“We Sailed Again Towards the Promised Land”

Alan C. Miner

Nephi said he “sailed” (1 Nephi 18:22) his ship. The Hiltons note that since he likely did not have a supply of sail cloth or canvas, perhaps he made his sails by weaving coconut palm fronds together. Thirteenth century A.D. pictures of old Arab dhows show woven palm frond sails. The Hiltons have a sample of such palm leaf material which they found in some ancient ruins in Saudi Arabia, used over the ceiling beams of a house. A sand roof was placed over the top of the matting. It was still well-preserved after perhaps 300 years. [Lynn M. and Hope A. Hilton, Discovering Lehi, p. 164]

“I Nephi Did Guide the Ship That We Sailed Again Towards the Promised Land”

Nephi, himself, testifies that he “did guide the ship that we sailed again towards the promised land” (1 Nephi 18:22). This raises the question, “How did Nephi learn to command a multi-sail ship and her crew?”

According to Potter and Wellington, there were hundreds of different tasks Nephi needed to perform as the captain. He had to do each of them right, and right the first time and every time. Picture yourself for a moment putting your entire family aboard a large multi-sail ship. You are the captain. Like yourself, the crew has never sailed before, not even one hour, nor have they read a book on sailing. Captain, “What will you do first?” Then what? What do you think would be the probability that you would make it out of the harbor without running aground? How would you know which direction to sail to the wind? Which sails would you use under what conditions? How would you set the rigging, sails and rudder to steer the vessel in the direction indicated by the compass?

How does one become a captain of a ship today? The California Maritime Academy, of the California State University of Engineering, Technology and Marine Transportation offers a degree in Marine Transportation. The curriculum includes 37 courses on topics relevant to modern shipping. (Sixteen of these would probably contain principles of seamanship that to a degree were important for Nephi to have known.) On completing the course, the cadets become junior officers, with many years at sea still ahead before they would qualify to captain a ship.

Some have argued that with the Liahona, Nephi didn’t need to navigate. They seem to forget that the Liahona only provided help with the direction in which they should travel. Believing that Nephi could command such a voyage with no training is senselessness. Fletcher uses Harry A. Morton’s work The Wind Commands: Sailors and Sailing ships in the Pacific to explain just how difficult it was for Nephi to cross the Pacific ocean:

The dangers of long-distance voyages across the Pacific Ocean are immense and innumerable… . “Each of these problems-or challenges-was greater in the Pacific because the Pacific itself is greater.”

“Out of sight of land, navigators can look only to the sky. When the weather is clear, they have the sun by day and other stars and the moon by night. But, when the weather is bad, there are neither landmarks nor skymarks.”

“Sailing ships could not go where and when they pleased, even given a sufficient depth of water. Not only the direction but the timing of arrival or departure was set by tide and wind. Captains simply had to wait for a reasonable wind, and when it arrived, they sailed--and quickly.”

An extreme example of these limitations of sailing ships is that of Pizarro, conqueror of Peru, who tried without success for seventy days to get his ship out of the Bay of Panama. He was embayed (that is, his ship was in a bay with the wind blowing directly in), and he lacked room to maneuver by a series of tacks."

The wind was necessary for movement, and sailors would put up with a rough sea as long as progress was made … Although winds set limits to the direction sailed, calms left the ships motionless,“ which negatively affected morale--something ”of overwhelming importance in long voyages. Almost any Pacific voyage was a long one.

Realizing that Nephi had to learn how to sail a large ship does not lessen one’s appreciation for him, it increases it. Nephi was a real person, not a storybook character.

We do not know if Nephi enrolled experienced sailors for his crew or if he totally used people within his group. However, prior to leaving, Nephi needed someone to organize the crew and to teach every man aboard how to perform his responsibilities within the team. Sailing manuevers like wearing the ship or changing a main sail in rising winds takes individual training as well as precise teamwork, otherwise the ship could lose a canvas or become demasted, a crew member could be injured or the ship could even capsize. The necessity of a trained crew is most evident during a storm. Tim Severin describes how Sohar’s crew responded almost instinctively to such an occasion:

Everything became unstable. We lost our footing on the sloping deck. Men grabbed for ropes as handholds. With an alarming crash, all the items left lying carelessly about during the day’s calm slid into the scuppers in an untidy mess of saucepans, tin plates, mugs, hand torches and baskets of fruit. Lose dates rolled around like marbles. Sohar was at an unhappy angle. The force on her rigging was enormous. She lurched and staggered, and the wind brought a hissing curtain of rain across us.

Now the Omanis were at their best. They knew how to handle the situation. With a stamping rush of running feet, all eight of the Omanis raced to the poop deck. They were yelling excitedly, and bubbling with activity. Abdulla grabbed the tiller from Andrew, and with Musalam‘s help forced the rudder over so that Sohar’s head began to swing ponderously upwind. At the same time Khamees Navy and Saleh laid hold of the mizzen sheet and eased it off a fraction. The other four Omanis went to the heavy double mainsheets. With shouts of encouragement they eased out the massive ropes so that the wind began to spill from the mainsail, and the intolerable pressure on the ship was lessened. The great sail bellied and flapped. Massive, soggy thumps of wet canvas reverberated above the hiss of the rain and the clamour of the wind. Sohar straightened up, poked her bowsprit toward the wind and, like an acrobat relaxed his muscles, the sinews of the rigging slackened. Again a squall struck. Again Sohar tried to wheel away under the blast. And again the Omanis balanced tiller and sail to protect her from the strain. They jubbled with the controls of the recalcitrant ship, coaxing her back into a safe attitude. The Omanis were grinning with glee. This was what they enjoyed: the challenge of the sea. The risk of capsize, of ballast shifting, of sails bursting, of a spar breaking loose and coming crashing down on deck, all the dangers and exhilaration of a boom under the stress of weather.

If Nephi and his crew were to learn these skills they had to do it just as the first seafaring Arabs did. Tosi writes of the earliest Arabian seafarers, “For the first navigators it was like venturing into outer space and only a body of accumulated experience, strengthened by tradition, would have ensured their survival at sea.” Nephi did not have time to discover all these skills for himself and so it apepars the Lord led him to a place where this body of accumulated knowledge and tradition of sailing were already in place.

The Greek nautical handbook known as the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, probably written in the 1st century A.D., mentions that Khor Rori was a safe haven for ships held up in the winter: “the place goes by the name of Moscha-where ships from Cana are customarily sent; ships from Dimyrike (southern India) and Barygaza (modern day Broach in India) which cruise nearby, spend the winter there due to the lateness of the season.” Undoubtedly the Greek captains learned from the Arabs before them the advantages of mooring in the protected waters of Khor Rori during the winter northeast monsoon. Thus for Nephi to be at a proposed Bountiful site near Khor Rori, where he would have had the opportunity to mingle with experienced captains who both knew how to sail a large ship across the open seas of the Indian Ocean, and who had the time to spend teaching, would not only have been invaluable, but an accepted tradition of learning. [George Potter & Richard Wellington, Discovering The Lehi-Nephi Trail, Unpublished Manuscript (July 2000), pp. 220-224, 252]

Note* Such a circumstance would also, to say the least, have been completely unknown to Joseph Smith had he been writing the story himself. [Alan C. Miner, Personal Notes]

1 Nephi 18:22 We sailed again towards the promised land ([Illustration] Stitching against time, Indian fishermen at Beypore turn a ton of canvas into a new set of larger sails to replace Sohar’s old ones, wind-worn and baggy after the 1,600-mile voyage from Oman. Severin bought the canvas and, with an assistant, drew the outlines of the sails on the beach. Thirty men hired for the occasion fell to with such vigor that they completed the sails in five days--a task that would have taken as long as four months in Europe or North America. Photographs by Richard Greenhill. [Tim Severin, “In the Wake of Sindbad,” in National Geographic, Vol. 162, no. 1, July 1982, pp. 16-17]

1 Nephi 18:22 We sailed again towards the promised land ([Illustration] Running with the wind, the 87-foot-long ship wears two settee sails and a jib; the 75-foot-long main spar weighs nearly a ton. The vessel was named Sohar after an ancient port in Oman reputed to have been Sindbad’s birthplace. A cutaway of the hull reveals the crew’s quarters for eight Arabs, ten Europeans, and a Baluchi cook. Photographs by Richard Greenhill. [Tim Severin, “In the Wake of Sindbad,” in National Geographic, Vol. 162, no. 1, July 1982, p. 7]

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