Scandinavia is for many a land as mysterious as the exotic East, beckoning the curious with its deep evergreen forest and deep cool waters, the quiet strength and cheery resilience of its people and the beautiful, lively cities dotted about the breathtaking landscape.
The Vasa stands tall again
More than 300 years ago, the Vasa was launched as the pride of the growing Swedish Navy. Possibly the greatest warship in size and firepower at the time, the ship experienced a tragic accident and capsized not very long into its maiden voyage. Now resurrected, the Vasa forms the primary exhibit of Stockholm’s most popular museum.
The history of the Swedish Vasa
In 1628, Sweden was an emerging world power. Ruled by King Gustavus Adolphus, the country waged successful wars against its neighbours, while growing in prosperity through the exploitation of its mineral resources and trade. The Vasa was built to serve as the flagship for the navy of a proud and successful military power. The ship carried 64 guns and a total complement of 450 soldiers and sailors, which was far more than warships in those days typically carried.
On its maiden voyage, the ship was to have sailed for the naval base of Alvsnabben, but it capsized in calm weather in Stockholm harbour, with a loss of 50 lives. Experts believe that the ship’s design had rendered it too unstable to be seaworthy, and resulted in it sinking. And so it came to pass that the ship remained under water, until 1956, when a marine archeologist re-discovered the wreck of the Vasa and an effort to recover and restore the wreck was launched.
Anders Franzen searched for the remains of the Vasa for many years in the middle of the 20th Century. Then, on 25 August 1956, he found his treasure — indicated by a piece of blackened oak from the depths of Stockholm harbour. The dredging began and it took several years to lift the Vasa in stages to dry dock. This was finally completed in 1961, but from then on, an even more time-consuming part of the project began — the restoration.
As the waters of Stockholm are relatively low in salt, the ship had not deteriorated as much as it would have in warmer waters. Even so, elaborate wood carvings such as those on the stern were in very poor shape and much meticulous work had to be carried out. The conservators were hampered by the fact that no detailed drawings of the ship’s original design existed. While the hull remained intact, there were about 13, 500 loose pieces which needed to be fitted into the structure. Replacements had to be made where the original had deteriorated too far to be saved.
Pride of the nation, projection of power in the seas
The ship served not only martial functions but also to convey a message — the grandeur of a rising Empire translated into carvings, much as Palaces and Cathedrals did in those days. Many of the craftsmen were imported from Germany and Holland, and they brought influences of late Renaissance and Baroque style to their work. Among the themes displayed are those of Roman Emperors, lion figurines, notably the figurehead above the bow, characters from Greek mythology, Swedish Royals and biblical figures. The main mast stood 52 m high. Most of the ship’s cannon had already been recovered in the 17th Century itself, and weighed 11 kg.
Apart from the grand and heavy, the shipwreck also yielded more intimate artifacts – the utensils, tools and toys of the crew. Even food and drinks were recovered, though they had long since passed their date for safe use. Medical instruments, spoons and plates, a backgammon game, over 4, 000 coins and a chest packed with clothing and personal belongings withstood the long submergence and present a glimpse of life at sea in the age of tall ships to a modern audience. This life was often hard, with cramped living conditions among the cannon and disease and malnutrition killing off more people than battles actually did.
The Vasamuseet in the Djurgarden district of Stockholm is dedicated to this colossal relic of the past. Located less than a nautical mile from the site of the tragedy, the Vasamuseet sits close to the shore with the very tops of the masts protruding its roof. In addition to the ship and the artifacts recovered from its previous resting place, the museum includes a full-size replica of the gun deck of the ship. This allows visitors to get a good feel for the living conditions of the sailors then, as visitors are not allowed to board the actual ship. An auditorium screens films and multimedia slideshows, with English subtitles, regularly.
While here, visitors may also visit the Museifartygen, located right outside the Vasamuseet. This actually consists of two early twentieth Century utility ships — the lightship Finngrundet and the icebreaker Sankt Erik. Finngrundet was built in 1903 and served as a mobile lighthouse anchored to the Finngrund Banks in the southern part of the Gulf of Bothnia. She was replaced by automatic lighthouses in the 1960s and was retired to serve as a museum. The Sankt Erik was built in 1915 and was Sweden’s first seagoing ice breaker. The ship has Sweden’s largest working marine steam engine.
The Vasamuseet is open daily throughout the year, generally between 10 am — 5 pm, and until 8 pm on Wednesdays, with different times in June-August. It is closed for Christmas and the New Year. The Museifartygen is open only from 10 June — 20 August, from 12 — 5 pm daily.
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