A Swedish ship provides a peek into the past

Stockholm shows off Vasa, a 17th-century warship

When the Swedish warship Vasa sank moments after leaving dock, it was an embarrassment to king and country. Surely the descendants of the Vikings could build a ship that would float!

It wasn't even an enemy's cannonball that brought the massive vessel to rest on the bottom of the harbor in 1628 -it was faulty construction.

The failure of an ambitious new design was a setback for the Swedish Navy but a boon for tourists, who can now marvel at the wooden ship, which was salvaged in 1961 after 333 years.

At first, nobody knew the best way to raise it. Some thought it should be filled with Ping-Pong balls or frozen in a giant ice block, which would make it float to the surface. Ultimately, cables attached to pontoons raised the ship.

Part of the attraction of the Vasamuseet (Vasa Museum), which opened in Stockholm in 1990, is the chance to stand next to the only intact 17th-century ship. Most museum offerings in Europe from that era are on a smaller scale -the clothes of courtiers, the paintings of their artists. But with the Vasa, at more than 220 feet long and about 170 feet high, you can understand how ships like this were meant to intimidate adversaries.

Its looks are a bit deceiving, though, as it is too fragile to board -it was underwater for three centuries, after all. But you can walk around it and take in its intricate, once-brightly-painted woodwork, and imagine how it could hold some 450 seamen and soldiers.

Films and tours around the Vasa are offered in various languages, including English. Through these and a wide variety of exhibits, visitors learn about life aboard warships and what happened before and after this one went down.

Officials accused the captain and surviving crew of drunkenness when the ship faltered. (They weren't, it was a Sunday and crew had just come from church).

What really happened is the shipbuilders at the time didn't know how to calculate stability -boats were apparently falling over all the time. They typically copied the measurements of other ships, but the Vasa was an experiment and there was no model to follow for its size and second deck of cannons. Since the lower cannon deck had to be above water, they didn't load enough weight into the bottom of the ship as ballast to offset the top-heavy warship. It overturned almost immediately.

A makeshift museum was built around the ship when it was salvaged in the 1960s. Preserving the Vasa included treating it with a chemical that replaces the water in wet wood, so that when it dries it doesn't shrink. After decades of work, scientists have restored 95 percent of the ship's original appearance.

Most amazing is the number of contents that were still intact. In the first five months after the ship was raised, archaeologists registered 14,000 finds. My favorite is the small board game and playing pieces -a backgammon look-alike -that officers planned to use to combat boredom. But there are also coins, clothes, and food.

Though there were some indications the Vasa might have had stability problems before it left the dock, ultimately the blame wasn't assigned to any one person. Eventually it was shared among the king, the admiral, and the shipbuilder. They would have benefited from the museum's interactive computer programs that teach about ballast and stability, but then, tourists would have missed out on this deep-sea treasure.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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