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Vasa warship in a museum

4 shipwrecks that weren't discovered until years later

The Vasa warship in the Vasa Museum, Stockholm

Ocean floors and riverbeds are littered with shipwrecks from across history, each with its own sad story to tell. While humans have navigated our planet’s waters for thousands of years, some journeys have always been destined to end in disaster, and, with the ever-changing nature of our waterways, it’s no surprise that it can sometimes take centuries for the aftermath to be discovered.

Despite the tragedy that each shipwreck represents, every discovery can act as a time capsule that reveals a story we might otherwise have never heard. From storms to technical failure, or even just bad luck: here are four shipwrecks that weren’t discovered until years later.

1. Ironton

Disaster struck one stormy night in 1894 when the steamer towing the Ironton and the Moonlight through Lake Huron broke down. The fierce winds that whipped across the great lake buffeted the three ships, driving them ever closer to one another. In an attempt to protect themselves, the Moonlight crew decided to cut ties with the Ironton, leaving her to fend for herself just a few miles north of an area colloquially known as ‘Shipwreck Alley’.

Untethered and battered by winds, the crew of the Ironton could only watch in horror as the ship veered off course and collided with a passing freighter, the Ohio. Both ships were destroyed. However, while all 16 crew members were able to escape from the Ohio, the same could not be said for the crew aboard the Ironton.

Desperately trying to launch the lifeboat, five members of the Ironton’s crew found themselves trapped when they could not untie the painter - the rope which kept the lifeboat tethered to the vessel. Only two of the seven members of the crew on board survived by holding on to debris and awaiting rescue.

When researchers discovered the wreckage of the Ironton in 2019, they found that it wasn’t just fully intact but perfectly preserved, complete with (rather chillingly) its lifeboat still tethered. Thanks to the cold climate of Lake Huron, the Ironton is frozen forever in the devastating moment that it first settled at the bottom of the great lake.

2. Titanic

Perhaps one of the most famous disasters at sea, the sinking of the Titanic sent shockwaves around the world. When the wreckage of the ocean liner was discovered in 1985, 73 years after its fateful collision with an iceberg, it’s no wonder that it captured the imagination of people across the globe. Despite numerous expeditions seeking the wreckage, the location of the Titanic’s final resting place seemed to elude researchers for decades.

As the ship split apart, she spilt the contents of her interior across the ocean floor, leaving everything from kitchen sinks to jewellery scattered for almost two miles around the ship. Unlike the Ironton, the Titanic’s shipwreck has suffered from steady decay since she sank in 1912. With its own microbiome eating away at the remains, it could be just over a decade until the sea once again reclaims the vessel.

3. Mary Rose

The pride of Henry VIII’s naval fleet, when the Mary Rose sank in the Battle of the Solent in 1545, the blow to the British Navy was devastating. The largest ship in the English fleet, the Mary Rose had served for over 33 years and had been victorious in several campaigns.

Leading the charge against the invading French fleet that fateful summer day, the Mary Rose met an unexpected disaster. Having fired all her guns on one side, she was turning to present the guns of the other when she was caught in a strong gale. The ship heeled violently, and water started pouring in through her open gun ports. Within moments, the ship was sinking into the Solent.

It took more than 400 years for the wreckage of the Mary Rose to reappear, but in 1971 after a six-year search of the Solent, a team of volunteer divers made the discovery of a lifetime. Over the next eleven years, researchers, historians, and volunteers dedicated hundreds of thousands of hours to painstakingly excavating and raising the wreckage.

Now preserved along with her remaining contents in the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth, the Mary Rose has undergone extensive reconstruction and preservation. To date, the Mary Rose remains one of the most complex and expensive maritime salvage projects.

4. Vasa

When Vasa set sail on her maiden voyage in August 1628, she would have truly been a sight to behold. Brightly adorned with vibrantly coloured ornamentation and armed to the teeth, she was the first of a series of warships commissioned by the Swedish King to expand the country’s naval exploits.

With great expectations and hope for a new era of naval warfare, when Vasa was launched, she was the most high-tech warship in the world. The hopes and expectations that she carried with her, however, were quickly dashed. Just 1,300 metres into her journey, Vasa was caught in a strong gust of wind, causing her to heel suddenly. With her gunports open ready to fire a salute as the ship left Stockholm, water rushed into the ship's gundeck. With water quickly building in the ship's hold, Vasa could not right herself. With thousands of onlookers watching, she sank below the waves.

For years following, attempts to salvage the ship were unsuccessful. Accepting that the ship was to remain on the bottom of Stockholm Harbour, attention turned to rescuing the signature bronze cannons, of which 50 were recovered. After this, interest in Vasa dwindled into obscurity until its location was lost to time.

It wasn’t until 1956 when amateur archaeologist Anders Franzén (armed only with a homemade gravity probe) rediscovered the shipwreck. After 333 years on the floor of Stockholm Harbour, the ship was in surprisingly good condition. However, it wasn’t immune to damage. When Vassa was finally raised in 1961, extensive efforts began to preserve what remained of the ship, which is now on display in the Vasa Museum in Stockholm.