Watch: Finnish divers discover well-preserved 17th century shipwreck

Lying in waters in the western Gulf of Finland, the largely intact vessel may have sunk in the early 1600s.

Flöitti-hylky merenpohjassa Suomenlahden suulla

A previously unknown shipwreck has been discovered at a depth of 85 metres in waters at the mouth of the Gulf of Finland. Found during seabed mapping, the vessel is believed to be a cargo vessel that possibly dates back to the early 17th century.

Based on its location, when first exploring the wreck, the Finnish diving group Badewanne assumed they would find the remains of a vessel from World War I or World War II.

"With this assumption in mind, we set out to check which one it was. However, we soon discovered that it wasn't either of those things, but something completely different," says Jouni Polkko, a member of the Badewanne team.

It turned out that the ship that sank in the sea between Finland's Hanko peninsula and the Estonian island of Hiiumaa was actually considerably older than suspected.

“Quickly during the dive, it became clear that this was an old wreck and a fluyt-type merchant ship. Fluyts were designed in the Netherlands and used as merchant ships in the 17th century. The ship was designed so that it could be sailed with a small crew, and so a lot of cargo could be carried," explains Polkko.

The flutes were three-masted, sailing ships with large holds, which unlike most European cargo vessels of the period were not designed to mount arms.

85 metres down

Once they had identified the wreck as an antique vessel, the diving group contacted Niklas Erikson, an assistant professor of marine archaeology at Stockholm University, who confirmed it might be an early representative of a ship type from the 17th century. According to Erikson, the wreck displays many of the characteristics typical of fluyts, but it also has individual features, such as the structure of the stern

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Fluyts were three-masted, large-hulled cargo vessels that were usually not usually armed. Image: Jouni Polkko

“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 globalisation,” Erikson stated in a Badewanne release on Friday.

According to Polkko, it could be a Dutch merchantman, or a local copy of one, which sailed only in the Baltic Sea.

Two dives were performed at the site. Since the wreck lies at a depth of about 85 metres, the operation had its own challenges.

Both still and video images of the wreck were obtained during the dives. Polkko believes that more dives are needed to add to the data already gathered.

“What makes this discovery great is that its hull is completely intact. Admittedly, though, it had been hit by a trawler that damaged it a bit, which swept away the masts and some deck structures, for example,” Polkko relates.

Possible clues in Danish archives

It is possible that some of the answers about the vessel and its history may be found in Denmark. If the ship passed through Denmark on its way into the Baltic Sea, there may be a record in the country's old customs archives.

“At that time, ships passing through the Danish straits had to pay customs duties. However, finding more detailed information would require that there was something interesting about the ship’s cargo, otherwise it would not stand out from other entries,” Polkko says.

Taxation for passage through the Danish straits was based on the surface area of the deck. This ship was designed with a very narrow deck and a spacious hull. This turned out to be advantageous when faced with this kind of tax and there is speculation that reducing deck space was intentional.

Although the reason why the vessel sank is uncertain, at least for the time being, something can be deduced from its condition.

"Because the hull is intact, the ship is likely to have capsized in a storm. It was hardly driven onto the rocks. Or, it may have sprung a sudden leak in the middle of its voyage,” Polkko sums up.