“The first thing we saw was a little wooden head, and after some time came
another wooden head… It was a fantastic sight,” said retired navy commander
Jarl Ellsen, ahead of Sunday’s 50th anniversary of the raising of the ship.
Slowly, what was once briefly the crown jewel of the Swedish navy was
raised off the Baltic sea bed where it had rested for more than 300 years
after pitifully sinking just minutes into its maiden voyage.
For the large crowd gathered at the Stockholm harbour on April 24, 1961 and
the some 100 million people following the event from around the world on
television and radio, the suspense was enormous.
“We didn’t know how she would behave,” said 90-year-old Ellsen, who at the
time was a spokesman for the Swedish navy.
“It was very exciting. She came up rather slowly because they had to take
it very, very easy not to break her,” he said.
More than three centuries earlier, the Vasa, commissioned by Swedish King
Gustav II Adolf to be the mightiest warship in the world, set sail in the late
afternoon of August 10, 1628 on its maiden voyage.
After raising its massive sails and firing celebratory canon shots in front
of the royal palace in Stockholm, the ship majestically glided off, only to
discover after a few minutes and a mere kilometre out, it did not have enough
ballast to counteract the weight of its 64 guns.
“The Vasa story is the story of a historic fiasco,” said Marika Hedin, a
historian and head of the Vasa Museum, today by far Sweden’s most visited
Managing to raise the 69-metre (226-foot) wreck nearly intact — the first
ever underwater salvage of such a large vessel — “gave the ship back its
symbolic meaning for Sweden as a success story,” she said.
“It was an absolutely crazy project,” Hedin admits, pointing out that at
the time the salvage began, no one had any idea if it would even be possible,
how much it would cost or if the ship would remain intact.
Yet the enthusiasm around the project was enormous: “I think the idea was
to salvage her and also to rewrite the history around her, to make her an
example and the symbol of those greater days” in Sweden’s glory period during
the rein of Gustaf II Adolf, she said.
Swedish military circles were eager to revamp the Scandinavian country’s
image felt by many to have been tainted by what they saw as its “cowardice” in
remaining neutral throughout World War II, Hedin added.
Vasa’s second life began in 1956 when navy engineer Anders Franzen located
the wreck at a depth of 32 meters (105 feet).
He had been looking for the all-but-forgotten warship, knowing that the
Baltic Sea was perfect for preserving wrecks due to the fact that the teredo,
a wood-penetrating ship worm, is absent from its icy, brackish waters.
In fact, today some 20,000 ship wrecks have already been discovered at the
bottom of the Baltic, while archeologists suspect there could be more than
Far fewer were known of when Franzen began his tireless search, using a
special core sampler which, after years of patience, one day pulled up a piece
of blackened oak from a depth of about 30 metres.
Diver Per Edvin Fälting plunged in and quickly contacted Franzen by radio:
“I can’t see anything, since it’s pitch-dark here, but I can feel something
big — the side of a ship,” he said.
“Here is one gun port and here’s another. There are two rows. It must be
Soon ideas — many of them far-fetched — of how to bring the majestic rig
to the surface were being tossed around: should they freeze the ship and the
water around it before raising it and letting the iceberg melt in the sun, or
perhaps fill it with ping-pong balls that would help float it to the surface?
In the end, it was decided to slip massive steel cables under the hull and
lift the wreck out of the water.
But digging out the seabed beneath the hull to make room for the cables was
no small feat, with the divers constantly fearful the massive ship would
collapse on top of them.
“We were military divers and we were given an order to dive,” said Åke
Lindquist, acknowledging that at the time he was just 19 and “didn’t know how
exciting it was.”
“At the time it was just a black ghost lying 32 metres under the surface,”
Housed in a special museum built over an old dry dock, the Vasa is today
the world’s most visited maritime museum and expects to register at the end of
this month its 30 millionth visitor in 20 years