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Sweden's Vasa: 50 years above the waves

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Sweden's Vasa: 50 years above the waves
10:29 CEST+02:00
It's been 50 years since the centuries-old Vasa warship was hoisted up from the depths of Stockholm harbour, but as contributor Elizabeth Dacey-Fondelius discovers, preserving this national treasure has been the Vasa's greatest battle.

The 17th century Vasa warship, Sweden's most recognizable maritime artifact and archeological asset, celebrates the 50th anniversary of her liberation from the gloom and anonymity of the shallows of Stockholm's inner harbor.

On April 24th, 1961 thousands of titillated spectators watched as the waterlogged ship shook loose the final grip of relentless sludge, rose from her watery grave and broke the water's surface for the first time in three centuries.

The Vasa had endured an unceremonious 333-year interlude beneath the waves, only to be raised rather ceremoniously and given a second chance at achieving its former glory.

Despite her blemished beginnings, the Vasa is now a celebrity in her own right having been viewed by an estimated 30 million people in the past 50 years.

Before a visit, people may think the Vasa Museum is just another museum on a Stockholm tour itinerary.

After the visit they may very well have fallen in love.

"We at the Vasa Museum often talk about the ‘Wow Effect'," says Vasa Museum spokesperson Martina Siegrist Larsson.

"It is the moment a visitor first sees the Vasa coming into the museum. Just beyond the doors of the entrance they stop as if frozen and then gasp, ‘Wow'."

The sinking of the Vasa

The Vasa was supposed to represent the power and might of Lion of the North, King Gustav II Adolf, one of Sweden's most celebrate monarchs at a time when the country was near the apex of its power in Europe.

Her gleaning double-gun decks, ornately adorned with sculpture and allegory were meant to put fear into the foe who might oppose her.

Glorious flags and pennants flew as the Vasa left the docks at Skeppsholmen, where Blasieholmen is today, for her maiden voyage on August 10th, 1628.

She came alongside the shores of Södermalm, sailing with only a limited number of sails hoisted. A gust came through and she heeled and righted herself.

A second gust heeled her again, but because her gun ports were open to salute the cheering crowds lined up on the shores, water flooded into the ships lower decks

Only 30 minutes and 1300 metres into her maiden voyage, the Swedish royal navy's shining flagship, heeled and sank.

Rising once again

Her resting spot was not even a mile from where she was launched, and while the Vasa can boast having history's shortest maiden voyage there's no denying – Vasa, you've come a long way baby.

To celebrate the half century mark of the Vasa's new life above the waterline, the Vasa Museum which now houses the unique wreck has planned number of events and exhibitions.

The events kicked off this week with a gala dinner event and panel discussion about why the Vasa was salvaged at all.

On the Jubilee Day, Sunday, April 24th, there will be exhibitions, slideshows, theme-related tours and children's activities at the museum.

There is also a rumor that on that date the ghosts of Gustav II Adolf and his queen Maria Eleonora will meander about the museum in full regalia.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the anniversary of Vasa's resurrection coincides with the traditional association of rebirth of Easter Sunday.

Speaking of resurrection, it's worth noting that the raising of the Vasa in 1961 was quite a spectacular achievement.

The doomed ship, or at least the modern memory of it, had faded away with the years. No one was even looking for her, let alone willing to take on salvage; except for one amateur marine archaeologist, Anders Franzén, who along with Per Edvin Fälting, located the ship's remains in August 1956 using his now famous homemade core sampler, reminiscent of a fishing hook.

Needless to say, it was one big catch that didn't get away.

Thankfully, "Vasa fever" extended beyond Franzén and Fälting, soon infecting Sweden's then ruling monarch, the King Gustaf VI Adolf.

The enthusiasm and determination of the three in a combined effort were vital to reel the Vasa in.

But it was no easy task to land that catch. Preparations to raise the ship involved more than two years of tunneling beneath the hull with water jets. At a depth of 30 metres, the harbor was dark and cold, even in mid-summer, making it nearly impossible to see anything.

By 1959 the Vasa had already been lifted from the sludge and moved to shallower waters between Kastelholmen and Gröna Lund. During this time leading up to the day she broke the surface thousands of holes were plugged.

After emerging she was pumped free of water and proudly floated on her own keel for her final voyage close to where the Vasa Museum on Djurgården sits today.

The battle for preservation

So, why was the Vasa there and how is it then that ghosts from nearly four centuries ago walk the halls of the Vasa Museum of today?

A reflective visitor the Vasa Museum, which opened to the public in 1990, was overheard saying, “Leave it to the Swedes to take their greatest national calamity and turn it into their grandest national treasure.”

No one in 1628 could have imagined that the loss of such a costly war machine would some day pay dividends to Sweden three centuries later. Our modern day treasure is thanks to a variety of fortuitous circumstances of the sinking.

While the sinking of the Vasa may have been unfortunate, the placement of the wreck happened to be ideal. The Baltic Sea is brackish and does not support life for ship worms, the destroyers of sunken wooden artifacts.

After Vasa was retrieved, reassembled, and put on display she could boast being 95 percent original – quite an achievement for something so massive built more than 300 years prior. Pollution and brackish water had helped preserve the Vasa.

But in so doing, has also opened her up to an emerging threat of a new kind.

While the water of the harbour kept Vasa intact, a great deal of sulfur compounds from the brackish water and the city's drains were absorbed by the wood.

The cocktail of sulfur, the preservative used to conserve the waterlogged wood, iron deposits, and a drying and dampening cycle while on display in the museum was quietly wreaking havoc unbeknownst to the throngs of visitors who marveled at the ship.

After a very wet summer in 2000, off-white patches on the Vasa caught attention of museum curators. The patched turned out to be sulfuric acid – which decomposes wood. And the iron in the bolts used to puzzle the Vasa back together was serving as a catalyst.

The Vasa was under threat by an enemy within.

Many studies have been performed on the Vasa to find out what to do. But the greatest effect has come from a new climate control system installed in 2004. Today, the temperature and air humidity have been stabilized resulting in a significant benefit to the work to preserve the Vasa.

Visiting the Vasa Museum has clearly comfortably positioned itself as one of the top three attractions for any visitor to Stockholm.

“The Vasa Museum has the unique combination of a spectacular object with a fascinating history, a congenial museum building, clever exhibitions and a commitment to welcoming people from all backgrounds,” Vasa Museum director Dr. Marika Hedin explains.

The current museum was designed to admit 600,000 visitors per year, but the popular attraction now boasts close to one million visitors nowadays.

Those visitors wowed by the majesty of the ship itself are most often unaware of what the Vasa and her salvage and preservation have supplied marine archeological artifacts the world over.

The silently lurking menace of dissolved sulfur in preserved wood was relatively unresearched until discovered in the Vasa.

It is as if the ghosts of the Vasa have continued their voyage sailing her perpetually to safer waters.

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