In the end, Gustavus Adolphus met his objective: his fame as the King of Sweden was assured forever, but perhaps not in the way and for the reasons he had intended. His plan was to build a ship so big, so powerful, so beautiful and so invisible, everybody would have to fear and admire the wisdom of the man behind its creation. He succeeded in the fear department, but failed miserably on the wisdom part.
It was the year 1626, when Sweden was at its height of power in the Baltic region. While embroiled in the Poland-Lithuanian War (1621 – 1629), Sweden had lost 14 war ships in very short order, making the king anxious to beef up his naval fleet with several new additions. One ship was to outperform all others. The Vasa was to be that ship.
Orders for the construction of the Vasa were given by the king in 1624. During the 4 years from conception to maiden voyage, approximately 400 craftsmen and shipbuilders worked on the Vasa. During much of the construction, the work was rushed by an impatient king and there were rigid timelines to be met. Inevitably, questions were raised about the sea worthiness of the Vasa. But, as in many failed projects in history, any concerns were swept aside or not brought to the attention of the leadership. The king had the final say about the design of the ship and the number of canons it was supposed to carry. Presumably for fear of retribution, nobody spoke up.
Just days before the ship was to leave on its maiden voyage, the Vasa’s stability was tested. Thirty men were asked to run back and forth from port to starboard and back. After only three trips across the ship’s deck, the captain supervising the construction stopped the test for fear the ship would capsize. Clearly, with all that weaponry high up on two decks, the Vasa’s center of gravity was too high. The concerns were grave but the king was fighting the war far away from Stockholm and could not be reached.
The Vasa’s maiden voyage took place on August 10th, 1628. Captain Söfring Hansson steered the ship away from its berth. She travelled for 1,300 m (1,400 yd) through the harbour channel when a strong wind gust caused the Vasa to list severely. Water entered the lower gun decks, making it impossible for the ship to right herself. In plain view of thousands of Swedes and dignitaries, the Vasa sank only 15 minutes into her maiden voyage, taking 30 sailors to their death. It took two weeks for the news of the catastrophe to reach King Gustavus Adolphus in Poland. Needless to say, the king was angry. In his letter back to Stockholm he called the disaster the result of “imprudence and negligence”. Many questions were asked and an inquest was held to find the party responsible for the accident. In the end, nobody guilty person was found and nobody lost his head.
The Vasa came to rest on the bottom of the harbour channel where it lay for 333 years. In front of television cameras from all over the world and to the amazement of many, the ship was almost completely intact when she was brought to the surface on April 24th, 1961. The spectacular Vasa can now be seen at the Vasa Museum in Stockholm.
Getting back to King Gustavus Adolphus’ objective: His fame is secure for centuries to come, but not for the great things he accomplished as Sweden’s monarch. Rather, the king will be remembered for his arrogance and his unwillingness to listen to his experts.
Following the sinking of the Vasa, four more sister ships were built by the Swedes. They featured a very similar design and the same number of heavy canons as the Vasa. All served the Swedish navy successfully for many years. The only major difference in the sister ships’ design: they were 1 m (3.1 ft) wider.