The Warship Vasa – Part 1

The warship Vasa of 1628
The warship Vasa of 1628.
Gustav II Adolf (1594 - 1632)
Gustav II Adolf (1594 – 1632).

Today, it is hard to imagine, but during the 17th and 18th centuries, the Kingdom of Sweden was an aggressive entity – one of the great European powers – that asserted territorial control over much of the Baltic region. When Gustav II Adolf (1594-1632) acceded the Swedish throne in 1611 he inherited wars with Russia, Denmark and Poland. Gustav Adolf was the grandson of Gustav I – or Gustav Vasa as he is widely known today – the first of the Vasa dynasty. The Vasa family had a bundle of sticks, called a fascine in English and ‘vase’ in Swedish, as their heraldic symbol and it is from this that the ship Vasa gets her name.


Drawing from Nicolaes Witsen's Aeloude and hedendaegsche Scheepsbouw en Bestier from 1671
Drawing from Nicolaes Witsen’s Aeloude and hedendaegsche Scheepsbouw en Bestier from 1671.

It is in these war-like conditions that Vasa was built. In fact, out of the 21 years Gustav Adolf reigned, 18 were spent at war. The ship was commissioned in January 1625, together with three others. It was a Dutch master shipwright, Henrik Hybertsson and his business partner Arendt de Groote, who secured the contract. Vasa’s keel was laid late in the winter of 1626 at Skeppsgården, the navy yard in Stockholm. By the summer, Hybertsson, who was already sick when construction started, had to hand over supervision of the works to his assistant, Hein Jakobsson. Hybertsson, who had designed Vasa, passed away soon after.

The ship was launched in the spring of 1627 and hundreds of craftsmen worked around the clock to finish it by the summer of 1628. Although vividly decorated with hundreds of sculptures, there can be no mistake that Vasa was a war machine. The ship was 69 m long, 50 m tall from the keel to the top of the main mast, weighed over 1200 tonnes when outfitted with all ten of her sails and carried 120 tonnes of ballast. Most importantly, Vasa carried 64 cannon: 48 24-pounders that fired shot weighing ten kilograms each; eight 3-pounders on the upper deck and six stormstycken, short guns for firing anti-personnel ammunition at short range. All of that firepower added up to a broadside of 250 kilograms, twice as much as the largest ships in other northern European navies at that time.

Three bronze 24 pounders
Bronze 24-pounders.

Before the ship set sail, it was tested. The captain supervising the rigging of Vasa, Söfring Hansson, had thirty men run back and forth across the deck and noted that the ship rolled alarmingly. Despite reporting his worries to Vice Admiral Klas Fleming, who himself was feeling the pressure from the king to get the ship to sea, Söfring received orders to set sail anyway. On the 10th of August 1628, Vasa did set sail… for 1300 metres. Thousands of Stockholm citizens and several foreign ambassadors watched while a gust of wind made the ship heel to port. Water gushed through the open gun-ports and within minutes Vasa was gone, lying 32 meters below on the sea bed.

Repeated attempts to raise the ship failed. However, 35 years later, in 1663, the divers Albrecht von Treileben and Andreas Peckell, making use of a recently perfected invention, the diving bell, managed to reach the ship, rip up the deck and extract almost all of Vasa’s guns and sold them abroad.

Use of the diving bell during the salvage of Vasa's guns
Use of the diving bell during the salvage of Vasa’s guns.

It was Anders Franzén who, in recent history, rediscovered the vessel in August of 1956. Divers explored the wreck and, thanks to the Baltic’s cold and fresh water which makes it inhospitable for shipworms, encountered Vasa in astonishing condition. When it was decided to lift the ship, the proposals on how to do so ranged from filling Vasa with ping-pong balls to freezing it in a giant ice-cube. Eventually, the Neptune Company opted to use a tried-and-tested method: divers spent two years digging tunnels and passing cables under the hull up to floating pontoons. On Monday the 24th of April 1961, Vasa was again seen by a crowd of thousands when the ship broke the surface 333 years after its fatal first voyage.

Raising Vasa
With a little help, Vasa floats once again.


  • Museum website:
  • Cederlund, C. O. & Hocker, F. 2006. Vasa I: The Archaeology of a Swedish Warship of 1628. Oxford: Oxbow Books.
  • Hocker, F. 2011. Vasa: A Swedish Warship. Stockholm: Medstroms Bokforlag.

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