The Vasa ship
Once upon a time, every king who was anyone had an armada to
call his own. The British had one, the Spanish had one, the
Portuguese had one, and the king of Sweden was bound and
determined that he was going to have the best one of them all.
Now the Swedish king wanted his flagship to be something really
spectacular. He sat up all night drawing up his design. The ship
would be really tall and stately. In fact, to make it look even taller,
it would also be really skinny. And it would have a lot more guns
than any other flagship, 64 cannons. The whole ship would be
resplendent with intricate carvings and gold leaf.
Pleased with his creation, the king went to his
shipmaster the next day and said, “This is the
ship I want you to build.” He slapped down his
drawing on the workbench. The shipmaster
snorted. “That thing’ll never float! It’s nowhere
near wide enough. We’d never get enough
ballast in it to keep it from tipping over!”
Enraged, the king fired the shipmaster, grabbed
a young apprentice off the production floor and
said, “You there! Lad! I’ll put all these men
under you if you’ll just tell me you can build this
ship.” The apprentice, having seen what just
happened to his boss, gulped and said, “Uh,
sure, I can build that.”
“Well, go to it, shipmaster,” said the king.
“I’ll expect it done in two years.”
The shipbuilders set to work, and they did manage to finish the ship within two years. It was
truly spectacular, tall and stately and covered with fantastically intricate carvings, just as the
king wanted. Even better, now that he saw it in real life. He named it Vasa, after the monarch
who united Sweden into one kingdom.
In the spring, as the ice broke up in the harbor, the king of Sweden invited a few of his royal
cronies to visit and see the unveiling of his brand-new flagship. The kings stood on the
balcony of the castle with wine goblets in hand as the ships slowly left dock and sailed out of
the harbor toward the open bay. Their highnesses raised their glasses in tribute and the
foreign kings congratulated the Swedish monarch on his creation. As the flagship left the
harbor, the wind and waves picked up a bit. Now the flagship turned slowly, rounding a cape in
the archipelago of Stockholm. The spring breeze struck the ship broadside, and the vessel in
all its majestic top-heavy glory listed heavily, sinking rapidly into the icy water.
The king was mortified. His original shipmaster had been right all along; such a tall ship
required far more ballast than the Vasa’s narrow hull allowed. But of course, he couldn’t admit
that in front of the other kings. In a rage, he turned on the young lad who had served as
shipmaster for the Vasa. “What happened?” he bellowed.
The young man thought fast. “It must have been the sailors, sir. I’ll bet they forgot to lash
down the cannons, and when the ship turned, all the cannons rolled over to one side,
capsizing the ship with their great weight.” This seemed like as good an excuse as any, since
it saved face for both the king and the shipyards. So this excuse was written in the history
books and the page was quickly turned.
And so it remained, until the 1950s, when scuba divers located the wreckage of the Vasa in
the Stockholm archipelago. The first thing the explorers discovered was that all the cannons
were indeed firmly lashed into place. In the 60s, the ship was raised from its watery grave and
extensive renovation began. Today, the Vasa has its own unique museum—built up around
the ship instead of the ship being taken apart to fit into a building. The vessel is completely
restored and a real treat to look at. A definite must-see if you’re ever in Stockholm.
Okay, that's not exactly how it happened, but it's pretty close!
Visit the Vasamuseum online at www.vasamuseet.se