24 September 2015

Visiting the 'Vasa'

It took three years to build the Vasa. Employing a diverse array of craftsmen – carpenters, smiths, ropemakers, sailmakers, glaziers, painters, specialist woodcarvers, amongst many, who laboured to construct the new flagship of the Swedish Royal Navy. Around a thousand oak trees were felled and shaped into the timbers from which her hull was constructed. Her masts rose more than fifty metres over her decks, and hundreds of ornately carved sculptures, all either gilded or richly painted, festooned the ship’s superstructure, making the Vasa a magnificent sight to behold.

She was officially launched on August 10th, 1628. Her maiden voyage was meant to be a special one, marked with great pomp and ceremony. She was manned by around a hundred crew members, who had been given permission on this special occasion to bring on-board their wives and children. The ship was initially kedged (hauled by means of a small anchor) from her berth on the quay below the Royal Tre Kronor Castle out into Stockholm harbour where a light wind was blowing. Here the sailors climbed the rigging and unfurled her sails for the first time. Setting her foresail, foretop, maintop, and mizzen as, Söfring Hansson, her Captain, had ordered, she began to move across the harbour. Her guns fired a salute. After a distance of just 1,300 metres she encountered a stronger wind which caused her to heel to one side, as the angle of incline continued to increase her open gun ports swiftly listed below the waterline. As one contemporary report described, the “water gushed in through the gun ports until she slowly went to the bottom under sail, pennants and all.”

It’s thought that some fifty people died in the disaster. Captain Hansson was imprisoned, but he was eventually released after an official inquiry found that no one could be held responsible for the sinking. Hansson and the crew all testified that no operational mistakes were made on-board, the ship was fully loaded with ballast, and all the guns were properly lashed in place. Everyone seemed to agree the fault lay in the ship’s construction. She was top heavy. Her keel was too small in relation to the size of her hull, her rigging, and the weight and positioning of her artillery. The Shipmaster had tested the stability of the ship when she was moored at the quay. Thirty men had run in unison back and forth across her deck. They’d stopped when after only three runs it was feared she’d roll over. An Admiral of the fleet, Klas Fleming, had been present at the test, but his only comment seems to have been a troubled sigh: “If only His Majesty were at home!”

King Gustavus II Adolphus was anxious to acquire a powerful new ship such as the Vasa for his Navy as quickly as possible, and so, whilst away in Prussia engaged in a war with Poland, fighting against his cousin, Sigismund (who had been deposed from the Swedish throne in 1599), the King had approved the ship’s design. But ultimately, while the blame for the disaster would seem to put a number of individuals at fault – with the King himself, the shipbuilder, Henrik Hybertsson (who had died the previous year), and Admiral Fleming, perhaps the foremost among those seemingly culpable, the actual cause was essentially the ‘defective theoretical know-how’ of the period. Simply put, the Vasa was hitherto an untried experiment in shipbuilding and in design. Circumstances and protocols colluded to propel the project on even when doubts were becoming apparent, and so the proof of her seaworthiness only came with the unfortunate first unfurling of her sails.

The Vasa’s maiden voyage may have only been a short one, in which she never even left the waters of her native harbour, but it was more of a historic journey than any of the many observers crowding the harbour that day, or any of those on-board, could possibly have imagined. When she sank off Beckholmen Island she settled near enough upright on the seabed. Consequently some attempt was made soon after to raise her, yet the task proved too difficult. A diving bell was used to salvage the majority of her guns, after which she was pretty much forgotten about until 1953. A man named Anders Franzen began a search in the local archives, poring over accounts of her sinking, attempting to locate the site of the wreck, he later moved his search to the waters around Beckholmen, carrying out dragging and sounding operations until he had narrowed the search area. Subsequent dives confirmed he had found the ship lying at a depth of 32 metres. This depth was practically perfect. It meant the Vasa was deep enough to have remained largely unharmed by other vessels passing over her, yet not too deep to cause great problems for a modern day salvage operation. This, plus the cold temperature and low salinity of the seawater of Stockholm harbour, meant she was exceptionally well preserved.

With the assistance of the Swedish Navy, Franzen lead a team who worked together to dig a number of tunnels beneath the Vasa’s hull, through which thick steel cables were threaded. The operation which began in 1957 culminated on April 24th 1961 when the timbers of the Vasa broke the surface of the water. The divers had worked long and hard on the seabed to shore up the near intact hull of the ship, such that once she had been raised they began to pump the water from her and eventually she floated by herself. It was a remarkable feat, and, even moreso, it is still quite amazing to watch film footage of the Vasa moving by herself, floating on her own keel once again, as she drifted into a dry-dock on Beckholmen Island, 333 years after her fateful maiden voyage. The Vasa really is a ship which has sailed through time.

I forget when I first saw photographs of the Vasa, perhaps only a couple of years ago, but I do remember I was instantly agog at the exceptional state of her preservation. I was six years old when the Mary Rose was raised from the waters of the Solent on October 11th 1982. I remember the excitement of seeing the first timbers breaking the surface live on television that morning before going to school, but I think I was probably expecting a more intact spectacle of a sunken galleon, something more like that of the Vasa, in fact! However, a few years later I was more than suitably impressed when I saw the large section of the Mary Rose’s hull being sprayed with preservatives where it was being conserved in Portsmouth (I’ve yet to re-visit and see the new Mary Rose Museum which opened on May 31st 2013). So the fascination of seeing such an old ship brought to the surface certainly caught my imagination very early on, hence having seen photographs of the Vasa I was instantly itching to see her for real. Earlier this year that itching transferred to my feet and could no longer be ignored, so I booked myself a plane ticket to Stockholm. I spent an entire day at the Vasamuseet – absolutely absorbed, exploring every aspect of the displays and marvelling at the magnificent ship itself, which is now almost entirely restored – nearly 98% of the ship is original!

Your first sight of the Vasa as you enter the vast museum hall is truly breathtaking. I couldn’t help thinking of the scene towards the end of the 1980s children’s adventure movie, The Goonies, when the children suddenly see the old pirate ship hidden in the sea cave for the first time! The Vasa sits in a converted dry dock and the different levels of the vast hall enable you to walk around the ship and examine her structure and ornate decorations up close. She is still too fragile to allow visitors to go on board, but as the work to conserve her (the largest current task being to replace each of her now corroding metal bolts) is still on-going, it’s sometimes possible to see the conservators and engineers on-board at work. A multi-lingual film plays in an auditorium near the entrance which tells the story of her construction, launch, sinking, salvage, and conservation in vivid detail.

A number of models and full-size reconstructions help to explain each part of the ship as well as how she was raised, and a number of guides give frequent introductory tours. The floor directly beneath the ship’s hull, plus another floor higher up, each display an incredible array of archaeological finds which were recovered from the ship and the seabed surrounding her wreck site, including a number of skeletons of the crew and guests who were on-board and lost their lives when the Vasa sank. Some of these were found still wearing their clothes which had been almost perfectly preserved in the rich silt which had filled the ship’s hull on the seabed. The unusual fact that women and children had been allowed on-board in addition to her normally all male crew has meant that the Vasa has yielded a wealth of archaeological information encompassing all of 17th Century Swedish society.


Stockholm itself is still very much a seafaring city. Strolling about the quays of the many little islands which make up the capital I saw a number of resident tall ships and vintage steamers. On Beckholmen, the dry-dock where the Vasa was first brought after she was raised and re-floated is still in operation. The buildings, churches, and cobbled lanes of Gamla Stan, the old town, are full of character, and not far from the Vasamuseet itself is a vast park, the Djurgården, large enough to get lost in – which provides a wonderful green escape from the bustle of the city. A visit to the Swedish History Museum is also a must for any history buff visiting Stockholm, as it houses an excellent collection of art and artefacts from the many varied periods of Sweden’s long history – not least that of the Vikings.

More photos from my trip to Stockholm here

11 September 2015

Tall Ships on the Thames

“The Channel glittered like a blue mantle shot with gold and starred by the silver of the capping seas. The ‘Narcissus’ rushed past the headlands and the bays. Outward-bound vessels crossed her track, lying over, and with their masts stripped for a slogging fight with the hard sou’wester. And, inshore, a string of smoking steamboats waddled, hugging the coast, like migrating and amphibious monsters, distrustful of the restless waves.
The ‘Narcissus’, heeling over to off-shore gusts, rounded the South Foreland, passed through the Downs, and, in tow, entered the river. Shorn of the glory of her white wings, she wound obediently after the tug through the maze of invisible channels.
A mad jumble of begrimed walls loomed up vaguely in the smoke, bewildering and mournful, like a vision of disaster. The tugs, panting furiously, backed and filled the stream, to hold the ship steady at the dock-gates; from her bows two lines went through the air whistling, and struck at the land viciously, like a pair of snakes. A bridge broke in two before her, as if by enchantment; big hydraulic capstans began to turn all by themselves, as though animated by a mysterious and unholy spell. She moved through a narrow lane of water between two low walls of granite, and men with check-ropes in their hands kept pace with her, walking the broad flagstones.
The ‘Narcissus’ came gently into her berth; the shadows of soulless walls fell upon her, the dust of all the continents leaped upon her deck, and a swarm of strange men, clambering up her sides, took possession of her in the name of the sordid earth. She had ceased to live. 

- Joseph Conrad
The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' (1897)

The Torrens, 1875 ~ On which Joseph Conrad twice served as  First Mate in the 1890s

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_ConradThis greatly abridged passage from Joseph Conrad’s short novel, The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ (1897), is an eloquent rendering of the same sentiment captured in J.M.W. Turner’s famous painting, The Fighting Temeraire (1838). The two works of art tell with great sadness of the passing of the great days of the sailing ship. Conrad, himself a former sea captain before becoming a writer, knows exactly what he is describing. He must have lived this scene himself many times over in his sea career. The full passage is a fascinating description of how a large sailing ship would come to berth in one of the docks of the City of London. Conrad doesn’t actually name which dock it is, but given the closing scene, where the crew of the ‘Narcissus’ receive their pay at the Board of Trade Office, and then disburse along the Highway, passing by the Royal Mint for a last drink together at the Black Horse pub, it could well be any of the docks between Limehouse Basin and St Katherine’s Dock. Similarly, Turner’s painting is set on the same stretch of the Thames, as the full description of the painting shows: The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up at Rotherhithe. Many elements of the scene which Turner depicts (such as the position of the setting sun) are more fancifully symbolic than an actual, accurate record. Turner (and other artists) often used to come and sketch along this stretch of the river, and so, he knew it well.

 The Fighting Temeraire - by J.M.W. Turner, 1838

 Plaque commemorating the spot where Joseph Farrington RA made sketches for a painting, c.1790

The Grapes, Narrow Street, Limehouse, c.1920s

I often think of this passage of Conrad, and of Turner’s painting, as this is the area of London where I now live. I don’t suppose either of them would recognise the place today, particularly the river itself which is comparatively empty compared to their times. Yet every now and then we get a taste of what it might have been like as we spot a Thames Sail Barge passing up or down river. This time last year saw a great return of sailing ships to the Thames as the Tall Ships Festival visited London. I first saw the Tall Ships Regatta when it visited London in the 1980s, and, although individual Tall Ships make a occasional visits to London from time to time, this was the first time I’d seen so many ships of this kind gathered together here since then. Even in the 1980s the river was much busier than it is now.

 Port of London Authority film of the London Tall Ships Race in 1989

Last year, on the first day of the festival I wandered over to Wood Wharf to see where some of the boats were moored up. Then wandering on to the east side of the Isle of Dogs I was just in time to catch the departure of one of the largest ships, the Stad Amsterdam. I managed to capture the following three films of the ship as she cast off, passing through West India Docks, and then setting out onto the Thames at high tide. I think the Stad Amsterdam would surely have been a sight to gladden Conrad’s heart as she is a newly built, modern day tall ship. Launched in 2000 and named after the city in which she was built, she is a three-masted clipper, similar to the clippers Conrad is known to have sailed on. The ‘Narcissus’ of Conrad’s novel was actually based on a real ship of that name, also a clipper, on which he had served as second mate in 1884. The Stad Amsterdam is a fast ship, in 2001 she won the Cutty Sark Tall Ships Race. And, in 2009, she retraced the route of Charles Darwin’s famous voyage on the Beagle for a television documentary. She is frequently at sea, operating as a training ship or for charters, and her voyages can often be followed on Twitter (here).

It was great to see so many tall ships back on the Thames, and there were some very beautiful, Turner-esque sunsets while they were here too. Although the river, and Docklands itself, has changed a lot over years (and it continues to change) there are still many things to see around the area which mark its links to many different chapters of seafaring history. It’s fun to hunt these out. There are a number of plaques recording some nautical fact, or explaining some old building or piece of machinery’s former maritime function, dotted around the area. A monument in my local park commemorates this stretch of the Thames as the place from which Martin Frobisher set sail in search of the Northwest Passage. 


And similarly, not far from where I live, there’s a blue plaque, marking the place where Captain James Cook once lived between his famous sea voyages, all three of which, as his Journals record, he began at Deptford. Several years ago I made another trip across the Isle of Dogs to Woolwich where I went on-board the working replica of his first ship, HMB Endeavour, when it visited London in 2002. This replica of Cook’s ship was built in Australia in the early 1990s. It was quite a wonderful reversal to think of the ship sent from England which first encountered Australia being reincarnated there and returning to Britain some two hundred years on, in a sense completing the circle of a true circumnavigation through time and tide.

A tour around the replica HMB Endeavour

Click here to see some wonderful old photos of Captain Cook's other house on the Mile End Road - before it was needlessly demolished in 1958 - on the very excellent Spitalfields Life blog.