Historic Blunders

30th September 2005 at 01:00
Think of Sweden and a model welfare state may come to mind, but not warships and state-of-the-art fighting machines. In the 17th century, however, priorities were different. "Second to God, the welfare of the kingdom depends on its navy," said King Gustavus II Adolphus.

A strong fleet enabled him to fight wars and blockade foreign ports - and the bigger his ships, the easier it was for the Swedes to intimidate their neighbours. That's why, in 1625, an order was placed for the largest vessel yet. A thousand oaks would go into building the hull of the Vasa. Her masts would be 50 metres high and she would be adorned with several hundred gilded sculptures, designed to impress foreigners. Most important of all, she would carry 64 massive guns. This is what the king wanted, and this is what the yard at Stockholm would deliver.

It was risky, of course, satisfying such demands in an age when shipwrights lacked the theoretical knowledge to test their designs. There was a danger that the Vasa would be top-heavy, which is why, before her first sailing, a stability test was carried out.

With the ship tied up, 30 men were ordered to run back and forth across her deck. So alarmingly did she behave that, after three runs, the test was halted. Admiral Klas Fleming was present, and is reported to have said: "If only His Majesty were at home."

However, the king was in Prussia, and had made his wishes clear. He wanted his big boat and he wanted it now, and nobody, not even an admiral, was about to disappoint him.

So, on August 10, 1628, the Vasa set sail on her maiden voyage - a voyage that lasted for just 1,300m. No sooner had she left sheltered waters than a modest gust of wind caught her upper sails and tipped her over. Within minutes, she and 50 crew were on the seabed, where they would remain until 1961, when a salvage team brought the Vasa to the surface once more.

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