“There Arose a Great Storm Yea a Great and Terrible Tempest”

Alan C. Miner

Nephi writes that during their sea voyage,

They knew not whither they should steer the ship, insomuch that . . .there arose a great storm, yea, a great and terrible tempest, and we were driven back upon the waters for the space of three days; and they began to be frightened exceedingly lest they should be drowned in the sea . . . And on the fourth day, which we had been driven back, the tempest began to be exceeding sore. And it came to pass that we were about to be swallowed up in the depths of the sea . . . (1 Nephi 18:12-15)

Concerning Nephi's ability to survive the storms and tempests which would have befallen him at sea, the following excerpts from Tim Severin's book The Sindbad Voyage might provide some interesting cultural background:

The whole theory behind the sailing programme so far had been to stay at the leading edge of each sailing season as we progressed. We had left Muscat as soon as the north-east monsoon had settled in our favour. . . . We had pushed on down the Malaccan Straits with the land and sea breezes so as to arrive as early as possible in the South China Sea. By arriving so soon I hoped to reduce to a minimum the risk of running into a typhoon, but it was impossible to avoid the risk altogether. Typhoons can occur in any month of the year, but the main season begins in July, and the frequency increases to its maximum in September or October. . . .

There remained only two of the Seven Seas of the early Arab searoad to China, but by all accounts they were the worst. In these last two seas, wrote the Arab geographers, you met the great storms, the tempests which were beyond all power of description. Here the gales sent a ship to her doom, and the waves battered her to pieces. A ship might be saved by cutting down her mast and throwing overboard her cargo, but usually it was only the help of Allah which stood between the vessel and destruction. (p. 206)

The sea to windward was becoming increasingly confused. Out of the dark raced a line of short, steep rollers. As they swept under the hull, Sohar began to pitch and roll more heavily. The weight of the main spar exerted a pendulum effect and the ship heaved and laboured under the strain. Abruptly one wave surged under the ship and pitched her over on her side; the angle was enough to put Sohar's lee deck under water, and the sea came bursting in through the scuppers. From down below came a rumbling crash and several thuds as loose boxes and barrels cascaded across the ship. Like disturbed ants, the entire crew came clambering up on deck, dressed in oilskins, clutching on to ropes and gunnels. On the weather side several men had been thrown out of their bunks. (p. 208)

The main spar was bending alarmingly every time the ship lurched and staggered. I had under-estimated the wind: we were caught with far too much sail up, and it was going to be very difficult to reduce sail safely. . . . Heave! She's moving," came a cry. But it was a delusion. With a thunderous crack the whole rear edge of the mainsail, 50 feet of double stitch canvas, was ripped asunder. . . . The mainsail was a total wreck, 1600 square feet of canvas blown away in an instant; the last rags of material flew away downwind into the black night like departing spirits. (p. 209)

It was no use. We could not get the jib down fast enough. In the thirty seconds it took to haul down the jib, it ripped right across the base. It was the third sail damaged in the same day. (p. 211)

Just then the mizzen sail exploded. It was a new sail, our best, neatly stitched, specially cut down to a small size, and made of first-quality canvas. But the gale was too much for it; with a noise like a thunder clap, the mizzen sail split. . . . That evening the gale was gone, and we were left with a grey, lumpy sea. At last we were able to hoist our mainsail, replace the jib and mizzen, and set about repairing as much canvas as we could salvage. The rate of destruction was more than the ship could sustain: two sails were destroyed utterly, and two more would take several days' hard work to repair. . . . Below decks they were having to put up with the constant strain of damp bedclothes, dripping beams, wet clothes and tumbled chaos. No wonder that a thousand years ago the Arabs had considered the passage of the South China Sea the worst experience of all on the trip to Canton. Yet the squalls which Sohar was suffering were nothing to the experience of riding out a typhoon. . . . We were acutely conscious that every day we spent out in the South China Sea increased the risk of being embroiled with a typhoon, so we literally sewed our way northwards. In the lulls between the arch squalls, we mended our sails. (pp. 212-213)

[Quoted from Tim Severin, The Sindbad Voyage, New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1982] [For more excerpts see the commentaries on 1 Nephi 17:8; 18:6; 18:8; 18:12]

1 Nephi 18:13 There arose a great storm, yea, a great and terrible tempest ([Illustration]): "The sea rose in her fury," Sindbad said of his sixth voyage. In the South China Sea, the men of Sohar keep faith with their predecessor. A sudden squall shreds the mizen into giant pennants flapping form the spar (above right). In 24 hours, two jibs and a mainsail are also lost, and the Europeans take notice when one of the veteran Omani sailors kneels and prays to Allah (above left bottom). Battered but seaworthy, the vessel proceeds. As another storm approaches, the crew hastens to take down the replacement mainsail (above left top). Photographs by Richard Greenhill. [Tim Severin, "In the Wake of Sindbad," in National Geographic, Vol. 162, no. 1, July 1982, pp. 32-33]

Step by Step Through the Book of Mormon: A Cultural Commentary