Sweden calls on A&M to rescue iconic vessel
School's experts hope to slow the effects of acid on 17th century ship
By GREGORY KATZ
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STEM TO STERN
• Total length: 226 feet, including bowsprit
• Hull: 156 feet from prow to stern
• Maximum width: 38 feet
• Height: 172 feet, keel to top of main mast
• Draft : 16 feet
• Displacement : 1,210 tons
• Sails: 10 (six preserved)
• Ar mament: 64 guns
• Crew: 145 sailors, 300 soldiers
Source: Vasa Museum ()
STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN — The world's best-preserved 17th century warship is rotting away here, and Sweden is turning to experts from Texas A&M University and other institutions worldwide for a way to protect the Vasa, which had a spectacular but brief career.
The problem is that sulfuric acid is eating away at the 64-gun vessel. The acid formed when the mammoth ship was exposed to air after it was salvaged in 1961.
The ornate wooden ship, which sank just 10 minutes after it was launched in 1628, is not only a centerpiece of Swedish naval history but also a prime tourist attraction.
"When it was launched it was the space shuttle of its time," said Donny Hamilton, a Texas A&M marine archaeologist. "They were really pushing the line with that ship. It was a developing technology, and everyone wanted to outdo everyone else."
The abrupt sinking of the Vasa, which was designed to be the greatest warship in the world, shamed the proud Royal Swedish Navy and King Gustavus Adolphus, who had ordered its construction and approved its design.
The cause of its spectacular sinking in front of thousands of enthusiastic Swedes who had lined Stockholm Harbor to watch the Vasa's maiden voyage has never been firmly established.
50 sailors were killed
An official inquiry into the disaster, which claimed the lives of about 50 sailors, was inconclusive, in part because it was so politically sensitive.
The lack of a clear answer led to rumors: that the captain and part of the crew had been drunk, that the sinking showed the wrath of God and spelled doom for Sweden, or simply that the ship's ambitious design had been fatally flawed.
It turned out, however, that the ship had not performed well in rudimentary stability tests conducted in the weeks before the official launch, raising some doubts about its seaworthiness that were ignored in the rush to get it into battle.
Today the ship is housed in the Vasa Museum next to the harbor in central Stockholm, and has drawn millions of visitors.
But that role is in jeopardy, said Fred Hocker, an adjunct professor at Texas A&M who is the museum's director of Vasa research.
Artifacts also in jeopardy
"The main problem is the creation of highly acidic conditions that are attacking the fiber of the wood itself," said Hocker, whose interest in the Vasa goes back to his Virginia childhood when he wrote a school paper about it. "It is a serious threat to the entire collection. Not only the ship, but also the 30,000 small finds made with the ship that are also made out of wood."
The damage caused by the sulfuric acid shows up in more than 1,500 areas on the vessel's surface, where wood is clearly deteriorating and sulfate deposits can be seen.
The appearance several years ago of a yellow powdery substance on parts of the ship's surface was an ominous warning that the Vasa was in peril.
Hocker said this process cannot be reversed but can, it is hoped, be slowed "to a glacial pace" with new treatments under development.
Some of this research into possible chemical remedies is taking place at Texas A&M, which has sent a graduate student to Stockholm to collect samples and return them to College Station for analysis, he said.
"We're looking at ways of re-treating the wood," he said. "One of the options ... is a process developed at Texas A&M in the archaeological research laboratory in the Anthropology Department."
The unforeseen formation of sulfuric acid is not the only problem caused by the decision to raise the Vasa from its watery grave and put it on display.
In addition, Hocker said, placing the ship on land has led to severe stresses on its immense hull. In effect, the Vasa is slowly crushing itself, which will eventually lead to a catastrophic collapse unless a new way of cradling it is devised.
These two problems, which in some ways feed off each other, could lead to the eventual destruction of the vessel if unchecked, he said.
The slow failure of the ship stems in part from a decision made in the early 1960s when the salvaged vessel was sprayed with preservatives designed to keep it intact.
One of these, polyethylene glycol, was used to prevent the waterlogged wood from drying out and splitting, but it contributed greatly to the weight of the Vasa, adding to the growing pressure on the lower