Sep 12, 2009






Nephi's Ship

We are all familiar with the now famous picture of Lehi and his family sailing to the new world in Nephi's ship—a picture painted and popularized by Arnold Friberg. This has come to be the accepted means by which the Lehites crossed the sea. But is it the correct one?
As you will recall, Lehi and his family, after a long and taxing journey, finally reach the land which they called Bountiful that was on the sea shore. There Nephi is commanded by the Lord to build a ship, and not just for a hobby project, but a ship on which to venture out on the deep. A fearsome thought for land lubbers. Referring back to the scriptural account we read:
And it came to pass that after I, Nephi, had been in the land of Bountiful for the space of many days, the voice of the Lord came unto me, saying: Arise, and get thee into the mountain. And it came to pass that I arose and went up into the mountain, and cried unto the Lord.
And it came to pass that the Lord spake unto me, saying: Thou shalt construct a ship, after the manner which I shall show thee, that I may carry thy people across these waters.
And I said: Lord, whither shall I go that I may find ore to molten, that I may make tools to construct the ship after the manner which thou hast shown unto me?
And it came to pass that the Lord told me whither I should go to find ore, that I might make tools.
And it came to pass that I, Nephi, did make a bellows wherewith to blow the fire, of the skins of beasts; and after I had made a bellows, that I might have wherewith to blow the fire, I did smite two stones together that I might make fire.
Several things are noteworthy from this section. First, the Lord showed Nephi the design of the proposed ship and how to construct it. From this information Nephi knows what tools he will require and goes about making these tools. He didn't acquire this design or knowledge from others, especially ship builders and sailors in the area, but from the Lord.
Second, he built a fire in the primitive manner, striking two stones together to make a spark. If he were in an inhabited area, as others have suggested, there would have been no need to go to such lengths to build a fire. He could have borrowed coals from a neighbor and saved himself the trouble.
To me this suggests that the Lehites were isolated from others, they were apart and by themselves, and that Nephi did not receive instruction from professionals on ship building techniques.
Proceeding with the account:
And it came to pass that I did make tools of the ore which I did molten out of the rock.
And when my brethren saw that I was about to build a ship, they began to murmur against me, saying: Our brother is a fool, for he thinketh that he can build a ship; yea, and he also thinketh that he can cross these great waters.
And thus my brethren did complain against me, and were desirous that they might not labor, for they did not believe that I could build a ship; neither would they believe that I was instructed of the Lord.
But after a miraculous intervention, the brothers are convinced and repent of their opposition.
And it came to pass that they did worship the Lord, and did go forth with me; and we did work timbers of curious workmanship. And the Lord did show me from time to time after what manner I should work the timbers of the ship.
Now I, Nephi, did not work the timbers after the manner which was learned by men, neither did I build the ship after the manner of men; but I did build it after the manner which the Lord had shown unto me; wherefore, it was not after the manner of men.
And I, Nephi, did go into the mount oft, and I did pray oft unto the Lord; wherefore the Lord showed unto me great things.
And it came to pass that after I had finished the ship, according to the word of the Lord, my brethren beheld that it was good, and that the workmanship thereof was exceedingly fine; wherefore, they did humble themselves again before the Lord.1
From these last two excerpts we learn that his brethren were skeptical of Nephi's ship building skills. They did not see him being instructed by any skilled craftsmen. They did not think he had the knowledge or resources to undertake such a project. After all they knew him. They had grown up with him. And the certainly didn't believe that the Lord had revealed such knowledge to him. Most importantly, they did not trust him to build a boat in which to venture forth on the vast sea spread out before them. But they are proven wrong and the Lord convinces them that He has indeed taught Nephi all that he needed to know.
So the forces are finally marshaled and they go to work to build the ship. Nephi uses the term “curious” which in this context means skilled. This was probably surprising to them as they were probably not skilled craftsmen. Whenever Nephi encountered a problem, he would go to the Lord, and the Lord would reveal the solution to him.
It is very instructive that Nephi mentions that he didn't use the learning or the techniques common among the shipbuilders of his day. What did he use instead? He relied on revelation from the Master Shipbuilder Himself. Nephi also emphasizes that he did not even copy or model the designs of men. In other words, his ship was not similar in appearance or design to the ships common to his day in the Mediterranean or the Indian Ocean. It was a unique design shown to him by the Lord. His brothers may have been skeptical of the process, but when they saw the result they agreed “that the workmanship thereof was exceedingly fine”.
Now if Nephi's ship was not like other ships, what was it like? First let us examine what it was not. The typical ship on the Indian ocean in 600 BC was the Dhow or a predecessor of the Dhow. Normally these would have been made in India and purchased by the Arab sailors. The Dhow consisted of a sewn hull (planks fastened together with cords, fibers or thongs) and which came to a point at both ends. They were characterized by a lateen sail (a triangular sail fastened to a long overhead cross arm), and were controlled by a rear steering oar. They were generally constructed of teak wood from India. Such ships were built by skill craftsmen who used ancient traditional methods of construction and required experience and skill in navigating them. That is probably why some scholars have insisted that Nephi would have had to have been instructed in both the construction as well as sailing skills. But such would not have been necessary if Nephi were instructed of the Lord.
Sometimes we visualize Nephi's ship as a European caravel, which was the type of ship used by Columbus and the other European explorers and pirates of his time. These were square rigged ships developed by the Portuguese in the 15th century, so were non-existent in Nephi's day.
I would like to suggest that what Nephi was actually instructed to build was what we now call a Polynesian style catamaran.


Polynesian double hulled canoes or catamarans consist of two canoes or boats fastened together by a stable deck platform. They can be constructed out of a single hollowed out log, or can be fashioned of planks in the traditional way. They can be as long as 100 feet and are normally 10-12 feet wide. They have a simple mast placed in a socket which is supported by fore and aft ropes. There is often an auxiliary mast which pivots from the base to extend the sail into the wind. The sail is much simpler and easily controlled. The boat is guided with a rear steering oar mounted between the two hulls.
Such boats have been used for millenia in the Pacific Ocean and can safely and securely cross thousands of miles of open sea. This type of craft is much easier to build and sail than the traditional Dhow or other such deep hulled vessels.
There has been a recent revival of the Polynesian double hulled canoe in Hawaii with proven voyages from Hawaii to both Easter Island and Japan, thousands of miles away across vast stretches of open sea.  (For a  modern view of such a ship see an actual voyage of the Hokulea crossing the Pacific.)
Why do I think Nephi's ship was a double hulled canoe? First, let's trace the craft back through history. It was the favored method of sea travel by the Polynesians. Many Book of Mormon scholars think that the Polynesians originated from among the Nephites, having descended from some of Hagoth's lost expeditions. I would tend to agree. If this is the case, did the Polynesians get the double hulled canoe from Hagoth's design? I think they did. And where did Hagoth get the idea for such a ship? I would suggest that perhaps there were still remnants of Nephi's ship existing among the Lamanites (this would have been about 500 yrs. later). Perhaps it had even been kept as a national symbol or totem. Or if there were not remnants of the original ship, there may have been legends about it and perhaps even some drawings. Some description may have even been included in the Book of Lehi or Nephi's other record covering temporal things.
All this is of course purely speculative. However, it is based on some good inferential evidence, especially if the Polynesians did indeed originate from Nephite roots.
One interesting side light—the word catamaran originated among the natives of Madras, on the southeastern tip of India. That could suggest that such craft was invented by that people. On the other hand, it is extremely likely that Lehi's group hugged the coast line as long as they could during their sea voyage until they reached the great expanse of the Pacific where there would have been no coast to follow. Madras would have been a likely stop on their course eastward and the natives could have observed the design of Nephi's ship.

1. 1Ne. 17:8-18, 18:1-4.
*Last illustration--painting by Herb Kawainui Kane