An article recently appeared on Zelph on the Shelf, ridiculing the idea that Nephi and company could build a boat capable of journeying from the Old World to the New. This is a rebuttal to its claims. I’m not arguing this is what happened, I’m presenting evidence showing the building a boat capable of crossing the ocean at that time, with available technology by that group is plausible.
The author makes the following claims:
1. Nephi couldn’t make the tools because he didn’t have a blast furnace capable of smelting iron ore. He also claims Nephi would need tools just to make the tools needed to build the boat.
2. To make a boat capable of crossing an ocean it would need to have a round keel for sea worthiness sake, and that would require a dry dock. There weren’t enough people in his party to make a dry dock let alone a boat in the time constraints implied in the narrative.
3. There weren’t enough sheep around to make the sails or the rope such a ship would require. He suggests a sail large enough would be 100 square meters, which would mean about 200 sheep. Again he claims there is a labor shortage to accomplish all of this.
4. There are significant logistical and physical challenges to storing enough water to make a six month voyage. Challenges which Nephi likely could not overcome.
5. Food storage for such a trip would be difficult too.
6. A viking long boat takes modern craftsmen 40,000 man hours to build. If that is a guide for building such a boat, there simply is too much to do and not enough men to do it.
The author concludes the challenges are too great and that the trip was beyond miraculous. It was impossible.
The facts speak otherwise.
The author should read about the sailing ship Phoenicia and its circumnavigation of Africa. He should do at least a minimal amount of research into the construction of Dhows. He should read about the Frankincense trail of 1000 BC. He should read about the Phoenician traders during the Davidic Kingdom. He should also learn about the geography, the flora and fauna of Wadi Al Sayq in Oman.
But typical of ex-Mormon hit pieces, he presents just the evidence which superficially supports his agenda while ignoring the truth. So, here are the facts.
1. On the Southern coast of Oman is Wadi al Sayq which lies almost directly East of Marib, Yemen. That's significant because two and a half thousand years ago, Marib went by the name "Nahom." Well, actually NHM, but it's rendered today as either Nahom, or Nihm. I'm sure it's just a coincidence, and lucky guess by Joseph. But there's more...
At the wadi, there are iron carbonate and iron limonite deposits which Nephi could have excavated with his bare hands. Geologists who've studied the deposits say he could have gotten enough to make the tools he needed in a matter of minutes. There are no eighteenth century maps with this type of geologic information so again Joseph was just really lucky at guessing. Right?
Regarding the blast furnace, it's one of the few times Zelph is telling the truth, Nephi didn't have access to one. They hadn't been invented yet. But along the East coast of Africa the use of a bloomery, which is pictured above, was the first furnace in which iron could be produced, dates from 1500 BCE. It's my opinion Lehi was a spice trader who ran a caravan on the Frankincense trail that ran from Oman to Jerusalem.
The Frankincense trail is the one in blue running the length of the Arabian peninsula to Marib where it then turns East towards Oman.
Because of his profession, I'm certain Lehi knew of it and given Nephi's abilities as a metal smith, he knew how to both build and use one. For what it's worth, Nephi probably brought the tools with him when they left their home. I mean, camels can carry things besides people. Just a thought.
As far as nails go? They didn’t need them. Instead, they could have used a technique known as mortise and tenon along with wood dowels to join beams and planks. I’ve personally seen large Buddhist temples made without a single nail in them using this approach. It's incredibly strong and allows the wood to swell and shrink as a single piece. In certain applications its superior to nails.
2. Zelph has apparently never seen how Dhows are built. In the image above you can see there's no dry dock and that's a pretty big boat. (Note the human to the right to get a sense of scale.) The Phoenicia was not built in a dry dock, either, but on flat ground with a scaffolding around it, much like Dhows. The need for one is only in the his imagination.
This image shows the keel of the Phoenicia. Not much of a dry dock there is there? What the author's argument proves is he's suffering from Presentism, where he judges another time by his expectations and preconceptions. It's generally not a good idea when it comes to understanding the past. But I digress...
3. While I can’t speak so much to the matter of sails, you have to remember by the time Lehi and company arrived at Bountiful, they'd been living in tents for eight years. It's only my opinion but a Bedouin tent probably could be pressed into service as a sail without too much effort.
4. As you trace the voyage of the Phoenicia south around Africa, you can see where they stopped along the way. They even traveled as far East as Salalah, Oman, which is near Wadi Al Sayq. From there they traveled South-West to Africa, blown by the prevailing winds and carried by the ocean currents. Lehi probably did the same thing. So did they need water? Yes. Six months of it? No. Could they carry a couple months of water in clay pots or water skin bags? Yes. And did they have to make them? What do you think they used crossing the Empty Quarter from Nahom? The Phoenicians typically carried water in a clay cistern they built around the mast of their ships.
5. The author has apparently never considered dates, honey, and other food stuffs available to Nephi have a room-temperature shelf-life measured in years if not decades. If you watched the full video in a previous link, you'll recall there was quite an abundant supply of indigenous food at Bountiful. And there’s that idea that they could easily pull up to some coastal area, drop anchor and go inland to hunt or barter for food. His argument about their inability to carry enough is baseless.
6. Building the boat probably did take as many man-hours as he argues if not more. At any given moment, five to ten people were working on the Phoenicia and it took them eight months to build. Assuming a 40-hour work week plus eight adult men (Lehi, Laman, Lemuel, Sam, Nephi, Zoram, and at least two men for “Ishmael’s sons”), they could have built the boat in 125 days. I’m certain it took longer, but the point is, the labor pool is big enough for Nephi to do it. If Zelph were to carefully read the narrative, Nephi doesn't say how long they were at Bountiful/Wadi Al Sayq, so his imposed time limitation is arbitrary and misleading.
7. Implying the trip took six months is also deceptive. It's not the duration but how long they remained at sea on a given leg that matters. A single stretch probably was never more than a few months. This doesn’t downplay the incredible risk they all took setting out to sea. It is just a more realistic way to evaluate what their challenges were. The Phoenicia, much to the concern of her crew, was blown to within 400 miles of Puerto Rico by the prevailing winds and currents from South Africa. They wanted to go East and had a difficult time of it until they got north of the trade winds. Nephi’s party wanted to go West and so they would have ended up on the shores of Eastern Florida or Georgia or somewhere in the Caribbean before food or water became a problem.
Conclusion: Virtually all of the author's arguments are weak, deceptive and of no real merit. History, geology, and archeology show the raw materials, means and technology were available to Nephi to build the boat. In fact, what the scriptures say fit the cultural milieu and the geography extremely well. It's another case where a critic's allegations expose not a weakness but a strength of the Book of Mormon's claim to validity.