Acke didn’t want to be one of the 145 seamen aboard Sweden’s Vasa warship for its maiden voyage in 1628. The work was hard, wages were low, and living conditions were atrocious. And this voyage was to last just 1,300 meters before he would have to swim for his life.
Imagine being transported back in time nearly 400 years to stand aside a real Swedish warship, the only surviving vessel of its kind from the 17th century. You can do just that at Sweden’s Vasa Museum in Stockholm, arguably the greatest maritime museum in the world. It’s not just the impressive ship, but also the amazing story behind it that enthralls more than a million visitors per year.
Acke was a gunner taken on active service by conscription. The Vasa was equipped with a prodigious 64 guns occupying an unheard of two rows of heavy gun ports. It was to be one of the fateful design flaws.
Acke made about 57 dalers in annual wages before food on board and material for clothing were deducted, leaving him with only about a quarter of that sum. Like all seamen, one set of jacket and breeches and a linen shirt were all that he owned and the only protection against the harsh weather. It was up to him to patch his one pair of gloves and shoes.
When not stationed at the gun carriage Acke would remain deep in the battery deck. There, in semi-darkness, he would share space with the other seamen and typically 300 additional soldiers. He would also sleep there. But on August 10, 1628, there would be no sleep.
Sweden was a naval power in the 1600s, protecting its interests in the Baltic region with a fleet of royal vessels. The Vasa was to be the crown jewel of the fleet, with a hull constructed of 1,000 oaks, masts more than 50 meters high and enough art carvings and sculptures to create the floating museum it would become. It took three years to build the magnificent ship.
It was not a magnificent life for Acke. He used his wooden spoon and sheath-knife to eat out of a communal bowl. Food was a porridge made from barley groats and various dried foods, such as beans, peas, salt beef, pork and fish. The food was cooked in a cast-iron cauldron over a smoky open fire below deck. He washed it down with a daily ration of three liters of ale.
In general, the lack of fresh fruit and vegetables and poor hygiene contributed to rampant illness, with only primitive means of treatment. The ship’s barber was also its sole medical resource. In 1628, on one ship, two-thirds of the men were sick or dying or had been “cast overboard” (the term used for buried at sea).
Still, King Gustavus II Adolphus and good people of Stockholm were immensely proud of their new warship. The King arranged for the maiden sailing to take place on a Sunday, so families would have the day off to watch the proceedings. Women and children joined the hundred-plus crew on board. Sailors set four of the Vasa’s ten sails and the guns fired a salute from their open portholes as she left the harbor.
Acke knew that, in spite of the hardships, he would have to watch his tongue. Anyone who complained about the food was put in irons and given bread and water for ten days. Keel-hauling was a common punishment. The offender was dropped head first into water and pulled with a rope under the keel to the other side of the ship. If he did not drown, his injuries often still led to his death.
There was no keel-hauling on Sunday, August 10. It was a beautiful day to launch, with light winds. But when the Vasa left the harbor a stronger wind entered her sails and she began to heel over severely. Worse, water gushed through the open gun ports and the now unstable ship quickly sank.
There was nothing Acke and the other seamen could do but try to escape flooded decks and swim for their lives back to shore. Fortunately, most of them lived.
This is just the beginning of the story of the Vasa. She was to lie at the bottom of the Stockholm harbor, enduring 333 years of failed salvage attempts. It wasn’t until 1961 that technology and innovated techniques were available to raise her.
Then came the enormous job of dealing with the “world’s largest jigsaw puzzle” and the complexity and hazards of preservation. That preservation effort is still an ongoing challenge, engaging experts from around the world. In the meantime, we can marvel at this piece of history that has come alive for us in the 21st century!
Footnote: There is so much more to see and learn about the story of the Vasa. This article can only, I hope, peak your interest in visiting. I made two trips there, including a press event for the TBEX travel bloggers conference and left wanting to explore more. There is nothing like it in the world.
Credits: Many thanks to the guides at the Vasa for their stories that inspired this article. Also thanks to Lisa Mansson, Vasa Museum Director. Finally, many facts and figures were gleaned from the Vasa Catalogue and its author, Erling Matz.
Have you been to the Vasa Museum? Do you have any questions? Feel free to comment at the bottom of this post.
Sweden has spared no expense in developing this incredible museum, which was literally built around the ship.
Splurge for a Stockholm Pass, which includes transportation and museums such as the Vasa.
The museum is easily accessible as a stop on the #7 Tram line or a walk to the ferry that connects to Gamla Stan.
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