Challenging Issues, Keeping the Faith: Michael R. Ash: Nephi's ship

Published: Monday, Sept. 6 2010 5:00 a.m. MDT

Nephi was instructed to build a ship to take his family to their new land. The ship was not to be built "after the manner of men" but according to the Lord's instructions. There are few clues in the text as to what this ship may have looked like, but this issue will discuss some possibilities.

Estimates s

uggest that there were 40 to 70 Lehites by this time. While ancient societies were not as concerned with the luxury of space, the ship would have been large enough to accommodate the entire family as well as their supplies. It's also surmised that two or more years would have been needed to build a vessel and gather supplies to carry this group the 17,000 miles eastward to the New World.

As Warren Aston notes, ship-building was nothing new to the people of this land. Centuries before Lehi's day, Oman was at the forefront of Arab sea exploration and trade, building ships that operated to Africa, India and China. Some of these ancient vessels in other parts of Oman, and even early Egyptian vessels, were built of teak-wood imported from India. Richard Wellington and George Potter wonder if Nephi also built his ship out of teak, which would explain why he wrote of "work(ing) timbers of curious workmanship" (1 Nephi 18:1).

Most other LDS scholars, however, believe that the Lehites built their ship from the trees that grew locally. Tall hardwood trees did, indeed, grow in Kharfot. Aston claims that such timber grows only in the Kharfot area of Dhofar, and this strengthens the possibility that this site might correlate with Nephi's Bountiful.

While Wellington and Potter argue that the Lehites would have built a deep-hulled, multi-decked vessel (see also Kelly DeVries, Journey of Faith, 81-82), Aston suggests that the "curious workmanship" and the fact that their ship was not "after the manner of men" indicates that the Lehite ship was different than the other ships in the vicinity. Unlike Arabian ships of the day, the Lehite vessel may have been a large raft. "Building a large oceangoing raft would still have been a significant project," writes Aston, "but one more closely matched to the materials and labor resources at hand.

"Additionally, although equipped with sails and rudder like a conventional ship, a raft design offers greatly improved stability and safety at sea. With a broad keel of several layers of securely lashed logs, taking on water and sinking would never have been a concern, and only an unusually powerful storm could have presented any danger. A raft also offers greater deck space (perhaps using multiple decks) for storage, for the growing of small gardens and for private quarters for each family — all significant factors that were exploited by other cultures that used rafts. Finally, the shallow draft of a raft would more easily allow stops and require less skill in maneuvering than would a regular ship ..."

Aston cites non-LDS archaeologist P. J. Capelotti who, referring to the Kon Tiki's 5,000 mile voyage, explains that rafts are floating warehouses and are therefore ideal for carrying the contents of a culture across the ocean. While they aren't very fast (and speed is a modern, not ancient, luxury), rafts are virtually indestructible. Whereas a conventional boat can sink from a small hole in its hull, a balsa-wood raft could lose two-thirds of its hull and still keep sailing with its crew and 20 tons of cargo.

Rope would have been essential element for constructing a raft. As Dr. Gary Baird (Botanist) points out, a special palm in the Dhofar region produced a unique rope that actually became tougher when exposed to water unlike other ropes that degraded when they got wet (Journey of Faith, 87).

Ships sailing into the Indian Ocean can be carried different directions by wind and ocean currents depending on the time of year. If Nephi sailed during the monsoon season, they could easily have sailed straight eastward to India, Malaysia, Indonesia and New Guinea. Before reaching the Pacific Ocean they would have kept close to the shore and jumped from island to island for safety reasons as well as for repairs and replenishing supplies.

In the Pacific, however, ocean and wind currents would have been moving in a direction away from the New World making it almost impossible for the Nephites to navigate the distance in their raft or ship. Fortunately, however, the El Nino effect — which occurs every few years — changes current directions in the South Pacific and could have helped the Lehites reach the New World. The entire journey from Arabia to the New World might have taken up to two years depending on the number and lengths of stops.

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