Episode 276: How to build a transoceanic vessel

23 comments on “Episode 276: How to build a transoceanic vessel”

  1. Orrin Dayne Reply

    The panel was as entertaining and informative as ever on this one. It’s a must listen.

    But don’t get too giddy that you have a smoking gun to share with your true-believing loved ones. As discussed in this episode, true believers often retreat to “Gods ways are not our ways,” which would be natural here given that it’s baked into the story at 1 Nephi 18:2 (“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.”).

    I expect they would say the panel was explaining ship-building technology “after the manner of men,” not after the manner that God showed to Nephi. Thus the impossibility of building a ship according to the manner of man, as discussed in this episode, merely manifests God’s matchless mercy and power in showing Nephi a better way.

    That said, the panel presented a compelling case that would require a substantial amount of head-burying-in-the-sand to ignore. Well done on this one.

    • LordofDarkness Reply

      Very true…although when you take everything from this podcast and apply it to the Jaredite story from the Book of Ether–which allegedly takes place around 2200 B.C.–it’s even bat shit crazier. So three different sets of people (Jaredites, Nephi & family, and Mulekites) built boats, including wooden submarines, and made the transoceanic voyage?

      These stories are one step removed from Jack and the Beanstalk.

    • Megan Reply

      I agree, however it still brings up a couple of questions.

      First, what kind of miracle was this? As I see it, Nephi has four problems: information, material, manpower, and time. Now the first one we already know was miracled away – it says it in the text not only once, but multiple times. However, as the podcast points out, that’s not nearly enough because the other three are still unresolved.

      So in order for this to work, god has to have worked a whole series of miracles that addressed these issues, but that somehow go entirely unremarked in the book. And one of those miracles makes no sense at all – time. They’ve already spent 8 years wandering around in the wilderness. If there is some reason – which again isn’t in the book – that they absolutely had to be in America by a certain year, then why not get them through the wilderness a lot more quickly and give Nephi six or seven more years to build the ship?

      Now, although I think that ‘after the manner of God’ can be read as being part of the ‘informational miracle’, a reading that is supported by most of the rest of the text, there is one other interpretation. Rather than building the ship to god’s design alone, you could read it as Nephi building the ship as though he were god, ie using godlike powers and abilities. Phew! Problem solved!

      Except… it actually makes it far more difficult. Because although Nephi has been ‘filled with the power of god’ that lets him blast naughty brothers out of the way and things, he is still a physical, mortal being and therefore still constrained by the laws of physics. So in order for him to avoid the issues with space and time we either have to suppose that a) Nephi was translated and became a god for the space of time that he built the ship and then was un-godded somehow or b) god suspended those laws for the specific region around the ship building area which means that Mormon god, contrary to many apologists, is NOT constrained by universal laws. And notice, that both of these options are not mentioned at all, although Nephi has absolutely no trouble describing in detail other episodes when he is filled with the spirit or god does miraculous wondrous things. Instead he keeps emphasising the very physical nature of his ship-building, and talks about god giving him knowledge.

      Which brings up my second question – what is the point of all of the extra miracles that have to be supposed in order for this to work? Because Nephi doesn’t mention them, we have no discussion of how they might be a lesson. The family doesn’t see them. There is no change of faith or discussion.

      I suppose the apologist answer would be that it shows how god, after all we do, will make all things possible. But does it? I mean it doesn’t SHOW anything at all, and further this isn’t how god works, at least not for us. The only supportable miracle is the informational one which Mormons claim all the time (inspiration). Physical miracles, of the type-3 John was talking about, don’t happen.

      It just seems to me that trying to explain it all with miracles actually makes things worse!

  2. calabiyau Reply

    Evolutionary “tinkering” creates incredible transportation vehicles, like this Godwit bird which flew from Alaska to New Zealand 7,100 miles without stopping for food or water. When talking about 40,000hrs, making tools to make tools, and so forth it really gets complex and somewhat worrisome about the vulnerability of mankind if we continue damaging our planet, our societies, and support systems. I like this podcast because it gives new meaning to “1 year of food-storage” and what it really takes to be self-sufficient. So much technology and craftsmanship, and “tricks of the trade” get lost from generation to generation. A bit of a “City of Ember” problem, or life after “the fall” with that crazy Cloud Atlas book. Maybe the “tree of knowledge” is just some huge historical server for our future 10-year old “Adams” to search and learn from, for restarting mankind if we catastrophically damage what we have.

  3. Joe K Bank Reply

    Which video shows Jeffrey Holland saying to buy out the theater for Meet the Mormons? His introduction says to buy group tickets, but only if you intend on actually filling the seats. I’ve heard you guys make claims that I couldn’t substantiate or were exaggerated before; I don’t like hearing that, it makes you look like you’re full of crap.

    • LordofDarkness Reply

      Joe, at the 3:00 mark of the introduction, he suggests to “buy out a showing for a group.”


      I would argue it’s a bit of double speak to suggest that then include a throw away line about “only if you intend on actually filing the seats.” And in Mormondom, what is going to happen when Holland releases this video and tells Mormons to hit opening weekend? Here in Salt Lake, I know of several businesses that purchased entire showings and then gave out tickets…no one cared about whether tickets were used, just that they were purchased.

      This whole “Meet the Mormons” theatrical release is a twilight zone experience. Church makes movies for members…encourages (i.e., commands) them to see it. To what end?

      Church could have distributed it to members for free via BYU channel or satellite broadcast. And more money would have been generated if Church stroked a check to Red Cross.

      So what was the point?

    • johnmormonexpression Reply

      Island hopping in Peloponnesian and crossing the Atlantic are two different things–especially with the resources that would have been required to bring to the new world.

      • 0-e^(i*pi) Reply

        Kenneth Collerson and Marshall Weisler of the University of Queensland in Australia studied 19 adzez that were found on nine islands in the Tuamotu Group (located about 1,000 miles southeast of Tahiti).

        An adze collected from the atoll of Napuka turns out to have been made from fine-grained basalt known as hawaiite. The stone is unique to the Hawaiian island Kaho’olawe, located some 2,500 miles (4,000 kilometers) to the northwest of Napuka. Transport of the stone represents the longest known uninterrupted maritime voyage in human prehistory. The story was carried by National Geographic. You can read about it at the following link:


        For comparison, the width of the Atlantic ocean varies from 1,538 nautical miles (2,848 km; 1,770 mi) between Brazil and Sierra Leone to over 3,450 nautical miles (6,400 km; 4,000 mi) in the south.


        So the Polynesians were doing a heck of a lot more than just “Island hopping,” their voyages legitimately rank as true maritime voyages of oceanic proportions.

      • essayant1 Reply

        This episode was going into dangerous territory for me as you started to argue against facts and science.
        Evidence is strong the people were actually using simple technology to sail between continents. Examples:
        A Norwegian explorer, Thor Heyerdahl, in 1947 built a raft from logs and hemp rope to prove his theory about intercontinental travel being possible He traveled between Peru and French Polynesia.
        Same guy also sailed on a raft from Morocco to Barbados on Ra II.
        Even if the Book of Mormon story is not true, such voyages were possible with limited technology and it is even likely that some people made such journeys even if their name wasn’t Nephi.

        • Megan Reply

          I think you’ve misunderstood the point of the episode. The discussion was not on the general feasibility of transoceanic travel in the late bronze/early iron age. It was an evaluation of the physical, material, and technological requirements of the specific claims in the Book of Mormon narrative.

          Heyerdahl’s experiments did indeed demonstrate that a large, well funded group of people with modern knowledge of materials, physics, engineering and navigation could use ancient materials and tools to construct sea-worthy vessels. His work is interesting and controversial and fascinating, but actually entirely irrelevant.

          Which is why I take issue with your statement that we were arguing ‘against facts and science’. We were actually using facts and science pertinent to our specific topic, and if you like I will be more than happy to provide some sources for you.

          Had the BoM narrative said ‘and it came to pass that I Nephi took reeds and I did bind them together…’ we would have absolutely talked about Egyptian boat building and Hyerdahl’s work on Ra and Ra II. Had it said ‘yea and the Lord God did provide balsa wood which I Nephi did craft into a raft…’ then Kon Tiki would have been brought up.

          But we had to work with the story as written, a story which talks about ore and mining, tools, sails, ropes etc which puts us into a very specific type of world.

      • JohnH2 Reply

        Island hopping in terms of what the polynesians did are longer than what Nephi would have done; In fact, people have done precisely what you claim is impossible.

        • Megan Reply

          JohnH2 – please see my above reply. I don’t think we were ever trying to claim that transoceanic travel was impossible. What we were trying to do was evaluate the specific story given in the BoM, describe the resources and the time necessary in order to build the type of sailing ship implied by that story, and then discuss whether or not the timeline of the story (and the assumed resources) allowed for that construction.

          Although in archaeology ethnic analogues are interesting and sometimes valuable in providing insight, they do have their limitations. In this case the comparison with Polynesian travels is just not directly applicable.

          The comparison I was trying to make in the discussion was with a known transoceanic voyage using a fairly similar technology – ie Viking ships with rigging, sail and mast.

          I should maybe say – the abilities and achievements of Polynesian mariners are phenomenal. They made amazing voyages and I find their methodologies absolutely fascinating.

          However I think it’s reasonable to say that, other than the very broad comparison between ocean voyages, there are very few areas of overlap between the journey described in the BoM and what Polynesian sailers were doing.

          EDIT TO ADD: I haven’t listened to the ‘cast since recording it and I just realised that John, bless his hyperbole, could maybe have claimed that all transoceanic travel was impossible. Two points – a) hyperbole, as stated, and b) within the media of the podcast I personally chose not to weigh down the discussion by bringing in stuff that was outside the specific topic. I realise that this can be misleading, but I think it’s what was required for this sort of discussion.

          Would you accept ‘based upon the description and timeline given in the BoM for the construction of the ship, a literal reading of that narrative is extremely problematic without the assumption of considerable unrecorded miracles relating to material processes and labour’?

          • JohnH2

            In the podcast it is explicitly stated that it sounds like they were building a canoe, which if they were building a Catamaran after the style of the Polynesians would completely cover every point of the text itself and answer most of the objections.

            Besides the possibility of leather sails and rope, which is entirely possible as leather is made in Arabia via a bark and root that is found there, the Polynesians used interwoven leaves for their sails, and no nails. Nephi mentions making tools, not nails, and working with metal tools to chop down trees, etc. is a lot easier than stone tools, especially if one is not proficient at using stone tools.

            The only miracle required is exactly the miracles that Nephi records; that of knowing how to construct such a ship and that of knowing how to navigate such a ship.

            I can point you to experimental archeology which has with small teams recreated polynesian ships from scratch, ones where they make charcoal and smelt metal, including iron, also in small teams (and without destroying entire forests). As well also of the historic transoceanic voyages that were conducted in history as well as the ones that had to have been conducted even as we don’t know how they happened.

          • Megan

            The canoe stuff was John. I’m afraid that as I was a last-minute replacement on the panel I didn’t have time to do any research or even re-read the BoM text. I have since re-read it and I’m not sure that there’s enough there to support any conjecture about construction method. Instead I really think that looking at comparable technologies – specifically for the sailing conditions that would have been encountered (if we’re assuming trans-Atlantic; I’ve heard some rumours of other theories but I think the standard church teaching is the Atlantic voyage).

            First, I would be very interested in the experimental archaeology you’re referencing. Polynesia is outside of my field so I’m only tangentially aware of them, and most of the ones I have known of have been limited either in scope or scale. So Hyerdahl’s fascinating work with Kon Tiki (and Ra/Ra II, but those weren’t Polynesian) were constructed using modern tools and engineering design methods, but had appropriate materials. When he sailed, he took along modern navigation assistance and combined traditional and contemporary storage techniques.

            Many of the Polynesian catamarans that I know of that are doing navigation demonstrations and experiments – particularly the long-distance stuff (such as Hōkūle‘a) are constructed using modern materials since it isn’t construction methods that are under examination. I would also point out that all of these archaeological experiments have something Nephi did not have – lots and lots and lots of man-power – unless they are on quite small scales. As Nephi was taking over several families, plus seeds, plus provisions in one single ship it is fair to say that whatever vessel he constructed was not on a small scale. I mention the single ship idea because the one or two theories on Polynesian colonisation I’ve read assumed several smaller boats working together.

            One other point is that the one or two experiments I know of that are looking into construction were either not intending to or not able to try those vessels in long-distance, long term tests (again, not slanging the archaeologists since it was a very different experiment that was going on and they were addressing a specific question).

            I would love to hear about one that is doing all of that stuff together! That would be brilliant. If you know of one please do let me know!

            Second – leather sails and rope. Rope definitely – I might have mentioned in the podcast that the Vikings made their ropes of a variety of materials including hide (and lime bast, horse-hair and possibly hemp eventually). However leather sails I don’t know about other than relatively small ones used by coastal peoples in Gaul (and I’m not sure whether those references are reliable or not – I’ll have to track that down). So far as I know there were no larger ones. Leaves I am pretty dubious about for a long Atlantic voyage. The Egyptians made sails of papyrus, but those were not comparable in terms of the type and duration of voyage or of the ocean conditions. However this is well out of my area, so I could be totally wrong!

            Metal tools and trees – yes and no. I mean, the thing is that there is nothing written in the story that says Nephi had any experience with either stone or metal tools. All we know is that a) he was going to be using metal to shape his timber and b) he had no tools to begin with. So in order to get himself to the point where he had metal tools to cut down the trees, he would likely have to fell some trees with stone tools first to get enough firewood for his furnace and his forge.

            This is the cycle that John was talking about. To make his tools, Nephi needed to mine ore, which means that he needed some stone hammers in order to extract the ore from the rock face, and also to pre-process it prior to smelting (that process is – roughly crush the ore to increase surface area; roast the crushed ore; sort the result and re-process as needed). Then he needed to build a bloomery. He would also need considerable amounts of charcoal because firewood doesn’t reach the requisite temperature for creating an iron bloom [we can talk about bronze if you’d like, but this is already way too long 🙂 ]. He would further need a bellows to keep the fire at the high temperature.

            Once the ore has been fired, the slag tapped, and the bloom extracted – a process that experimentally has been shown to take anywhere from six to twelve hours, depending on the size of the ore charge and other factors, that bloom needs further processing to squeeze out remaining slag and compress the mass. Estimates are as much as 45 re-heating and forging cycles to convert an iron bloom to a usable billet.

            Now, experimental archaeology (cf Rehder, J E (2000) The mastery and uses of fire in antiquity. London : McGill-Queen’s University Press.) has shown that it takes at least 150 kg of biomass fuel for 1 kg of iron. And that iron has not yet been made into a usable axe, adze, draw-knife or spoon-bit drill.

            The average Danish axe, which would be used for carpentry and for timber felling (as well as warfare of course) was between 1-2 kg. There is a bit of loss in the forging process when making a tool like that, so you would need a bit more than that amount in raw iron.

            So in order to go through the process necessary to make the tools to work the timber, Nephi would by necessity have to have some sort of tools already to hand simply to process the requisite amount and quality of timber for firewood and charcoal processing, and those tools would need to be stone since we know he didn’t have anything already constructed out of any other material.

            Finally, there is one small thing in the story which I think makes the canoe concept slightly problematic and that’s that Nephi talks about the entire party going ‘down into the ship’. I admit that is not a definitive phrase, but it is descriptive of a boat that has a deck with a hold underneath rather than a canoe which is too shallow in draft for people to go ‘down into’.

          • JohnH2

            I don’t know of any that are doing everything together; that would be something really cool but most experiments have limited time and money to work with; but nearly all of the various pieces seem to have individually been done.

            Leaves are the traditional material used by the polynesians, who sailed on voyages longer than anything Nephi would have done; unless Nephi headed south to hit 40 south and used the roaring forties. The biggest problem with that is the question of whether any part of the ship could handle being in the roaring forties or further south for the length of time needed to make the trans-pacific crossing.

            If Iron than charcoal would be necessary; Hardened copper would be the easiest; Bronze requires tin and as far as I can tell there isn’t noticeable quantities of tin in the area.

            150 Kg when talking about wood is actually not that much wood.

          • Megan

            Yeah, copper is a bit problematic as a tool material. It definitely has been used – Otzi’s axe is the best known example probably – but the thing is that it can’t be heat-hardened and has to be work-hardened to make a hard cutting edge. Trouble is that work-hardening creates brittleness in the metal which will eventually lead to failure, and of course as you whack away at a tree you’re going to add to that effect. IOW your cutting edge that needs to be work-hardened is going to become increasingly hard and therefore more fragile the more you work with it. If you reduce the amount of work-hardening your cutting edge is going to be softer and lose its sharpness faster. Regardless, it means that the tool will need to be continually re-annealed and re-hardened as you use it. I don’t have figures for how quickly that would happen, but would imagine that considering the lumber requirements for fuel and for the boat itself, that task is going to be considerable, really increasing your amount of time and fuel input.

            There’s a solid reason why stone tools continued to be used up to the bronze age – they’re faster to make, cost less in terms of resources, can be easily and quickly retouched as needed, and even in their construction, the cast offs can often be useful for other purposes. Flint or obsidian was pretty much the pre-history multi-tool. Copper was nice bling, but a bit high-maintenance.

            So there are a couple of points. First, Nephi says he needs to make a bellows. Smelting and moulding copper doesn’t require a bellows as its melt range is achievable without. This implies that the ore we’re talking about is not copper at all but iron, so we’re back to the iron production issues.

            Second, regardless of the material for the tools, making them at all is a needless complication since Nephi clearly needs to be able to make and use stone tools that are easily practical for the simple carpentry required by a Polynesian style catamaran. So either the ship he’s making is more complex and takes a larger range of specialised tools, or the inspiration he is getting is asking him to go through an intensive, time-consuming, resource-depleting task whose costs are arguably well above any potential gain.

            I believe the 150 Kg might be for biomass fuel once converted into charcoal and is strictly for the bloomery process – not for the open forging necessary to produce and re-work/repair any tools. You’ll need to multiply that 150 by 10 for the wood involved. So for 1 kg of iron assume 1500 kg of wood which will need processing into charcoal (another time-consuming process), and you’ll have to have additional charcoal to keep your forge going. The citation I used was the lowest estimate of fuel I could find – others ranged far higher, but it was difficult to be clear what portion of the iron production cycle was being targeted by the fuel costs cited. If I find better numbers and there’s still interest, I can post them here.

            Re leaves for sails – I have no idea what sort of leaves would be available in the area, do you? They would need to be extremely sturdy, and capable of being shaped into quite a large sail as so far as the story goes the ship was sailed but not ever rowed (no mention anyway). Other than the papyrus sails I mentioned, I can’t find evidence of leaf-based sail construction in the area, and although that’s definitely not evidence that there isn’t appropriate vegetation, it is significant that such a readily available resource wasn’t exploited, particularly if it was easier to work and faster to produce (but still effective) than textile alternatives.

            I did track down the source for leather sails, at least the one mention I knew of and was remembering. Caesar, referring to the Veneti. Trouble is that Caesar is notorious for getting anthropological details wrong and for, well, exaggerating for dramatic effect. On a quick search I couldn’t find anything on archaeological finds that would tell us more about construction and size so I’m not sure that there’s even any evidence that leather was the material used rather than a treated woven cloth of some sort. Again, my central knowledge base is for Vikings and they did exploit hides a great deal – walrus, reindeer, sheep, and goat in particular – so I would expect them to have explored the viability of hide sails which we have no evidence at all that they did.

            Re full experiment – yes, I would like to see the complete experiment. The problem with doing it the other way is that additional elements are introduced into each separate stage that are not common to the others so you can’t really look at them as a cohesive whole that proves the entire concept. But as you say, it’s always a limit of time and resource!

          • Joshua Wart

            Megan, thanks for writing this up. We loved listening to this episode, and you responded wonderfully to people here .

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