17th-Century Warship Wrested From Icy Baltic Sea, Near-Perfect Condition

The remains of a Swedish warship wrested from the Baltic Sea are 95% intact.
Brad Bergan

When we think of tragically sunken ships, the words Titanic, Arizona, and Lusitania flash before our mind's eye, and this doesn't usually happen with the Swedish warship Vasa — which was hoisted up from the icy Baltic Sea almost completely intact in the 1960s, according to the journal Archaeology, a publication of the Archaeological Institute of America.


Stockholm Ship Vasa
The Vasa, a proud relic of the Swedish monarchy. Source: Georg Dembowski / Wikimedia

Swedish Vasa warship wrested from icy Baltic Sea

The Vasa was a brightly-painted spectacle of maritime design initially commissioned under the Swedish monarchy of Gustav Adolf II in the early 17th century according to My Modern Met.

Vasa Stern Color Model
The King of Sweden preferred aesthetics to practical ship design. Source: Peter Isotalo / Wikimedia

The vessel was designed by the veteran shipbuilder Henrik Hybertsson, and was at first was expected to hold 36 guns on deck. In a twist of taste, the King of Sweden preferred aesthetic over functional perfection, which is why — on its maiden voyage from the castle fortress at Vaxholm on August 10, 1628, adorned with heavy ornaments, decorations, and 64 bronze canons — an ostensibly calm day at sea proved disastrous for Vasa.

The ship embarked between four and five o'clock to crowded cheers from friends and family while the Swedish monarchy stood in proud anticipation of the assuredly great naval investment. This is when things went wrong.

Vasa Top Deck
Vasa embarked with a high center of gravity. Too high. Source: OneHungLow / Wikimedia

Tragedy strikes the Vasa, engineering over optics

The ship teetered against a trade wind, and then a second sudden gust of wind dragged the ship's sails to the side and sent the massive warship careening into the icy depths of the Baltic Sea.

At the time, Hybertsson had no way of calculating the ship's stability under the extra weight of ornaments, which led him to create a ship that was overbalanced — leaving the center of gravity too far above the water. Like a carnival ride, when the load shifted to the side, gravity carried it all the way down.

Archaeologists investigating the surprisingly intact wreckage think King Gustav's aesthetic preferences directly affected the ship's stability — and led to its grim end. It's a minor miracle that only 30 crewmembers died the afternoon of its sinking, but the maritime disaster haunted the Swedish Empire for centuries.

Icy waters preserved Vasa for study

Vasa itself, however, remained preserved thanks to the extremely cold waters of the Baltic Sea — which protected the wooden vessel from harmful bacteria that usually deteriorate shipwrecks. When Sweden eventually wrested the ship from her icy grave in 1961, roughly 95% of the ship was still intact — which marked the beginning of an extraordinarily rare archaeological opportunity.

At present, the ship is on display in Stockholm's Vasa Museum, where it's presented as the only fully-preserved 17th-century ship in the world. The preservation team took three decades to carefully hoist the ship from freezing waters to place it on public display. Thanks to their meticulous work, we can see remnants of the erstwhile-painted lions and crests adorning the vessel's transom, including unique artifacts from the time that survived the tragedy.