Boaty McBoatface and the Royal Ship Vasa

I semi-randomly chose JBanana on IRC (they had recently written something in the chat) to decide a subject that I would write about on my gemlog. The subject given was "boats". Deliberately vague, that one.

But what should one write about boats? There is so much. Where should one start research? I decided to ransack my memory for interesting tidbits that I could return to and recollect through some internet searching.

And we need to start with the most important one throughout boat history.

Boaty McBoatface

Internet is always going to internet. That's sort of a law, and if you don't understand it you should be wary of putting any sort of power in the hands of it. Like, say, letting people publicly suggest names for a £200 million ship and vote for the best one. Back in 2016 that's exactly what the British organisation Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) did.

The hashtag #NameOurShip trended for a while, and there were many serious proposals that had some historical and/or cultural connotations. But then, of course, internet is always going to internet. And there was already precedence that maybe should have been known. Only four years earlier an 'adopt-a-bird' programme had become popular since one of the feathery creatures was named Hooty McOwlface. Maybe NERC didn't know about this, but the BBC radio presenter James Hand did. And in an off-hand tribute to that he suggested the name Boaty McBoatface in the poll.

Which of course won. As it should. It was clearly the best possible name, and I dare you to dispute that. We'll duel at dawn (virtually, because I'm not fond of travelling far for such an imbecille reason, nor getting a sword or gun, and definitely not fond of getting killed).

Now, NERC thought it was a silly name (I'll duel them at dawn too, if they'll let me!) but none the less wanted to honour the poll and the publicity it had garnered. The compromise was to name the ship RRS Sir David Attenborough, and name one of the submersible autonomous vessels on board Boaty McBoatface instead.

I guess that's almost forgiveable.

The city of Gothenburg has a tram called Trainy McTrainface. Just saying.


This is a fun one for anyone but ten year olds having to suffer through the Vasa museum because their teacher insists that a giant hulk of wood and all trinkets found onboard are interesting. That kid was me. And countless others in Sweden, because this is one of those common bits of history we read in school and sort of forget most details around later except that it was a big boat that sank.

But it's actually a pretty fun story about how management with insufficient knowledge about the domain pursues an early release of a product despite all the engineers knowing that it really isn't fit to be shipped (pun very much intended). And of course nobody is really responsible because the people who designed and started work on the product have since left, and after all the specifications from management were followed!

The story goes something like this:

King Gustav II Adolf needed a fleet in the beginning of the 17th century. He was waging war on many fronts, including the Baltic Sea, but had so far been pretty unlucky when it came to ships. Some had been lost to enemies, and a whole lot had been lost to storms.

He ordered a bunch of new ships. Among them the Royal ship later known as Vasa (originally Wasen or something; they didn't have very strict spelling rules at the time). This was going to be a big ship, with a keel of 135 feet (41 meters) and no less than two decks of cannons and some extra at the top deck. All in all a broadside of no less than 267 kg. Unrivalled in her time.

The ship was ordered by the king in 1625, and the work was led by Antonius Monier. The architect was Henrik Hybertsson who subsequently left the project due to his own demise in 1627. His wife Margareta took over and finished according to plan. Now, Wikipedia is a bit unclear on this because later it mentions the responsibility being passed to Henrik's assistant Henrik instead (the latter one being Henrik "Hein" Jacobsson). Four ships were ordered from the same shipyard at that time, and of course the shipyard itself changed ownership during the build. I'm not sure which of these ship builds Jacobsson or Margareta took over, nor whether Vasa was one of these four or a fifth. I've asked the Vasa Museum for clarification on this and will update this post as soon as I get a reply.

Anyway. Onwards!

Vasa was built according to Dutch standard of the time, which meant her keel ran shallow to be able to navigate more shallow waters. But the astute reader will see something odd with this. A shallow keel on a very tall boat is akin to having a high building with a weak foundation. As soon as the ship had been set to sea in 1628, before the top build was completed or even the cannons brought on board, the ship displayed a worrying instability. And this was with the ballast in place.

None of the two build masters (here we go with the contradictive information again, I may have to revise this paragraph too later) Hein Jacobsson or Johan Isbrandsson were present when the stability test was performed. And the king was busy fighting a war in Poland, thus incapable of rendering an opinion on the matter. He did, however, stress in a number of letters how important it was that the ship was completed soon so that it could be deployed for the war effort.

The test, by the way, consisted of having 30 sailors run from side to side to see how the boat handled it. They had to abort after just three rounds because the Admiral and the Captain were worried the ship might tip over.

On August 10th in 1628 the ship sailed for the first time. It started at Skeppsgården in Stockholm, a fair bit into the narrows that separate the Baltic Sea from the Mälaren lake. It made it around 3 km if my estimate of the map is correct. But then something very predictable happened. Wind.

Two gusts from starboard was all it took for the ship to tip over and sink, 120 meters from the nearest shore.

Who was to blame for this catastrophic embarrassment? Nobody, apparently. The builders had followed the, admittedly flawed, specification. And the king wanted the ship to set sail as soon as possible. Who was to say no because the ship was unseaworthy, when it was all but done? Time pressure, sunk investment, the lack of ships in the war (at least another ten had sunk in the years Vasa was built). It just had to be done!

Not so sure if the 30 to 50 sailors who drowned would have agreed, of course.

That Was a Lot of Text

We didn't even get to my favourite piece of naval history: the battle of Trafalgar. I'll save that for a later post. This one is wordy enough!

Thank you JBanana for the topic! 😄️


JBanana's gemlog.

The Wikipedia article on Boaty McBoatface

and the BBC article on the naming of its mothership.

The Swedish Wikipedia article on Vasa.

-- CC0 Björn Wärmedal