How the biggest failure of the shipbuilding industry became the pride of Sweden: The Vasa museum

When preparing a trip to Stockholm, it is said that visiting the Vasa museum (Vasamuseet) is a must do. I was intrigued by the story of that ship that is one of the worst built ever, but attracts more than a million visitors per year.

The Vasa was ordered in 1625 by Gustavus Adolfus II to impress his catholic enemies and expend his aura as the protestant lion of the North. A very arrogant king, he wanted the Vasa to be the biggest and most impressive ship of the time.

In the beginning of the 17th century, Sweden lacks qualified workers. The king hires a Dutch shipwright, Henrik Hybertsson to build two small and two big warships, including the 69-metre long Vasa. The navy yard is the biggest Swedish company with 400 workers employed by Master Henrik and his Swedish wife Margareta, who collaborate with top-notch naval carpenters from the Netherlands. But the Vasa is a special contract.

After living in Sweden for almost 30 years, Master Henrik has built a good number of vessels. With the Vasa, he starts working on the biggest ship he has ever conceived. But old and weak, he dies in 1627 at 65, before she is completed.

Margareta who was in charge of accounting and purchasing takes over. She faces many difficulties. Sweden is a small country and its wealth depends on its main resources: wood and copper. As the price of copper plunges in Amsterdam, the Swedish crown does not pay Margareta upfront. The Hybertsson family is wealthy thanks to their copper mines and lands, but this is not enough to buy 1000 oak trees, more that 1000m² of French sails required to build the ship, and pay the wages of their workers. When Margareta cannot pay them anymore, some leave and some go on strike. The ship is late. The king is impatient.

After almost three years, it is a massive warship, geared up with 64 1.5-ton bronze canons, fit for 150 sailors and 300 soldiers, beautifully decorated with hundreds of wooden sculptures and many lions by some of the most talented German sculptors, and richly painted in bright red and gold that is about to take the sea.

On her way to join the other ships of the crown to fight against Polish and German navies in the Baltic Sea during the 30-year war, the unbelievable happens on her Inauguration Day, August, 10th 1628, witnessed by most of Stockholm’s inhabitants. At about 6PM that evening, while the Vasa slowly sails across the harbour, she sinks within 20 minutes and less than 1500 metres from her starting point. 40 sailors out of 130 on board are swallowed by the cold waters of the Baltic Sea.

The 120 tons of stones that were piled up in the bilge were not enough to compensate for the height of the ship and the weight of her masts and canons. Another 100 tons would have been necessary to make her stable, but the bilge was too narrow. During the trial, officers and architects defend their choices and actions: no one can be found guilty, as everyone was responsible for a specific task. Still today, the Vasa syndrome describes how a mission can fail if no one takes responsibility for the overall task.

In the middle of the 17th century, it was impossible to bail the Vasa out and only the canons were recovered. The Vasa rested at a depth of 30 metres in the harbour of Stockholm for more than 300 years, until there was a will to fund her salvage in 1956. A tremendous work has been carried out since then to get her up from the bottom of the sea and conserve her.

Today she is majestically displayed at the Vasa museum that was built around her. Beyond her history, the techniques that have been implemented and researched to conserve her are fascinating. As ironic as it is, the Swedes succeeded in turning a terrible failure into the most visited museum of the country and a national pride.

Marcella & Claire

Travel tips:

  • The Vasa museum is the most visited of the country, so go early to enjoy.
  • Beyond Stockholm, Sweden is a fabulous country to visit: get inspired!
  • Check out this interactive map (quick tutorial) for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area!

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2 thoughts on “How the biggest failure of the shipbuilding industry became the pride of Sweden: The Vasa museum

  1. Pingback: A citytrip to Stockholm | Best regards from far,

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