In this photograph, a diver explores the wreck of Södermanland, an 18th-century Swedish ship of the line now resting in the waters off Karlskrona, on the country’s southern coast.
Built in Stockholm and launched in 1749, the 42-metre ship could carry a crew of 450 men and was armed with 50 guns. She saw action during the Russo-Swedish War of 1788-1790, launched by the autocratic Swedish King Gustav III in an attempt to bolster his flagging domestic popularity.
Södermanland was intentionally sunk in 1810, along with a handful of other ships, to form part of an underwater barrier outside Karlskrona, which was once a strategically important city. These wrecks have recently been explored by a research programme entitled ‘The Lost Navy’, a collaboration between Stockholm University, Vrak – Museum of Wrecks (which is also based in the Swedish capital), and other heritage institutions in the region.
The wrecks were surveyed first using multibeam sonar, with the results being compared to archival data. Divers then made their way down to collect wood samples in order to confirm the ships’ identities.
In her later career, Södermanland was converted into a frigate and sailed as far as the Mediterranean. Other wrecks identified nearby also made lengthy journeys, including to North Africa and even China, mostly for trade.
‘It’s amazing to be able to link the wrecks and remains to historic events,’ said Jim Hansson, maritime archaeologist at Vrak – Museum of Wrecks. ‘It adds an extra dimension to the site.’
Another major find for ‘The Lost Navy’ project has been the discovery of the 17th-century warship Äpplet (Swedish for ‘apple’) at Vaxholm on the outskirts of Stockholm. This is the long-lost sister-ship of Vasa, perhaps the most famous vessel in all Scandinavian history.
They were ordered by King Gustav II Adolf in 1625, and designed by Henrik Hybertsson and, later, Hein Jakobsson. But monarchical meddling led to Vasa becoming dangerously top-heavy, and she sank on her maiden voyage in Stockholm harbour in 1628.
Jakobsson was forced to alter the design of Äpplet, launched a year later. But after a slightly more successful career, in which she took part in the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) in Germany, she too proved problematic and was sunk in 1659.
Having been raised in 1961, Vasa is now a popular visitor attraction in Stockholm. Meanwhile, a plan to transform the waters around Karlskrona into a dive park should ensure that explorers of the future will one day be able to swim around Södermanland and her underwater neighbours. A strict diving ban in the Stockholm area means Äpplet will remain out of reach, however.
Text: Calum Henderson