Fram and Vasa

Recently I got a chance to see two legendary ships: Fram and Vasa. Separated by 265 years, with one being the first ever to go closest to both geographic poles in human history, while the other sank after sailing only twenty minutes into its maiden voyage. Yet they both capture public’s imagination like few other. In the case of Fram, it is not hard to see why.


Well funded marine expeditions began around mid-nineteenth century to find a new northwest sea passage through Greenland interior or the Canadian arctic archipelago to the Pacific towards the riches of Asia. Successive attempts, however, were met with one disaster after another. Nearly everyone who tried, could not go past the frozen waterways of the archipelago. The wooden boats were no match to the formidable crushing pressure of sheet or pack ice.

Despite these challenges, European explorers managed to chart greater parts of the region from their successive failed attempts, and documented what worked and what didn’t. While this went on, in 1888, Fridtjof Nansen’s early success in penetrating Greenland’s inland ice, at 27 years of age, grew his ambitions of reaching the North Pole. Nansen handed the arduous task of building a custom ship for this extreme adventure to a Scottish-Norwegian shipwright, Colin Archer. Archer then went on to design Fram featuring a belly-like hull of extraordinary strength, using strongest oak timbers and well braced intricate system, with an awkward 3:1 length to beam ratio, so it would slip up from pack ice’s wedge-like grip.

In March 1895, Fram (Norwegian for Forward) reached a never-before-possible latitude of 84°4′N. With unreliable drift thereafter, Nansen then made a final dash towards North Pole on skis and dog sledges. The last mile is excruciating just to read, and I cannot imagine a worse expedition — weather wise. He eventually turned back just shy of 3°46′ — approximately 230 nautical miles south of North Pole. Either by miracle or design, Fram survived the worst on its return voyage before sailing south to Tromsø. Nansen’s pioneering techniques of travel and survival would come to influence all subsequent explorations. It made Nansen and Fram legends, but Nansen would never sail again. The arctic crushes even the toughest they say.

Inspired by Nansen’s achievements and techniques, Roald Amundsen in 1906, after three years of trying, achieved a break-through in successfully navigating across the Canadian arctic archipelago and found the north west passage in a similarly proportioned 45ton fishing vessel Gjøa, thereby proving to the World that Pacific could indeed be reached via the archipelago. Four years later, Amundsen would take the Fram (used by Nansen for his North Pole expedition) to a South Pole expedition. In this expedition, Fram reached the farthest possible latitude of 78°41′S before Amundsen and team began the rest of the journey on sledges and skis to the South Pole, successfully reaching it on 14 December 1911. (Robert Scott, his British counterpart, reached over a month late, and unlike Amundsen and team, he and four of his crew did not survive the return journey to base.)

Standing humble in an understated museum belies their incredible achievements in history. We took the kids to see Fram and Gjøa stand every inch proud at their home in Oslo, the Fram museum this August.


If Fram was a boat for the nordic polar conquerors, Vasa was an unprecedented tragedy — of very low metacentric height, of over-reliance on geometric proportions, of high ambitions, of immaturity in the art of naval architecture, of fear of breaking unfavorable news to the king of Sweden, and of poor judgement of ballast by its captain.

Sweden was fighting its two great foes: Denmark — to reduce its navigation tax, and Russia — to open up its markets. Prior to Vasa, Sweden had lost twelve of its large vessels in the 1620s — one captured, one self-destroyed while resisting capture, and ten ran aground in the Bay of Riga, prompting the king to urgently seek replacements to keep up the pressure in the Baltic.

Armed to gills with two gun decks full totaling an unprecedented sixty-four bronze cannons — specially cast in Stockholm, the ambition and intent of Gustavus was fierce. An operational Vasa as a destroyer would have been a terror of the Baltic, where it was to rendezvous with the king’s fleet, striking fear into the hearts of Sweden’s enemies.

Through changing specifications, an ill shipwright, poor change-management, and shortened delivery date due to urgent pleas from the battle field, Vasa got built despite failing a stability test (third run stopped, as Vasa began heeling and heaving violently — as thirty men ran back & forth on the top deck) conducted by Rear Admiral Klas Fleming.

Just as it set sail from Stockholm port on August 10, 1628, catching the southwest squall, Vasa began heeling hard over its leeward-side to the extent that lower gun ports began taking water, and disappeared. The crux of this tragedy is succinctly summarised in a paper by Fairley and Willshire:

Methods for calculating the center of gravity, heeling characteristics, and stability factors for sailing ships were unknown, so ships’ captains had to learn their vessels’ operational characteristics by trial-and-error testing. The Vasa was the most spectacular, but certainly not the only ship to capsize during the 17th and 18th centuries. Measurements taken and calculations performed since 1961 indicate that the Vasa was so unstable that it would have capsized at a heeling over of 10° it could not have withstood the estimated wind gust of 8 knots (9 miles per hour) that caused the ship to capsize. Recent calculations indicate the ship would have capsized in a breeze of 4 knots. That the wind was so light during the Vasa’s initial (and final) cruise is verified by the fact that the crew had to extend the sails by hand upon launch.

What is remarkable about Vasa though is not how it went down, but after 333 sunken years, when it was raised in 1961 in a televised national effort, it turned out to be over 90% intact! The theory is that the sheltered Stockholm harbor, and Baltic Sea’s low salinity prevented worms from destroying the wooden vessel.

Raising Vasa, a scaled model at the Vasa museum.
Raising Vasa, a scaled model at the Vasa museum.

Sweden’s efforts in Vasa’s preservation is admirable, and one can see its majestic stature its exquisite custom wooden carvings and embellished sculptures reveal. Aside from being a deadly machine it was beautiful art capturing seventeenth century culture and sophistication. We spent half a day looking at the impressive Vasa this August in Stockholm.