Dutch Ship Builders, Swedish Royals and Swiss Cheese

On Thursday, I caught the high speed train from Ludvika to Stockholm, acquired an SL card (Stockholm’s GoCard) from a ticket seller who thought I was under 18, then headed to Kungsträgården as per Taren’s kindly detailed instructions.

When I emerged from the depths of the tunnelbana and into the light, I fell in love with Stockholm at first sight.

The buildings are tall and majestic, intricately decorated and painted in delicate pastel colours, with gold gilt edges that glitter in the sunlight. Despite Stockholmers discarding their waste into the canals for hundreds of years, the water still maintains a deep royal blue, reflecting the sky and the buildings that hug the water’s edge. As you wander through the narrow cobblestone alleyways of the old town, you turn a corner and suddenly there is a statue-filled square, surprise museum or another spectacular waterfront view (or in many cases, all three!)

At the top of my sightseeing list for Sweden’s capital was the Vasa Museum and being the kind of person who takes to do lists seriously, I made this my first stop upon arriving in the city.

The Vasa was a 17th century Swedish warship which sank 1.3km into its maiden voyage after a gust of wind resulted in the boat taking in too much water. Instead of merely admiring the beauty of the preserved and restored wreck, the tour and exhibits roused my inner crash investigator and really made me want to know how all the holes in the swiss cheese lined up to result in such a tragedy.


Here are some of the contributing factors from what I could gather…

Refusing to do the bidding of the major stakeholder was tantamount to treason. The ship was commissioned by the king and a lot of the spectacular specifications for the vessel were specified by him as God’s chosen vessel. You can’t question a ship-load of cannons if his majesty asks for it! When your stakeholder asks for something that is stupid (unsafe), you really need to have the ability to say so without fearing the loss of your head.

Despite failing the stability pre-testing, the lord admiral still commissioned the ship. The stability test consisted of 30 men doing a beep test style run across the deck, six times. The Vasa only got to three before it became too unstable to continue. This should have been the point at which the admiral should have refused to sign off on the ship, but he didn’t. We all know it is absolutely crucial that acceptance criteria for testing are defined and adhered to. You can’t just let something that could kill people pass because there is a war with Prussia going on!

There was no actual design. This sounds quite irresponsible, but it was best practice at the time. Ship builders used their experience and intuition to build boats that were proportioned appropriately. However, given this was the biggest warship ever built at the time, one can understand how, without the mathematics to model the outcome, the Dutch ship builders’ “feeling in their waters” just didn’t cut it.  The construction was handed over half way during completion, which would have been a nightmare without any plans!

The gun ports were open and it was windy. This situation was likely to arise given that wind is used to sail sailing ships and the gun ports have to be opened in order to use the cannons. So this really isn’t an excuse.  Perhaps the number of fatalities would have been even greater if these events had happened out in the open sea.

The official inquest found that no one was at fault for the disaster which killed the 30 men and women who went down with the ship, although blame was believed to rest with the shipbuilder who began the construction but who handed over halfway through, and died around the ship’s launch.

The guide at the museum attempted to put a positive spin on the situation; if the Vasa hadn’t sunk in the optimal brackish conditions in Stockholm harbour, we would not have her today.

Accompanying the ship and artefacts in the museum were reconstructions of the victims, based on their recovered skulls. They were incredibly lifelike and it was eerie to be in their presence. Especially, since they had been given names. The one I posed with was called Adam.

#vosstip – If you’re going to this museum look at the times that the English language tour and film showing are, and plan your visit around them.

The Vasa Museum, like the other high-quality Swedish exhibitions that I would see in the following days, was beautifully presented, curated in a captivating way, lit creatively and a Nordic must-see!

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