A team dive down through the frigid depths of the Gulf of Finland, the easternmost section of the Baltic Sea. They’re heading for a shipwreck they believe probably dates from WWI or WWII. Yet that’s not what they find. Instead they come across something entirely unexpected. It’s a merchantman which sank some four centuries ago. But what utterly astonishes the Finnish divers is the fact that the 400-year-old wooden ship is almost entirely intact.
Peering through the chilled waters the men can clearly see the shape of the ship which is identified as a fluyt, sometimes spelt fluit. That was a specialized Dutch-built trading vessel in widespread use in the 17th century. These plied the Baltic Sea at a time when the Netherlands were the predominant maritime traders in those waters and around the world.
The vessel sits in about 280 feet of water at the bottom of the Gulf of Finland, resting level on its keel. And astonishingly, this ancient ship still has its cargo stowed in its hold. These fluyts were clearly built to last. But there’s something else at work here as well – the nature of the sea at this depth in these waters.
The fact is that where this fluyt lies, even although it’s in the depths of the sea, the salinity level is exceptionally low, as are both the temperature and light levels. That means that some of the organisms that would normally make short work of a timber-built vessel simply aren’t present. That’s in stark contrast to warmer, more salty seawater, where a wooden ship soon disappears.
Fluyt is not a word you come across every day, so just what is the story behind these Dutch vessels? Well, they can be traced back to the shipbuilders of a Dutch port city called Hoorn in the north of the country about 20 miles north of Amsterdam. The city’s history goes right back to the 8th century and in the years after its founding it became an important maritime trading center.
As Hoorn’s trade around the world grew, there was an urgent need for robust vessels that could carry cargoes far across the oceans. And from towards the end of the 16th century that’s where the fluyts came in. Designed and built by skilled Dutch shipwrights, these merchant ships were perfect for the far-flung commercial sea voyages that meant Holland basically ruled the waves in the 17th century.
Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the fluyt’s design was that it was a single-purpose vessel, built for commerce alone. Previously, most ships had been required to fulfill two roles, that of merchantman and warship. These vessels carried armaments as well as cargoes. This put them at a disadvantage when it came to trading.
Much of the stowage space of these dual-purpose ships was taken up with cannon, powder and shot. And then there had to be rooms for the sailors required to man the guns and fight the enemy during boardings, whether in attack or defense. But the fluyts concentrated on one mission alone: trade.
A fluyt would carry some light armaments to combat piracy, but the vast bulk of the ship was given over to space for cargo. And the very shape of the ships was designed to maximize storage capacity. Although their decks were relatively small, below the superstructure the hull actually bellied out, creating more space.
This bulging shape below the curtailed deck had another advantage that the crafty shipbuilders of Hoorn had no doubt spotted. Rival nations such as the Danes charged tolls on Dutch shipping that passed through their waters. But these taxes were calculated on deck-size. So a small deck offered a real benefit.
The fluyts’ keel and framework were built with whatever hardwood came to hand, while for the planking shipwrights used softer woods such as pine. The fluyts, usually measuring roughly 80 feet from stem to stern, were fitted with three short sail-bearing masts and their rigging was kept simple by design. That feature meant crew numbers could be kept to a minimum, allowing more space for cargo.
The carefully designed specification of a fluyt made it economical to build as well as cheap to crew, with few mariners needed to sail her. According to an article by historian Joe Wheatley published on the Captain Cook Society website, a newly launched fluyt could recoup her construction costs in as little as two trading trips.
Another aspect of the way a fluyt was crewed was unique in the 17th century. The entire complement of sailors from the cook to the captain all shared the same living space aboard one of these vessels. They bunked together and dined together. That was highly unusual given the strict hierarchies and separation of ranks that characterized most of the 17th-century maritime world.
Although the fluyt was not the most rapid of ships, the fact that it could operate with as few as 35 crewmen meant that it was ideal as a commercial vessel. And its advantage over rival merchant ships built by other nations was substantial. Writing on the Maritime Logistics Professional website in 2013, Dennis Bryant revealed the scale of that superiority.
Bryant asserted, “They could carry twice the cargo of their counterparts at half the cost.” Any ship-owner would give their eye-teeth for such an advantage. And these fluyts were not just limited to the waters of the Baltic Sea, relatively near at hand for Dutch sailors. They also journeyed to India and further east, to the likes of the Indonesian islands.
In fact, these utilitarian ships allowed the Netherlands to dominate trade between the Far East and Europe for nearly a century through the Dutch East India Company. The fluyts ferried highly valuable spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves, and also did a roaring trade in silk and cotton. Their main rivals were the British, but for some reason, for many years they were unable to build vessels which could compete on equal terms with the Dutch fluyts.
So that’s the story of the vessel that those Finnish divers found in 2020, when they were actually looking for sunken vessels from World Wars I and II. But just who were these underwater explorers with a fascination for historic wrecks? Step forward the volunteer divers of a not-for-profit group called the Badewanne.
The Finnish word badewanne translates as “bathtub.” It might seem like a strange, even flippant, choice of name for a non-profit diving group. Actually it comes from the term that was used to describe the stretch of water they explored in the Gulf of Finland during World War II – the Badewanne. And eccentric as the name might seem, these volunteer divers are deadly serious and highly committed. They’ve been exploring these cold northern waters for more than 20 years.
The waters in which Badewanne volunteers dive have seen an extraordinary amount of often-violent action. As we know from the fluyt the divers found, that goes back at least into the 17th century. But certainly the most turbulent period of the Gulf of Finland came in the 20th century, with fierce naval engagements in both world wars.
Badewanne’s website calls the Gulf of Finland an “underwater time capsule” and the remarkable discoveries they’ve made over the years certainly justify that description. Their mission is to raise awareness of the rich history of the waters they explore. The website points out, “As a result of our work we have a large amount of high-quality material available from various projects ranging from 17th-century sailing ships to marvels of modern days.”
The volunteer divers’ first significant find came in 2004 when they discovered a wrecked 18th-century ship of undetermined origin. The ship lay at a depth of about 200 feet and, like the 17th-century fluyt discovered in 2020, was well preserved. Unlike the fluyt, this vessel had 12 gun ports with six cannon still aboard the wreck.
Other fascinating wrecks discovered and surveyed by the Badewanne divers include the Pallada, an Imperial Russian Navy cruiser, found in 2012. Sunk by the Germans in 1914, she was the first Russian vessel to be lost to enemy action in WWI. More than 600 crew members died when she sank beneath the waves.
Another WWI casualty discovered by the Badewanne team was the Imperial German Navy submarine S.M. U-26. Almost incredibly, she was the very boat that had sunk the Pallada. Badewanne divers found the sub a couple of years after they’d found its Russian victim. With some poetic justice, U-26 was sunk by a mine laid by the Russians in the Gulf of Finland. Her 30-strong crew all perished when she sank less than a year after destroying the Pallada.
So these intrepid volunteer divers of Badewanne have made a sterling contribution to knowledge about the maritime history of the Gulf of Finland. And their latest find of an intact 17th-century fluyt is arguably their most exciting discovery to date. But why are the waters of the Gulf of Finland such a prolific hunting ground for shipwrecks?
The answer to that question is twofold. First of all it was a much-used trading route. And secondly the Gulf of Finland and the wider Baltic Sea has been the scene of many intense naval skirmishes and battles. Take a look at a map of the Baltic Sea and you’ll see that it’s surrounded by no fewer than nine different nations including Germany, Russia and Poland.
The fact that so many countries overlook the Baltic is probably the simplest explanation as to why it has been such a hive of naval activity, both military and commercial over the centuries. Indeed, according to the Maritime Heritage Project’s website, this sea has more shipwrecks in it than anywhere else on the planet.
And, as mentioned earlier, it was in the Gulf of Finland that the Badewanne team found that 17th-century fluyt beneath 280 feet of water. But why was it such an amazing find? After all, we’ve established that the Baltic is absolutely riddled with shipwrecks.
But the fact is that this fluyt stands out because of its extraordinary level of preservation. The Badewanne divers filmed some footage around the fluyt, and it is stunning. As the diver with the camera circles the wreck, the level of detail still visible on this 400-year-old shipwreck defies belief. That a wooden ship has survived in such a pristine condition is astonishing.
The Badewanne film shows timber rails encrusted with underwater plant life but still retaining their original shapes. Square portholes along the hull are surrounded by intricately carved frames with the detailing still clearly visible. A timber capstan appears with the holes for spars still in perfect shape. Most of the ship’s wooden planks are intact and in place.
The ship’s stern has taken some damage but its original form is still clearly visible. The fluyt’s rigging lies scattered around the wreck on the seabed. What damage the ship has sustained was almost certainly caused by trawling from fishing boats. It seems that at some point a net was dragged across the fluyt from the prow to the rear, although only fragments of netting remain on the deck.
Although the hoekman, the carved human figure that was once attached to the ship’s stern, has been displaced, the divers found it on the seabed by the wrecked fluyt. But the obvious question is; why has this wooden ship which has lain at the bottom of the sea for four centuries not simply rotted away? That fate is, after all, exactly what you’d expect.
We mentioned earlier that the waters in which the 17th-century fluyt lies have some very distinctive, and rare, characteristics. Unlike most seas and oceans around the world, the waters at the bottom of the Gulf of Finland have a very low salt level. What’s more, the frigid temperature of the water remains stable throughout the year.
This environment on the Baltic seabed is extremely unfavorable to the organisms which would normally destroy a timber shipwreck. In particular a creature called the shipworm cannot survive in these conditions. These critters, which are actually small clams, are principally responsible for the destruction of wooden ships in warm or temperate waters.
It’s not only these tiny bivalve mollusks, also known as pileworms, that do damage, it’s also their larvae. The animals lay their eggs on wood immersed in water. Once these hatch, the shipworm larvae, along with the mature animals, munch away at the wood and in a relatively short time consume the lot.
In fact, these tiny clams are a menace to vessels floating on the surface as well as to shipwrecks, and also cause damage to wooden harbor structures. The extremely damaging common shipworm, Teredo navalis, is very prevalent along the coasts of the Baltic Sea. These animals have only a tiny shell but from this protrudes a tube which can grow as long as 18 inches.
But despite their abundance around the edges of the Baltic, the shipworms can’t survive in the conditions that exist in the sea’s deeper waters. The result is that even timber shipwrecks that have been consigned to the depths for centuries can survive virtually intact. And that’s the explanation for the extraordinary preservation of the Badewanne fluyt.
But just how significant is this find at the bottom of the Gulf of Finland? A 2020 Badewanne group press release about the fluyt find included a quote from a University of Stockholm maritime archaeologist, Associate Professor Dr. Niklas Eriksson. He was in no doubt about the importance of this discovery.
Eriksson said, “The wreck reveals many of the characteristics of the fluyt but also some unique features, not least the construction of the stern. It might be that this is an early example of the design. The wreck thus offers a unique opportunity to investigate the development of a ship type that sailed all over the world and became the tool that laid the foundation for early modern globalization.”
So, according to Eriksson, the contemporary global commerce system that we so often think of as being a thoroughly modern phenomenon can trace its roots back to 17th-century maritime trade. And specifically, these Dutch fluyts were the vessels that first enabled an explosion in international trade in everything from spices to silks.
It’s little surprise that archaeologists are truly excited by the discovery of a close-to-intact 17th-century fluyt. Today, massive container ships ply the trade routes of the world, but we can view these 80-foot timber fluyts as their 17th-century predecessors. Meantime, the intrepid volunteers of Badewanne continue their mission to unlock the intriguing secrets that lie beneath the Baltic Sea.