Vrouw Maria The treasure ship's 230-year slumber
The Gulf of Finland is regarded as one of the world's most difficult sea areas to navigate. Its average depth, 27 metres, is nothing dizzying, but the abundance of reefs and shallows is another story. In the course of the centuries, these hazards have made the Gulf a graveyard of ships. Many carried valuable cargoes of treasures and one of the most sought-after for many years was the Dutch snow (two-masted merchant ship) Vrouw Maria, which was finally located near the island of Jurmo in the archipelago of Turku in summer 1999.
The find immediately became the object of enormous international interest. Marine archaeologists were not the only ones to be inspired; potential long fingers likewise pricked up their ears at the news. At the time of the shipwreck 230 years ago, the value of the cargo had been reported as being the stupendous sum of 9,700 golden thalers. By contrast, the Sankt Mikael, which had sunk in the same general area three decades earlier, had been carrying "only" 2,300 gold thalers' worth of valuables.
Thanks to Baltic water and side-scanning sonar
This well-preserved lead seal was recovered from the wreck in 1999.
The Vrouw Maria is considerably smaller than another famous vessel that was raised after a long sojourn on the seabed to began a new lease of life, the Wasa Skeppet, which foundered in Stockholm harbour in 1628. The fact that the latter is of major national importance whilst the Vrouw Maria has no comparable relevance to Finnish history is of no practical significance.
The marine archaeologist Christian Ahlström, who has examined archive material on the Vrouw Maria, says the extremely valuable treasures in the cargo make the find unique by any international standard. Rauno Koivusaari is the Pro Vrouw Maria Association's project chief and the diver who heads the search team. He recently dived 41 metres to see the „sleeping beauty” and in the process gained important information about her condition.
The vessel is in pretty good shape under the circumstances. Thanks for this are mainly due to the low- salinity Baltic water, in which the ship worms that devour wood in brinier seas do not thrive. Nor are there significant tides or sea currents. Only the stern of the vessel, which is 26 metres long and 6 wide, has been smashed. That is because the crew, who numbered nine instead of the usual six, tried to save what they could of the cargo by getting it out that way. It was certainly worth trying to save. The German-born Czarina of Russia Catherine the Great had been waiting feverishly for the arrival of works of arts by 17th-century Dutch painters that she had ordered. Other members of St. Petersburg's upper crust were likewise looking forward in eager anticipation to a variety of luxury items from abroad.
An expensive, but very sophisticated piece of equipment, a 600-kHz side-scanning sonar, played a decisive role in locating the wreck. It can put together a picture of the seabed many times faster than divers with cameras ever could and with the same precision as aerial photography can achieve. The only real obstacles in the way of salvaging the Vrouw Maria have to do with finance and ownership. The State of Finland and its Maritime Museum bear the greatest responsibility right now. However, the 17-member diving team that found the wreck can not be bypassed just like that. They have now submitted a claim to a court in Turku and hope to set a precedent if their work of discovery is ruled to be salvage. It is expected to take perhaps a decade before the Vrouw Maria has been awakened from her long sleep and begins a new and beautiful phase in her life - as a ship museum in Helsinki.