Ship launches are probably the most nerve-wracking moments for ship-building architects. It is the ship’s first contact with the water, and there seldom is an easy way to execute it gracefully. Bow first, stern first, or even sideways. Shipbuilders are restricted by their surroundings and space. It is not something that normally can be practiced before the official inauguration witnessed by officials and dignitaries. There are several ways to let a ship slide into the water the first time depending on adjusting elements, calculations of structure and many other details. The possibilities range from heavy rubber rollers to airbag systems. Working on this story, I explored some history to learn more about failed launches and was rewarded with awesome photos and films. One of the worst spectacles was probably the launch of the largest luxury liner of its time, SS Principessa Jolanda in Italy back in 1907. In order to impress dignitaries and guests, the ship was fully built, complete with superstructure, but without filled coal bunkers resulting in a top-heavy ship not able to stay upright once the ship hit the water. It immediately capsized in front of a horrified crowd. Although there have been numerous other launch failures in modern times, nothing was as horrifically spectacular as the poor namesake of the Princess Jolanda, daughter of King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy. Although similar disasters occurred almost 300 years earlier, it took this embarrassing sinking to completely change ship launches the world over.
Today, most all large ships are being launched without the superstructure to provide stability. It certainly is less grandiose to watch new cruise ships glide into the waters like that, but safety has finally won out.
This subject came to mind while visiting a museum in Sweden. It houses only one item – a ship – and its story of a launch gone wrong over 395 years ago. In fact, experts are surprised with new findings about the history of this ship every few years.
Several hundred people had gathered at the harbor in Stockholm, at the location where the museum is located today, to witness the launch of Sweden’s largest ever warship named Vasa. It was a quiet day in August 1628, with minimal wind and blue sky overhead, offering a perfect background for this monumental event. The ship had been ordered and the design had been approved by war veteran King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, who had successfully been leading his country for over a decade through numerous wars. His was a new approach to maritime warfare. Previously, attackers had tried to board enemy ships in the Baltic Sea area. The King, who was a highly qualified artillerist himself, wanted to change the approach of shooting and sinking enemy ships instead of boarding them. The new flagship was designed with two gundecks and 300 soldiers to do just that and was, at the time, to become one of the most feared armed vessels. Fitted with seventy-two heavy bronze guns of 24 pounds each, there was no other military vessel able to match its shooting power at the time.
Well-known shipbuilder Dutchman Hendrik Hybertson agreed to build the vessel together with his Dutch partner, Arendt de Groote, as part of a contract for four ships. However, early in 1626, “Master Hendrik” became ill, and before he died the next year, he handed over the work to another Dutch boatbuilder, Hein Jacobson. The King visited the shipyard in the beginning of 1628 and urged the builders to work faster. Later that year, Vice Admiral Fleming, who had been fighting with the King in Poland, was sent to Stockholm to check on the progress and became worried about the stability. He worried about the superstructure being made higher than originally planned to give another platform to fire from. However, the King continued with numerous letters from Poland to launch the ship as soon as possible, and none of his officers dared to postpone construction to design a better balance for the beautiful ship already decorated on the outside with carvings of the Royal Family and embellished by scenes with mermaids and sea monsters.
On August 10, 1628, Vasa was to set sail on the maiden voyage. All gun ports were opened to allow a gun salute as the vessel was launched and set sail. Hitting the water, her sail caught a bit of wind on the otherwise quiet day and she listed precariously but returned upright only to list again when a stronger wind caught the Vasa just past the city center of Gamla Stan. To the horror of dignitaries and honored guests, she listed far enough to have the water stream in through the open gunports. As the water descended into the hold, the mighty warship sank in a record time of twenty minutes, less than 400 feet from shore in just over a hundred feet of water. Remarkably only thirty lives were lost.
Perhaps fortunately, the King who had been instrumental in the design of the ship, was not present at the debacle as he had died just around that time on the war front. Survivors hung on for life on the upper deck still above the water for a moment before the Vasa disappeared under the waters of Stockholm harbor.
For 333 years, the ship was left on the bottom where it had sunk. But because of the frigidly cold waters and the lack of pollutive bacteria, the ship remained 95% intact. Over the years, numerous attempts were made to raise the Vasa. However, it wasn’t until 1961, after first adjusting the ship into an upright position, through as many as some 1,500 dives and the constructing of tunnels under it for cables attached to air-filled pontoons, did Vasa rise to the surface once again. Today Vasa has its own climate-controlled four-story museum in the harbor of Stockholm. To combat gradual deterioration, marine scientists continue to make every effort to maintain the integrity and preservation of this beautiful old wooden warship for its 1.5 million visitors every year.