1628, when Vasa, the most powerful warship in the Baltic, foundered in Stockholm harbour before the eyes of a large audience, scant minutes after setting sail for the first time.
It was mid-afternoon when at last it was time. After many delays, frustrations with the supply of guns, and a change of captain, the newly fitted out Vasa was anchored below the castle, with its cannon finally on board and the crew manning their stations. The quay was packed with people and the water teemed with small craft carrying people who wanted to watch the mighty war machine slip its moorings and sail from Stockholm.
The crew had been allowed to bring their families, as it was the ship's maiden voyage. The guests, including women and children, would disembark at the fortress of Vaxholm before the ship continued to the summer fleet base on the island of Älvsnabben in the Stockholm archipelago. There it would be the flagship of the reserve squadron, awaiting further orders as to whether to reinforce the blockade of Gdańsk in the stalemated, bloody war against Poland-Lithuania or to join the Swedish squadron protecting the German port of Stralsund. Only then would the ship's complement of marines, two companies of soldiers totalling 300 men and officers, come aboard. But the soldiers were never to set foot on Vasa.
10 August 1628 was a Sunday, and many of Vasa's crew had received communion earlier in the day. Hopes were high as people bid farewell or followed the ship from the key, but some aboard the ship were worried.
Vasa cast off from the palace between four and five o'clock. Perhaps musicians struck up a suitably martial tune. Because the wind was from the south, the ship had to be warped with the help of anchors along the waterfront to the other end of the city island, to the place now called Slussen. Here, she could pick up the current that would take her down the harbour. As the ship found the current, the last warp was cast off, Vasa was freed from the land, four of the ten sails were set, and a salute was fired.
There was little wind under the bluffs of Södermalm, not even enough to pull the sheets of the sails taught, and Vasa drifted on the current, not answering her helm. A small gust filled the sails, and the ship heeled to port, but slowly, agonizingly recovered. As the ship passed the gap in the bluffs at Tegelviken, a much stronger gust pushed the ship so far over on its port side that water poured in through the open gunports on the lower gundeck. Vasa began to sink.
Pandemonium reigned on deck. The captain ordered the sheets cast off to spill the wind from the sails and the gunports closed. Vice Admiral Erik Jönsson ran below to make sure the cannon had not broken loose. Many threw themselves into the water, while those below decks struggled to make their way up wildly tilting ladders. Within minutes, the ship was on the sea bed at a depth of 32 metres. The masts stuck up above the surface, and many grabbed hold of them. Others were picked up by the small craft that had followed Vasa's shaky journey at close quarters. Some swam the 120 metres to the shore of Beckholmen.
The quick and the dead
All but 30 of the crew and guests survived when Vasa sank. Most of the dead were trapped inside the ship. We only know the names of a few people on board, mostly those who survived the catastrophe. The captain, Söfring Hansson, abandoned Vasa late, almost too late, as he was dragged under by the sinking ship and only barely reached the surface in his heavy, sodden clothes.
Erik Jönsson also survived, but his escape was even closer. Below decks checking the guns when the ship began to sink, the ladder on which was climbing collapsed and he was struck by a hatch cover. He was pulled from the water and lay near death for some time.
Among the dead was Captain Hans Jonsson. He had been named as Vasa's original captain before being replaced by Söfring Hansson. He was still on board, as it was common to take a second experienced captain on the first cruise of a new ship.
There was mourning in Stockholm for those lost, and relief among those who survived. There was anger among those who had built the ship, but the overriding emotion was astonishment: how could such a thing have happened?
Vasa – a faulty design
The designer, Henrik Hybertsson, was an experienced and well-respected master shipwright who had built a number of successful warships for the Swedish Crown, but Vasa was something new for him in its size and armament, and he had no way to calculate a proposed ship's performance in advance. The mathematics we now use to predict stability and speed were more than a century in the future, so shipwrights had to base their designs on experience. In this environment, it was common that new ships, especially large warships like Vasa, were unstable when first put into service. Such ships were said to be tender or crank, and there were accepted methods for fixing the problem. Armament could be revised, extra planking could be added at the waterline, or the ship could be reduced in height by removing a deck. Unfortunately for Vasa, she was so crank that she did not survive long enough to be improved.
The problem is that the upperworks of the hull are too tall and heavily built for the relatively small amount of hull below the waterline. This might have made the ship fast, but it put the centre of gravity too far above the water, so even a light breeze could heel the ship alarmingly. This became clear to all on 10 August 1628, but it was suspected by some even before the ship sailed.
The fact that Captain Söfring Hansson allowed the gun ports to remain open when Vasa set off was a fateful decision – if they had been closed, water could not have poured in, and the ship might have survived long enough to be rebuilt into a more stable configuration.