Rachel’s Post: The Greatest Ship: A Mostly True Story

I will tell you a story.  It’s a true story and it happened a long, long time ago.

The story starts on the coast of Sweden, in the capital called Stockholm.  At the time, the country was ruled by a ferocious and powerful king named Gustavus Adolphus. Because of his reputation, he went by “The Lion of the North” for short.  Gustav had a hankering to rule the world.  He was doing pretty well taking over Nordic countries like Norway and Denmark until 1628, when he made one fateful mistake.  Gustavo had been so successful in the past building up naval fleets, taking over small countries and kicking dogs, that he decided over herring and vodka at dinner to build a mighty boat.

This wasn’t going to be a small fishing charter, or even a pleasure cruise for eating mackerel buffets.  This was going to be the largest and most powerful ship ever built.  It would defy God by having not one, but two cannon decks on board.  He designed it himself, then expertly delegated the construction to some guys who had the word, “Viking” on their resume.  The mighty ship was assembled exactly according to the design.  Gustavo named it the “Vasa” which means something like “really oversized wooden donkey” in Swedish.

Finally the day to set sail had come.  Gustav could hardly sleep the night before, because he was so excited to take over the world in his sailing donkey.  Of course, he would stay at home during the conquest and let his minions actually do the “taking over the world” part.  When they returned victorious, he would take all the credit.

On the morning of August 10, 1628, the Vasa was christened with some leftover vodka and sailed proudly out into the Baltic Sea.  Twenty minutes into her maiden voyage, there was a gentle breeze that picked up from the North that caught in the Vasa’s fine sails.  Her billowing sheets filled, as Gustav’s beady little eyes filled with tears of joy and vengeance.  Then the ship sank.

Crowds were horrified to watch the 500-ton wooden boat, intricately carved with symbols of the Lion’s great power, gurgle sleepily to the bottom of the ocean floor.  50 of the sailors on board were pinned under the cannons and drowned. The rest swam to safety, as it wasn’t very far-and they were sea men, after all.

Gustav was a bit upset at the loss of his boat, but went on to avenge on the world in other ways.

Now let’s skip forward in time 300 years.

A researcher named Anders Franzen had a hunch that a big hunk of wood known as the Vasa was somewhere below Stockholm harbor.   The exact location had been forgotten (people had slept since then you know).  Franzen knew that Stockhom was uniquely situated between the freshwater of Lake Malaren and the salty water of the Baltic Sea.  That meant that the location where the Vasa sunk was made of brackish water, which may have prevented the salt-water loving, wood-eating worm, Teredo navalis, from destroying the black oak timbers of the ship.

Anders made lots of maps of the harbor floor. He also made lots of friends with divers by buying them beer and telling tall tales. He had a hunch that the Vasa might be the mound that lies directly beneath a dry dock named the “Gustavus V”.  It was said that the mound was just stone that had been blasted away during the building of the dock.  In order to avoid tangling his surveying equipment on this mound, he avoided it.  One year later, Anders heard that more stone was abou to be dumped below the dock.  He grabbed one of his  Navy diver buddies and rowed out to the site.  The Navy divers name was Per Edvin Falting.  Falting dove into the frigid water and discovered two canon ports, partially sunken in the muddy seabed.  The Vasa had been found.

There was much rejoicing over smoked cod and vodka that night.  Now the question became how to get the ship back to the surface.  Amazingly, the Vasa was still intact (and worm-free, thank goodness).  Unfortunately, like most middle-aged women, she had put on some pounds.  The Vasa’s weight had increased to nearly 700 tonnes, including mud and salt water.  The group decided to dig six trenches for steel cables under the hull, and slowly hoist it to the surface, using moored pontoons as hoists.  Hydraulic jacks lifted the Vasa on April 24, 1961. The Vasa reappeared to the world after 333 years on the ocean floor. Her leaks were sealed and water was pumped out.  One week later she was pulled into the Gustav V dry dock on her own keel.

So that’s the story.

Is there a moral, you ask? Take what you will, but I’ve learned never to make serious decisions over fish and vodka.

Oh, and men who think they can defy God with their massive egos and titanic ideas may make history, after all.

4 Responses to “Rachel’s Post: The Greatest Ship: A Mostly True Story”

  1. Jon July 20, 2011 at 8:45 pm #

    I remember visting this ship when in Stockholm a few years back. If I recall correctly, the ship rolled over when the cannon were fired shortly after setting sail. It was supposed to be a “Take That!” sort of retort, but instead the recoil caused the boat to roll-over. The ship, as a result, sank upside-down.

    A sterling example of top-heavy architecture 😉

  2. RTQ July 21, 2011 at 10:10 am #


    We heard this story in town too. However, the museum taught us that it was actually that they didn’t have enough ballast and that the ship wasn’t wide enough. If they had enough ballast, Vasa’s first canon holes would have been under what. Not good. What year were you in Stockholm? Work or pleasure?


    • Jon July 21, 2011 at 10:13 pm #

      Yup – ballast would have kept the ship from rolling as it would have moved the center of gravity below the waterline. But as you point out that would have had other consequences 😉

      I was in Stockholm for an IETF standards meeting back in July, 2009. It was a week long meeting where the geeks that build Internet protocols took over the town.

  3. Thompson July 22, 2011 at 2:36 pm #

    That’s what happens when you let the boss micromanage.

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