A Brief History
On August 10, 1628, the brand new Swedish warship, the Vasa, set sail for the first and last time, sinking all by herself with no help from any enemy after traveling less than a mile! She was not the largest ship in the world at the time, nor did she carry the most guns, but because she had the most shot, she was the most powerful.
History and Headlines has featured stories about military disasters and “Naval Oops Moments,” and the sinking of the Vasa ranks right up near the top of those blunders. Built at a time when naval tactics were changing from closing with and boarding the enemy ship to ships forming a strict formation (line) and slugging it out with guns, the Vasa was built with both missions in mind, which of course meant she could do neither well.
Designed to carry 64 guns, 48 of which were heavy 24 pounders, on 2 gun decks, as well as 300 marines to board other ships, the hapless vessel was grossly top heavy. Despite concerns by some naval personnel, the king, Gustavus Adolphus, was over eager to get his mighty ship to sea where she could intimidate or destroy the enemy, but as she was hit with a breeze on the starboard side, she heeled to port and her gun ports, which had been opened in anticipation of a salute, dipped under the water, allowing the sea to rush in and causing the list to continue and accelerate.
And so the mighty Vasa basically keeled over and sank, in full, clear view of thousands of Swedes who were watching in horror from the shore. At least that also meant, however, that many rescuers were available as people rushed to small boats to save the crew of 145 sailors and 300 marines/soldiers. Still, at least 30 men died in the disaster, a fortunately low number all things considered.
The king himself surely shared in the responsibility for having pushed for and approved the flawed design, but, to deflect blame, a designer who had already died was held accountable. In any case, the cannon were salvaged from the ship after efforts to raise her failed, and the wreck lay under the sea for the next 333 years. Rediscoverd in the 1950s and finally raised in 1961, she is now living out the remainder of her “career” in The Vasa Museum in Stockholm.
Question for students (and subscribers): When it comes to sailing and the sea, mistakes can be deadly and expensive, as this case shows. Can you name a more egregious naval blunder? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please read:
Franzen, Greta. The Great Ship Vasa. Hastings House Pub, 1971.
Hocker, Frederick M. Vasa: A Swedish Warship. Medstroms Bokforlag, 2011.
The featured image in this article, a map by MapMaster of the voyage of the Vasa, with the shorelines as they existed in 1628, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.