TYPES OF VESSELS IN NEPHI’S TIME
One of the clearest indicators of shipping along the southern coast of Arabia comes in the form of cave paintings, which are perhaps as old as the middle of the first millennium BC. They show us that there are already goods moving along this coast in ships and in boats. This is an important place of trade.
The fact that some of the cave paintings are dated to an era approximately the same time that Nephi and his brothers are building the ship shows us that there is already a certain amount of shipping along this coast. And it hints that there are people with skills to repair watercraft. We don’t know whether there was a shipbuilding industry, but certainly people had skills and tools to repair watercraft that became damaged and needed repair. It is possible that Nephi may have observed repair operations along the coastline when ships and barges were in trouble. It is hard to know from paintings whether or not we’re looking at a plank boat or a reed boat—one that’s been wrapped or sewn together. But it is clear that the construction includes a single mainmast so that it was wind driven. And that’s the very thing we’re looking at with Nephi’s ship. It was a wind-driven vessel.
The ships that we know that they were using at the time in the region are most likely to have been shallow-draft vessels that were used just for going along the coast rather than deep-draft vessels that you would use in the open ocean. Now most of the trade along that region was by ships that would hug the coast and go from Dhofar over to Yemen. So Nephi would have seen the types of ships that they were using there, and obviously he built a different kind of vessel than what he was probably observing.
In the time of Nephi most of the trading was done by sea. These vessels came from all over the eastern Mediterranean, some even from the western Mediterranean. Also traveling through the Aqaba region, Nephi would have seen vessels. These were probably very different because of the stillness of the waters that they were traveling in and the different loads that they had to carry.
We must recognize that Nephi had some empirical shipbuilding knowledge. He must have seen ships being constructed on his journeys. Perhaps Egyptians vessels, perhaps Phoenician vessels, maybe he even saw some of the ancient Greek trading vessels that were larger, could carry more goods, and consequently more people.
Historians have shown us three major shipbuilding techniques in use in the eastern Mediterranean at the time. The Egyptians had a specific technique that went all the way back to the Old Kingdom. Very few technological changes were made in their vessels, but they could go long distances over open Mediterranean waters.
The Greeks had the most advanced shipbuilding industry for merchants. Their vessels, while confined by the technological limitations of their construction methods, were still quite deep, could carry large amounts of cargo, and traveled over large expanses of water on the Mediterranean.
There’s also the tradition of shipbuilding that occurred in the Persian Empire, on the eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula. This tradition was very distinct, largely because of the necessity to travel up and down the Mesopotamian rivers and to travel through the Arabian gulf and into the regions around India. A large amount of trade went between India and the Arabian coast. So perhaps we need to actually enter a fourth area of technological development within shipbuilding and construction, and that would include the Indians.
There were what we call bundle boats, which were reeds gathered together and bundled to make pontoons that were then put together to form a raft. We know that there were hide ships as well.
The ship, as a technological device, was the greatest technology that man could build at this time, or any time throughout man’s history. What a feat it was for Nephi to actually undertake this activity. When one thinks about technological innovations, we think generally about smaller things that are labor-saving devices such as the plow, the water screw, something along those lines in the ancient world. With the ship, we’re talking about not just a transportation device but a transportation and cargo device for large numbers of people, large amounts of cargo, over large distances. There is not just the working of timbers, or the construction of the vessel itself, but also the construction of the ancillary parts of the vessel. The housing elements—the holds, the sails, the masts—all has to be taken into consideration. There’s not just one innovation but many innovations on a ship of this size and importance in the ancient world.
Just working with the wood is impressive enough, but when you consider working with the chemical sealant to seal the wood, and the science and mathematics needed to actually build the vessels, it is nothing short of miraculous.
We know that Nephi never doubted when the Lord told him to build a naval vessel. We know, however, that his brothers were full of doubt. Certainly, they recognized that Nephi was not a trained shipbuilder. He had never undertaken any kind of shipbuilding apprenticeship, and perhaps they recognized that the shipbuilders on the southern coast of Arabia did not have the capabilities, because of the type of society they were, to actually construct the type of ship that Nephi was describing to them.
We know that, at the end, Laman looks at the vessel and goes, “Wow! That’s pretty awesome, you’ve done a pretty good job” (see 1 Nephi 18:4). To get a compliment from his brother, that must have been a pretty impressive vessel.
There’s a clear indicator in the language of 1 Nephi 17, that Nephi received a vision of his ship. He doesn’t give us any details about it, and he actually leaves it silent. It is in the telling of the story that we learn this.
NOT AFTER THE MANNER OF MAN
We know more about what Nephi’s ship was not, than about what it was because of this phrase “not after the manner of men” (1 Nephi 18:2). What does that mean? Does it mean that the ships that were built in Egypt, Greece, and Arabia, were not going to be copied? This is a real question that may never be answered. We do, however, know that certain technological changes needed to be made in the vessels of the period to allow Nephi to cross open ocean. If one looks two thousand years later at Columbus’s ships, we know that there were four technological changes that had to be made before Columbus could set sail. The first of these was a compass. Well, the Liahona took care of that. Then there were changes to the rudder, the sails, and the hull. Of these, the most important was the hull. Columbus’s ships had to be deep, and they had to be tall. They had to be able to withstand the large swells of the Atlantic Ocean. Nephi’s ship had to be able to handle the large swells of the Pacific Ocean. The ships made in the Mediterranean at that time could not have done so.
Of course we are still only speculating that “not after the manner of men” may mean the technological changes. It is interesting that Nephi actually talks so much about the technology—the building and use of the tools and the timbers that were made of a curious workmanship. So one can speculate that this is what Nephi is talking about when he says “not after the manner of men,” but it may not be. It may, in fact, be something completely different that we do not understand.
Too often we look at premodern technologies through modern eyes. We focus on the idea of time, speed, and space—luxuries to premodern peoples. Premodern technology was much more utilitarian. And so the notion that you needed to have a large amount of space for a family or a single person was simply not the case. It is interesting to look at the vessels that were used during the Napoleonic wars and how close the various sailors lived in their quarters. And, of course, they shared hammocks. I think we have to think about Nephi’s vessel in his time, not ours.
So what do we understand about the shipbuilding of the time? Would that help us know what type of ship Nephi is constructing?
The plank ships at this time were built in what is known as the “clinker method,” which is to suggest that the hull is constructed before the skeleton is. The planks were put together in overlapping form and nailed together or, frequently, they were put together with mortise and tenon, one on top of the other.
What finally took Columbus’s ships across the Atlantic was a deep tall hull that had to be built skeleton first. This was not done regularly at the time of Nephi.
Building the skeleton first would have meant that Nephi’s ship could have been taller and also deeper into the water. It could also have been multidecked, thus giving far more room below decks to house people and also to store food. This also means that the vessel did not need to be as long as it would if it had been narrow and hull construction only—clinker construction.
Is this what Nephi means when he says that he did not build it after the manner of men? The manner of men was building the hull first and then adding the skeleton. That Nephi turned it around and built the skeleton first and then added the hull would be the same innovation that would ultimately take the ships across the Atlantic in the age of the sail.
This might mean that Nephi made the ship round, which you can do using the skeleton construction first. That roundness might have meant that he could have shortened the ship considerably. And noting that he only had one large sail, as was conventional at the time, he would have needed to make a shorter vessel because a long ship can simply not be propelled by a single long sail. If this ship was built round and wide, it need not have been longer than 35 or 40 feet. We know that later on the Viking vessels are estimated to have had one foot per warrior designated on that vessel. That meant that for 40 people, you would need a vessel that was 20 feet long. That’s a pretty cramped style. And perhaps Nephi and his family would not have wanted to be this cramped. On the other hand, space is a modern luxury. We know that premodern peoples did not have the concerns about space that we do. And so we cannot imagine that they would have needed a very large vessel to take this utilitarian mission of traveling from one place to the next.
The hardest thing to understand in premodern shipbuilding is exactly what those types of ships were like. Most of the examples we have are illustrations or excavated wrecks. And in most of those cases, we see ships that are singular; there are no others that look exactly like that ship. The historian of technology has to decide whether this ship a single example, or if we can extrapolate an entire fleet of these types of ships. In the case of Nephi’s vessel, we have several precursors from which we can borrow pieces of technology. Mixing that with what we know he would have had to do to make the vessel oceanworthy, to go through the large swells that are created on the ocean, we can put together what the ship must have looked like in order to make this voyage.
TOOLS AND WORKING THE WOOD
One of the points that Nephi makes is that he refines ore to make tools (1 Nephi 17:9–10, 16). Presumably these tools were iron tools. He doesn’t tell us that the tools were any different from what he’d seen in the north, which would have been a series of axes, wedges, and chisels—all basically metal objects that could be sharpened to use to cut trees. Saws were not used at the time, nor, in fact, would it have been beneficial to use a saw to cut much of the wood. Cutting planks using axes created flexibility in the timber that could not have been acquired using a saw. Flexibility meant that the wood was far more durable. Nephi may well have been doing this, and as such, built a ship that could have withstood the pressure of the waves on the open ocean.
It is a modern concept that we need to have wood that is equal on both sides and that somehow forms a rectangle at the end. In fact, that’s not how premodern shipbuilders used timber. They would cut the wood in a wedge shape, somewhat narrower at the bottom than the top. This is a curious idea, unless you understand that they are cutting into the tree in order to get that soft flexible core that would insinuate itself on the entire plank and allow for this flexibility. It is a brilliant technique that we did not understand until we were actually able to look at some excavations of ships.
If you imagine that you cut down a tree, let’s say a large cedar, to keep it in Nephi’s time, and you laid it down and then wanted to make planks from it. Do you in fact cut the tree into a cube? That’s what you would do if you had a saw. Or do you use the roundness of the tree and simply cut into it with an ax, making triangular planks in almost a pie shape all the way around the tree. This is the method that appears to have been used by premodern shipbuilders. As such, they preserve that softer, wetter core that is the most flexible part.
HOW NEPHI’S SHIP WAS HELD TOGETHER
There were several different ancient techniques for holding a ship together. Plank vessels were often sewn with ropes. The entire vessel itself would be waterproofed. That’s always the most difficult thing, but we have good evidence that in the Arabian Peninsula shipbuilders used a bitumen substance to create the water sealing that needed to cover all of the hull. And it was very effective. Bitumen could be found locally and in abundance in that region. It was mixed together with sap and other substances to create the glue. This would make the vessel quite seaworthy.
THE TYPE OF WOOD
Nephi almost immediately talks about the timber when he starts describing the construction (1 Nephi 18:1–2). The timber would have been the most important facet of any plank vessel. But where did Nephi get the timber? And what kind was it? We know it was of curious workmanship, but we don’t know the type it was, nor do we know if he got it from the local region or had to go somewhere else. It says that he went forth to gather the timber. Does that mean that he went into the wooded areas surrounding the region that he was building the ship in? Or did he go further, perhaps to the northeast coast where trading vessels from India are known to have come and brought wood?
Archaeologists estimate that four types of wood were being used in constructing vessels in this period of time and in this area. These were palm, teak, cedar, and mulberry. Palm and mulberry, and sometimes cedar, were grown in the region of southern Arabia. Teak was not and had to be brought from India. We can exclude palm, which is quite buoyant, but is not very sturdy and would not have survived the ocean journey. Cedar, mulberry, and teak were all possibilities.
The question naturally arises about timbers for an oceangoing vessel. They have to be tough; they have to be strong. We know the people in this part of the world, certainly in the north, the shipbuilders in the north were already importing teak woods from India.
Nephi does say in his narrative, after he mentions timbers, “We went forth” (1 Nephi 18:1), so it leads me to believe that they actually went up into the forests and surrounding woods, and that’s where they selected their woods to use in the ship.
In this region, there is a unique group of trees which are often referred to as umbrella trees that grow quite tall with a straight trunk and have long been known as a source of highly valued timber for the local people. Potentially some of those could have been used.
There are many different kinds of acacia that grow there; it is a very strong wood and would have made excellent wood for the ribs.
In premodern shipbuilding the keel was not as important as it would be later in the age of the sail. But it still was the centerpiece—the strongest and heaviest piece—of the construction. It had to be the most durable piece since it had all of the hull resting on it. And the resulting pressure meant that the wood had to be hard. All three woods, mulberry, teak, and cedar, could have formed a keel. Typically, a single tree would be used to form the keel. However, that depended on the size of the vessel.
Merchant vessels in the Mediterranean had decks, sometimes more than one, but at least a deck upon which everyone worked or a deck for the cargo. Nephi would have had no problem making a decked ship. He would have known about them, he would have seen them, and it would have been logical both to carry the family and the cargo to sustain his journey.
Nephi mentions nothing about the sails themselves, although he does tell us that he sailed the vessel (1 Nephi 18:8), so they probably were not different. They did not have either the curious workmanship or the difference that he ascribes to the vessel itself. It must have had a large rectangular sail.
Sails were made at this time from many different cloths and other substances. We know, for example, that in the Far East sailors were using silk. In India they were using flax and silk. Wool was used in ancient Greece, and the Egyptians used flax. There were also fibers that could be taken from the palms themselves, or from fronds, that when tightly woven were quite flexible and could create a sail—perhaps not one that we envision, but one that would be very effective in catching the wind and propelling the boat.
We know that these rectangular sails were more than simple propulsion devices. They could in fact be manipulated by gathering the rigging together, pulling the sail shut, and allowing a pocket of air to be used, rather than a full sail of air. This would allow for maneuverability at the time over even the roughest of waters.
There is a small dwarf palm that grows in the mountains of the Dhofar region of Oman that makes an excellent cordage. One of the unique features of that particular type of rope is that unlike other ropes, which degrade when exposed to water, the dwarf palm rope actually strengthens and toughens when exposed to water.
Rope and cordage, of course, were made with these same types of fibers. We actually have a fairly good knowledge of rigging in these premodern vessels despite the fact that none of the ropes have been found in underwater excavations. All the illustrations from antiquity very nicely depict the rigging of these sails. It is easy to recognize that these were very skilled shipbuilders and sailors. They knew how to take a sail up, and they knew how to take it down. Both efforts needed quickness that we really don’t comprehend, because if a large storm comes on and the sail is up, that ship will founder and go to the bottom. So the sail needs to be retracted quickly. The retraction of sails such as these had to be done by the rigging, and the rigging that we see in the illustrations is very impressive and very effective.
The pulley as a technology has no place in shipbuilding at this time. The problem is knowing exactly when the pulley was invented. But it wasn’t used in ships as often as simple ropes were, and it appears that sails were simply gathered and raised by using the ropes themselves.
One of the problems of considering a ship that is even over a hundred feet long is that the mast would have had to be huge, enormous. Later on, in the age of sails, vessels that are over a hundred feet long have masts that would take two or three sails each just to push such a heavy boat along. In the case of judging Nephi’s ship to be a smaller size, we again envision the rectangular sails that we see in the illustrations of the period. The sail and the mast need not be more than 20 or 30 feet high.
Of course, the mast does not just sit on the deck, it actually goes all the way down to the keel; depending upon how tall Nephi’s ship is, you have to actually add the distance between the keel and the top deck to the mast itself. He would have needed a very large tree for the mast.
All of the ships that we see in the region, during this period, have either single or dual rudder systems that run down the side of the ship near the stern. These are rather large rudders; they go quite deep into the water, and are steered by one or more men on top. The rudder was of huge importance while sailing over open seas, because it was the rudder that would be used to tack the vessel to pick up wind, or to get it out of danger if a squall suddenly came up. If you did not have efficient rudders, the ship would founder. In the case of Nephi, we cannot assume a sternpost rudder. That innovation made the age of sail possible. But, depending upon the size of the vessel and the size of the sail, two side-post rudders that could go deep in the water would be maneuverable enough. He would not be able to turn on a dime, as the sailors later on would, but he could turn in a very fast fashion and remove himself from any danger on the open seas.
The size of the vessel, the size of the sail, and how deep the rudder was in the ocean, meant that a sailor would need enormous strength in order to turn the rudder and the ship. At a certain point the ship simply becomes too large to allow that type of rudder to be used in open ocean travel. Nephi’s rudder system tells me that the ship was not that large. Further, when we look at Nephi’s ship, he must have had the dual rudder system. A single rudder would not have been able to control a vessel on the open ocean.
All vessels at that time had anchors. Anchors go way back in time, probably the first technological device. You certainly don’t want your ship to float off with the tides. Anchors were of various types. Most of them consisted of stones. Stones would be tied together and put on the ship hull, and then dropped when necessary. How deep the water is dictates how much rope you need and how heavy the anchor must be. The ship’s size also necessitates a heavier anchor, or maybe multiple anchors. Nephi probably used multiple anchors, and that gives him the advantage of dropping a single anchor in shallower water or dropping two or three or even four anchors in deeper water.
Probably none of Nephi’s travelers were hardened sailors. His party consisted of a large number of children, women, and some men who were getting older and frailer. All of this has to be taken into consideration as far as safety is concerned, because a ship, no matter what size, can be hit by a swell which would then drench the deck and carry almost anything across and off it. We know that sailors used stay ropes to tie themselves to a vessel, even this early. And passengers could do that as well of course. But if there were any weather difficulties, anyone who would have had difficulty on deck during the storm would be below deck.
A critical question about premodern ships on oceangoing voyages is how did travelers remove water from a vessel after a wave has washed over it. We actually have evidence of pumps being used on board vessels all the way back to 1000 BC. And it is very possible, although Nephi never mentions it, that a small pump would have been used to pump out excess water. Obviously this was a man-operated pump, and perhaps only a little more effective than a bucket. But it did move the water out of the vessel. A person needed to do that constantly. Premodern sailors often spent much of their day removing water from their ships.
One of the most important aspects of premodern navigation is the need to resupply. Ships did not move fast, because they did not need to. But they did need to resupply. One could not carry enough water or food on board a ship to last an entire voyage.
Most people’s perception of Nephi’s voyage is that his party boarded the ship and sailed straight to the New World. Nothing in-between. That’s simply not the case. In fact, it doesn’t seem logical they could have made the journey without stopping. Nephi would have needed to stop and resupply along the route, obtaining fresh water and food. However, there are parts of this journey where he could not have done so.
We also know that in some ships of this time, cisterns were constructed by using the sails and allowing the rainwater to gather in the sails and then to be drained into amphorae, buckets, or other vessels that kept the water safe and away from saltwater. This is one of the ways that Nephi was able to replenish his water supply for the journey.
The Persians at the time called these storage jars foosta, the Greeks called them amphorae. They were simply large, narrow ceramic jugs that could preserve food and water in a way that would not deteriorate, even during a long journey.
FOOD AND WATER STORAGE
Evidence from excavations in the Mediterranean basin suggest that the vessels held the fresh water and food for the crew would have been kept in the deepest part of the hold, which is also the coolest part of the ship—constantly under water. Thus, the ceramic vessels themselves would have worked almost like refrigerators.
The nice thing about ceramic is you can make it practically everywhere. A firing oven does not need to be as hot as, say, an oven that can melt metal. We know that Nephi was able to melt metal, so he had the capability of building ovens that would easily fire ceramic vessels.
SAILING THE SHIP
At the end of the process everyone was impressed, including and especially those who resisted helping Nephi early on. They all thought it was terrific. Nephi said, “They humbled themselves before the Lord” (1 Nephi 18:4). They saw, at least momentarily, the Lord’s hand in the construction of this wondrous vessel, which was now going to take them across the huge waters to their promised land.
After we get over the simple awe that Nephi could have built such a technological device with such limited knowledge, then we have to make him the captain of the ship. We have to say, “Okay Nephi, now you have to sail the ship. You have to be the captain.” No one else there knew how to sail it. Nephi did. He was directed by the Liahona, but he had to trim the sails, put the sails up, keep the vessel going straight, know how to tack, and know how to get out of a squall. He also needed to bring the ship close enough to shore to resupply it. All of those things were done by master seamen, who had been apprentices for long periods of time, sometimes from childhood.
Nephi’s bravery is something else. His knowledge of seamanship becomes something significant, and no doubt divinely inspired. Does this mean that Nephi launched the ship and rode up and down the coast for a little bit getting used to it? I would think so. It was a means whereby he could have learned how to sail more effectively, and with divine inspiration. But practice would have made perfect. Laman is surprised at the vessel and is awed by his brother’s achievement. It seems that his brothers probably would have assisted Nephi in the sailing. Other people, such as the women, could have as well.
When they left the Arabian Peninsula, the land of Bountiful, if they followed the course that later Arab sailors followed, they would have gone virtually straight east across the Indian Ocean. And that required that it was during the season of the monsoon, when winds are from the south but veering over toward the Indian Peninsula.
Nephi, no doubt, kept close to shore when he could. This was not something that was just tradition among shippers, this was for safety and for resupply purposes.
You come to a strait, around Sri Lanka today. Then you go in the eastern part of the Indian Ocean, over to the Thailand and Malaysian Peninsula.
The place where the westerly winds caused by El Niño would go would be mostly south of the equator. Hawaii is too far north; Fiji, a possibility; New Caledonia, a good possibility—to the south of Fiji and over to southern Polynesia, the Cook Islands, Tahiti or some of the associated islands.
When Nephi gets to the islands of the South Pacific, he can make small jumps between these islands. And then he has to make the jump to the New World, and that would have been the most frightening part. That’s when the bravery and seamanship comes in. There’s no island for refuge.
My view is that they landed on the coast of Guatemala. Possibly El Salvador, but I can’t come any closer than that.