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Saturday, 25 January 2014

August 10: Dramatic sinking in central Stockholm

The ship had just left for its maiden voyage when it capsized and sank in front of the huge crowd. Onboard were not only crew, but also VIPs and family to the crew. Almost one third of the 150 persons onboard died in the accident. The accident was of course a result of a great amount of errors in the design, construction and preparation processes. No one has been blamed yet, and no one probably will. However, conflicting and too specific requirements are regarded as contributing factors.

Now, closing in on 400 years later, the ship is the central piece in one of the world most visited maritime museum: The Vasa Museum in Stockholm. The ship sank in 1628 and was salvaged 333 years later surprisingly intact (the biggest damaged was done in the years after the sinking when the canons was salvaged).

Vasa at the Vasa Museum in Stockholm. Photo: H. Liwång
The ship was commissioned by the Swedish king Gustav II Adolf, who also set very high demands on the ship. Gustav II Adolf was committed to protecting Sweden’s Lutheran confession with wars in many places in northern Europe. The wars also laid the foundations for Sweden as a great power in Europe in the seventeenths century. Vasa was therefore built in a very international environment with a king almost always abroad in one of his many wars, but also built for a king accustomed to giving precise directives and expecting them to be followed to every point. As IMO writes in the HSC code prescriptive directions are only effective for basic design, not for novelty. That also seemed to be the case 1628. Vasa was built under new strategic and tactical challenges and was therefore bigger and with more cannons than was the case for other ships of the time. Dutch expertise was hired to build the ship and with that came a tradition to build ships without drawings and only based on quantitative relations and rules. Therefore the design was done under a lot of does and don’ts probably not suited for the intended ship size.
Of course there was stability test, but it had to be stopped so that the ship didn’t capsize. So the crew knew that the ship was unsafe! But there were no one powerful enough to take the decision not to sail. Therefore, the ship capsized (or rather heeled so much that the open cannon doors filled the ship with water) at the first gust of wind and sank quickly. However, the sinking give us today an interesting snap shot of the development of complex or military systems in 1628.

What I have realized a couple of times, when using the Vasa case, is that surprisingly many aspects are valid also today; solving future challenges with yesterday’s technology and also that you don’t always needs new technology but need to apply known technology in new ways (there were also ships like Vasa was built at the same time without problems). One difference compared to today is the closeness between the political level (the king) and the building of the ship. However, this difference makes for an easier analysis of the ship design process.
The Vasa ship is a fantastic disaster that Sweden offers to the rest of the world as an attraction, but also as a case to get inspired by when taking on development of complex systems!

(The last time I visited the Vasa museum I got especially affected by how marked by life and sickness even the young and rich was, life can’t have been easy and the everyday pain must have been challenging at least)

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