:: THE WASA ::

HMS Victory
HMS Victory

Evolution of the ship of the line
Evolution of the ship of the line

Anatomy of the ship of the line
Anatomy of the ship of the line

Spanish ships of the line
Spanish ships of the line

The art of transom
The art of transom

Sovereign of the Seas
Sovereign of the Seas





Gustav II Adolph, King of Sweden, ordered to build the Wasa in 1625, when large regions of Europe were devastated by the Thirty Years War. Fortune was elusive in the battlefield and it was felt the need of a powerful war fleet. The following year the keel of the royal warship was laid down in Stockholm, following the design by Dutch naval architect Hendrik Hybertsson. In that time the art of shipbuilding was not yet a science. Construction was based in estimations and certain basic measures on the disposition of the keel and the shrouds. Since not only large amounts of wood were required, for this one had to be of extraordinary quality and notable length, it was used oak wood brought from the isle of Angso in the lake Melar, not far from Stockholm. After two years the construction had been finished.

From the figurehead to the transom the proud ship had a length of 60.5 meters; the length in the waterline was 47.5 meters, the length of the keel was 38.5 meters, the maximum beam was 11.7 meters and the draught was 4.7 meters. The displacement was 1300 tonnes. The main mast had 50 meters in height and the total sail area was 1200 square meters. The armament comprised fourty-eight 24-pound cannons, eight 3-pound cannons, two 1-pound cannons and six light assault pieces. The complement comprised three officers, 12 non-commissioned officers, 12 artisans, 90 sailors, 20 gunners and 300 soldiers.

Swedish gallion Wasa
Transom of the Swedish gallion Wasa
The Sunday 10th August 1628 the Wasa had to depart on her inaugural voyage from Lodgarden. In the prow and the sterncastle glistened under the sun the polychome and gilded sculptures. Then the catastrophe happened. Before the Wasa could start the voyage she heeled over and sank down. A contemporary report says: "The ship sails with difficulty along Skeppsbron; the Wasa is still at leeward of the southern hill. Four sails have been lowered: the fore sail, the fore topsail, the main topsail and the lateen. Now she enters into the wind and the sails swell. A gust of wind causes her to heel over. She levels off again, but she heels over again to larboard side. Water enters through the open gun ports and the ship quickly sinks with the sails, the flags flying and everything else."

The investigation of how such a disgrace could have happened, and the statements from Hibertsson that all the plans and measurements of the Wasa had been presented to the King and approved by him, not only gave no result but above all could not change a fact: that a totally new vessel, the most splendid flagship of all times, lay on the bottom of the dock of Stockholm and that the great hopes of a kingdom had vanished into nothing. The ship would remain there during 333 years as the objective of many adventures who tried to rescue her.

Rescue of the Wasa

The most successful enterprise of this type was started in 1663 by Hans Albrekt von Treileben with a diving bell, certainly very primitive but effective. With its help he could retrieve 53 of the 64 valuable cannons. This alone meant a fortune. Then the Wasa fell again into oblivion under her layer of slime and spall. That the ship were finally put afloat was due to Anders Franzen, a young engineer who systematically probed the whole dock with a detector of his own construction. After four years of frustrating search he found near the isle of Beckholmen, together with Per Edvin Falting, chief diver of the frogmen school of the Navy, black oak wood, then a wooden wall and finally gun ports: the Wasa had been found.

Her rescue was a feat of special type. The vessel was erect, but sunk five meters, up to the waterline, into the slime. Because of her huge weight it was not possible to lift the hull at once without the risk of breaking or deforming the wood. Therefore it was attempted to lift the hull from the seabed, at 33 meters in depth, to 15 meters and leave it at this depth until a large shelter had been built to house it for being restored. To pass the lifting cables beneath the hull, a team of frogmen of the Navy excavated six tunnels of 20 meters on the slime under the keel. This very dangerous task took two years. But meanwhile the suction pumps brought to the daylight curious things: dragon and lion heads, fantastic cratures of the sea, figures of mythology and legend, but also spare sails, animal bones and provisions, clay vases, glass pieces, clothes and thousands of fabric pieces.

When the steel cables could be finally passed along the tunnels they were attached to floating pontoons, which were emptied by slowly pumping. Then the cables started to tense. The tenacious slime began to release its prey, the Wasa floated on the cables. This happened in August 1959. In 18 phases was transported the whole rescue fleet, with elevations of two meters on each, towards less deep waters. There the flotsam could be more easily sealed. The day on which the Wasa saw the sunlight again caused sensation: the 24th April 1961 emerged to the surface the once precious ship in the presence of millions of viewers, listeners and readers.

Since then huge amounts of money have been spent in the restoration of the Wasa. She was put to rest in a concrete socle in the Wasa Museum inside a large aluminum room in the Skansen Park of Stockholm, sprayed day and night through hundreds of tubes with the preservative polyethylene glycol. Expert naval carpenters restored the ship during years. The number of findings reached 25000 pieces: among many others, caryatids in the shape of mermaids, an impressive lion of almost two tonnes as figurehead, warriors wearing Roman armor and the head of a Roman emperor, griffins holding the royal crown and the coat of arms of the Wasa dynasty: a scutcheon with a sheaf, carried by two cherubs. It was the emblem of the ship.

The Wasa Museum

A certain description of what a gallion is states: "Huge vessel, of similar length than galleys or galleasses, but of tall freeboard, of thick wood, with raised prow and stern, like a moon quarter, with fourteen gun ports in the first deck and as many in the second one, and with capacity for thirty large cannons and as many smaller ones. She sailed with four masts, two of square rig and two of lateen rig, and served for war and commerce." This is roughly what the Wasa was, and it is ironic that the only gallion preserved nowadays became such precisely because she sank on her first day of operative life.

The Wasa represented the last stage in the evolution of the gallion but even so her design was actually notoriously deficient. Her lower gun ports were not even one meter from the waterline, and the water which entered the hull through them was enough to heel over this rather unstable ship, due to the weight of the cannons and the baroque ornamentation placed in the very tall sterncastle. The tragic sinking, on the other hand, ended with the rescue of almost all of the crew.

Swedish gallion Wasa
For this project much importance had been given to speed and because of this the ship had very tall masts, factor which contributed to the disaster. An estimation made around the displacement and the sail area concluded that the speed could have exceeded 10 knots. The Wasa had three decks going uninterruptedly from prow to stern, very sloped in respect of the longitudinal plane and with a slight sheer. The lowermost deck housed the crew, the ammunition and the provisioning, whereas the other two housed the 64 artillery pieces and the accommodation of the officers astern.

Swedish gallion Wasa
The sterncastle was so tall that the emblem of the ship was at roughly 12 meters from the waterline. The decoration had been coated with gold sheets even if this would give this war machine an appearance which was more luxurious than frightening. This seems rather strange for the modern mentality, but this was the way on that time of reacting against the obscurantism from the former centuries. Sadly, the tall sterncastle and its heavy ornamentation constituted one of the weak points of the design, cause of loss of stability. To have lowered the forecastle in respect of what was usual in former designs could not compensate this defect.

Swedish gallion Wasa
Apart from that, the construction of the Wasa was already modern. She could surpass any former carrack in speed, maneuverability, effectiveness of the armament and structural resistance. The longitudinal structure comprises the keel and the master planking, while the transversal one comprises a dense row of ribs linked to the former one by the floor timber and the beams. The hull adopted as well a more modern proportion. The length/beam ratio is far from that of 1 to 3 used in carracks: in the Wasa it reaches almost 5. This granted to the careen prestations which until then were exclusive of the galley, which however was burdened by the oar propulsion. The draught was increased as well; the beam/draught ratio was 2.5 in the Wasa, in contrast with that of 1 to 4 used in carracks. This was due to the larger displacement caused by the heavier artillery and its ammunitions and by the stronger structure.

Swedish gallion Wasa
In the photographs we can see the remains of the great Swedish gallion after the extensive restoration. On the stern we can see the doors which give access to the cabins of the officers. The planks of the deck are all new for the original ones were lost due to the long permanence under the water. The large beak, inherited from older designs, was still independent from the structure of the hull. But the most suggestive image is perhaps that of the gun deck looking astern, with such a ghostly atmosphere.

Swedish gallion Wasa


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