Tag Archives: ship-building

A slice of 17th century maritime history

Heading off for shore leave

The Norwegian Sun’s next port of call was Nynashamn in Sweden. It’s the ferry port for Stockholm, which is about 55km away. The ship sailed in between islands and anchored offshore. From there we were ferried across to the port in the lifeboats. It’s quite an operation when a couple of thousand or so people have to be moved. This was one time when we went along with everyone else. After the boat trip we boarded buses according to our destination in the city. For us it was a no-brainer. We went for the quick city tour and then a visit to the Vasa Museum.

Lifeboats to Nynahamn

The bus drove on a motorway through wonderful scenery but while we had greatweather in Tallinn and St Petersburg, by the time we reached Helsinki the clouds were gathering and now it was cold and drizzly. As we drove our guide told us a little about Swedish history. For instance, did you know the present royal family is descended from one of Napoleon’s marshals, Jean Baptiste Bernadotte? He was invited to become king in 1818 at a time of upheaval in Sweden, which had just lost control of Finland. Sweden had been a great power in Northern Europe during the 17th century but had lost most of its external possessions by the early 18th century.

I mentioned last time the rivalry between Sweden and Finland in ice hockey. The relationship between the countries in this part of the world are a bit like England and Australia in cricket, or New Zealand and Australia in rugby – friends but competitive.

The visit to the Vasa Museum was a bucket list item for me. The Vasa was a warship built by Dutch craftsmen, who were recognized as the best in the world at ship construction. Vasa is a contemporary of the famous Dutch ship Batavia and the similarity is obvious, although Vasa was always supposed to be warship, not a merchantman. In fact, Vasa’s demise preceded that of the Batavia. Vasa sank in 1628 on her first and only voyage just outside the port, rather like the Mary Rose in England. At least Batavia made it to the other side of the world before she hit a reef in the Abrolhos Islands off the coast of Australia in 1629. (I wrote a book about that – click here to learn more).

A model of the vessel

Her richly decorated stern

Like the Mary Rose, Vasa sank because people in power who knew nothing about ship construction poked their noses in. Like so many of the nobles of the time, ‘mine’s bigger than yours’ was a driving force and the powerful king of Sweden was right there with the rest. Like all merchant ships of the time, Batavia carried guns for protection. She was configured with a gun deck, an oorlop deck, and the hold, and carried 32 guns. But the king of Sweden wanted TWO gun decks, so he got two gun decks. The thing is, this style of ship wasn’t designed to have all that weight on the top decks. As soon as Vasa encountered a breeze stronger than a zephyr, she keeled over. The canons broke their restraints and slid over to one side, and water came in the open gun ports. She foundered just outside a major shipping lane and lay there in the mud complete with the remains of at least fifteen people who went to the bottom with her, passing out of history (a bit like the One Ring) until 1950.

Crowds admire the real ship’s bow

Her remains were rediscovered in 1950. The task of lifting Vasa‘s timbers, preserving the material, and reconstructing her started in 1961. In 1990 she was moved to the present museum, along with fascinating exhibits showing how the original vessel was constructed. Willem Vos, who built the replica of the Batavia, worked here for a time learning the skills of ship-building in the 17th century. Many of the skills had been lost because they were passed from master to apprentice, often father to son, and never written down.

A model of a shipyard showing how vessels were built

The intricate rigging on the reconstructed ship

Historians have also delved into the history of the people who went down with the ship, providing information about their jobs on board and how they lived. Needless to say, the captain and the officers weren’t among the dead. Sorry, photography was difficult.

If you’re ever in Stockholm, take the time to visit the Vasa Museum. It’s a fascinating slice of 17th century history.