1 Nephi 18:1-2 — LeGrand Baker — “we did work timbers of curious workmanship”

1 Nephi 18:1-2 

1 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.
2 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.

In the premortal world when we made covenants to come to the earth to do the Father’s will, he made a reciprocating covenant that he would remove any hindrance that would actually prevent us from fulfilling that covenant. He did not promise that it will not at times seem impossible for us to do, only that it will never actually be impossible. The whole of First Nephi has given us multiple examples that God keeps his covenants. Nephi’s account has led us through impossible challenges: times of hunger, pain, and inexplicable fatigue. Now we are about to go with him on a ship where the entire outcome of the voyage depends on God’s doing what he promised he would do—not just leading the ship to the Promised Land but also sustaining Nephi and making sure it is he who is in command.

Nephi did not build his ship according to the methods he might have learned during his travels along the shore of the Red Sea. Several have wondered what those innovations might have been. Brown and members of his group have suggested that,{1}

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. ….{2}

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.{3}

The Hiltons suggested a different method. They wrote,

The earliest ships of record were put together by the sewing method. For example, the sun boat of Pharaoh Cheops, who built one of the great pyramids in Egypt, was a sewed boat. It recently has been discovered and reassembled at Giza just outside Cairo (see Figure 12-2). If sewed ships were “after the manner of men,” it is possible and we advance the theory that Nephi perhaps discovered how to build a nailed ship by direct revelation. We know he had ore and a smelter and tools, so why not hammer out some nails to fasten the planks to the ribs and make his craft truly sea-worthy.

While nails had been known and used at least 400 years before Nephi’s day, there is no indication they were used in ship-building. King David, about 1000 B.C., prepared among other supplies iron “nails” in abundance for Solomon to use in building the First Jerusalem Temple; specifically they were to be used “for the doors of the gates and for the joinings” of the temple (1 Ch. 22:3). But we do not know who got the inspiration to use them in a ship-building application. Perhaps Nephi?

Tim Serevin, who recently built a sewed-ocean-going dhow under Omani sponsorship, reports that the stitched vessel took three times as long to build as would have been required had he built a nailed ship. He had to go to the Laccadive Islands of India to find the only men left in the world who knew how to sew a boat. He also notes that the earliest texts make it abundantly clear that early ships were sewed.{4}


{1} For their discussion of ways Nephi might have built his ship see S. Kent Brown and Peter Johnson, Journey of Faith, from Jerusalem to the Promised Land (Provo, Utah, The Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, BYU, 2006), 77-95

{2} Kelly DeVries in S. Kent Brown and Peter Johnson, Journey of Faith, from Jerusalem to the Promised Land, 80-82.

{3} Kelly DeVries in S. Kent Brown and Peter Johnson, Journey of Faith, from Jerusalem to the Promised Land, 84.

{4} Lynn M. Hilton and Hope A. Hilton, Discovering Lehi (Springville, Ut., Cedar Fort, Incorporated, 1969), 114.

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