The Vasa set sail in 1628, laden with cargo, cannons and sailors for her maiden journey from the Stockholm harbor. She made it about a mile before succumbing to the sea, sinking before ever seeing the open ocean. The canons were apparently recovered relatively early on following the disaster, but the rest of the boat was left to sit on the bottom for over 300 years until she was raised – nearly entirely intact – and moved into a museum.
That the ship survived that long in such good condition is attributed to the low salinity of the water in the Stockholm harbor which prevents the organisms which would normally attack the wood from thriving. The net result is that the enormous ship – and it really is huge – presents a great point in time view of life at that time, particularly as it was lived on the ocean.
Huge probably doesn’t do justice to the size of the ship. The size was also likely a major contributing factor to its demise. Drawing a reasonably shallow 15 foot draft, and rising 3-4 times that height out of the water, the Vasa was almost certainly top-heavy to the point of tipping over once the winds picked up as she started to move out at sea. There were two decks holding 64 canons, with intricately decorated portholes out of which they would fire lining the sides of the ship, making it one of the more heavily armed ships of her era (though not the largest), able to discharge 300kg of shot at a time off one side.
The rigging that remains (most of the blocks are actually the original pieces!) is quite impressive. But perhaps the most amazing part about it is that the masts actually extended much higher than what is visible; the enormity that is on display actually doesn’t even fully show how big the ship really was. Outside the museum hall there are "masts" which rise up to show the full size the ship would have presented when she set sail that day. They extend up quite a bit above the roof.
The Vasa was not just an enormous ship, however. She was also quite beautiful. In addition to the cannon doors which were decorated the aft section of the ship was quite ornate. The wood carvings are quite intricate and there is evidence that the depictions were painted in bright colors originally; there are some artist renditions of what they might have looked like on display as well. It is quite impressive to see the level of detail that went into the decoration of the ship, especially compared to construction today where the details are generally completely ignored in favor of saving money. In the era of the Vasa the ornate details were generally showing homage to the king or patron of the vessel, meaning that without them the funding probably wouldn’t show up. I guess that’s reason enough to put in the extra effort.
The displays were not all about the ship itself; there were a lot of smaller details that were discovered in the salvage operation and which are also on display. Many skeletons were found, for example, and the study of their position relative to the ship, clothing and possessions makes for an interesting read of who was sailing and the history of their lives. On-board life was also somewhat well represented in the artifacts. A couple 350 year old backgammon boards were located in the wreckage, showing off part of the personal lives of those on board.
I was a bit skeptical when the Vasa museum made it on to the schedule for the day. That skepticism disappeared pretty much from the moment we walked in to the museum and caught a glimpse of the ship in all her glory. The level of detail they go to in showing the recovery process and the view of life at the time as shown from the evidence seen on the ship adds greatly to the experience as well. It was completely worth it to make the visit.
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