Sunday, January 7, 2018

When Did Sails Appear on Ships – Part I

One of the problems theorists have in discussing the ship Nephi built, or at least in making claims what Nephis ship could do and where it could go and how it reached certain areas, is in their lack of understanding how ships were built and what they were capable of doing during different ages of antiquity up to the Age of Sail. Far too often such people evaluate the past workings of things based on their understanding of present circumstances, or at least of more modern capabilities than the period in which they are considering. As an example, Nephis ship was built in 600 B.C., not at the time of the Age of Sail in the 1700s and 1800s. 
    First of all, the importance of this fact is significant, since mans knowledge of boat-building was considerably different in these two ages. Secondly, because an ignorance of this understanding leads theorists to claim and credit early man with building ships and sailing across oceans to which there is neither any creditable evidence nor was there the capability on the part of early man.
    We bring this up because not long ago and contrary to popular opinion of those who tend to rewrite history with impunity, we wrote about the limitation of Phoenician ships in the B.C. era and a reader responded claiming the Phoenician ships were not limited as the article pointed out. After all, he claimed, they had sailed around Africa in 600 B.C., showing the capability of sailing and ship building in that century.
    What he did not understand, however, like most uninformed theorists, is that the voyage in question was far different from that undertaken by Lehi. First of all, the Phoenician voyage around Africa under the direction of Wehimbre Nekao (Emperor Necho), the ruler of the kingdom along the Nile from 610 to 595 B.C., was made over a full three-year period, with the ship setting in every night to make camp, little or no sailing out of the sight of land, and twice spending months on shore while they planted seeds in June and repaired their ship, then harvested grain and food for their continued voyage in November. The following year, they stopped and sewed grain once again and waited for the harvest, repairing the ship in between. This is hardly the type of sailing Lehis group performed, involving a non-maritime people and an inexperienced crew.
    Such sailing as the Phoenician voyage around Africa did not require a masted sail that could withstand the stresses of constant ocean winds, or a construction that could withstand the constant pounding of waves against the hull. Such sailing as the voyage around Africa, only in good weather and under the most favorable of conditions, would have placed limited stresses on the ship, sail, and mast. However, Lehis voyage, lasting months on end in the open sea with no chance for repairs, rest, or setting in to relieve difficulties on the ship or crew, plant seed and harvest it, etc., sailed under the most extreme kind of stresses for which Nephis ship had to be built to withstand.
The square sail (left) was the first and most common sail invented to aid rowers in propelling early ships, and were dependent on wind direction; (right) the Lateen sail replaced the square rig beginning around the third century B.C. because it was more flexible and could adjust somewhat to the wind direction. In Europe, around 1200 B.C., the square sail was in use on the large ships then being built and remained in use through the Age of Sail, adding a triangular lateen sail in the late 1400s for additional maneuverability

The first craft built were driven by oars and muscle power which lasted for millenia; the next advance was marrying a square sail to these craft. By doing this, a vessel could take advantage of the wind to help push it along its way, sparing the crew the effort of rowing. Unfortunately, a sail could only be used when the wind was blowing approximately in the desired direction of travel; the rest of the time it was more hindrance than help. So the utility of these first square sails, which could only take the wind from one direction, was limited due to the vagaries of the wind.
    This does not mean that early craft were crude or clumsy. The ancient Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans, and other great civilizations conducted commerce, travel, and war with oared galleys that were both durable and nimble. However, these vessels were still dependent to some extent on muscle power and had only a limited ability to sail in any direction other than directly downwind.
    Thus, the Lord in his wisdom, showed Nephi how to build his ship not after “the manner of men” of his day, but following the instructions and design in which the Lord instructed him (1 Nephi 18:2). However, as obvious as it is, it should be kept in mind that the Lord did not show Nephi how to build a nuclear-powered vessel, a diesel motor, or even a steam-powered engine. He instructed him in building a sailing vessel that was “driven forth before the wind” (1 Nephi 18:8-9), that is, a weather-driven ship powered by the wind. Which obviously means that Lehi could only sail where the winds and currents took him—he could not sail just anywhere some historian or theorist decides they wanted him to go to satisfy their pre-determined locations and models.
    Just as obvious, this required a sail, which in turn, required a mast to sail in the deep oceans. In 600 B.C., almost all sails were placed on a boom or a spar, were generally limited in size, and meant to aid rowers to move the vessel, or highly maneuverable, meant to move a small fishing boat in coastal waters. However, sails meant to drive a ship of any size had to be placed on masts, which in turn had to be secured to the boats keel in order to handle the stresses the wind would createa fete beyond most ships and builders in an era when most boats were small and did not even have keels.
    As ships became larger, keels were added, allowing for fixed masts (spars), and later stepped masts (longer or spars in steps or sections, called a topmast and topgallant mast). The bottom of the mast was placed on a large block of wood set on the very bottom of the keel, called a step or keelson, which was secured to a permanent wood structure called the hog that was securely fastened to the keel, all of which gave a longitudinal strength to the hull. The mast was steadied with shroud lines to the either side to brace it, and forestays to keep the mast from falling backward, and backstays to keep it from falling forward. With the force of strong winds placing undue stresses on the mast, it required a sturdy understructure and strong keel, a building process not found in early vessels.
    To provide for such sturdy construction in larger sailing ships, the old over-lapping clinker construction was replaced by the carvel design of plank framing of strakes on ribs, that is a rigid framework built to which horizontal planks were subsequently fastened, beginning at the keel and working upward to the gunwale, making sure the butt-ends of the hull planks were placed in such a way as to be distributed evenly over the hull surface. A concentration of butt-end lines in any area of the hull would present a weak place in the whole hull structure.
    In this method, there were no direct fastenings between adjacent overlapping strakes. The strength and rigidity of this type frame allowed larger, faster ships to be built that could carry more weight—thus, carry more cargo for trade. The inclusion of structural keels that projected from the bottom of the hull along its entire length provided greater directional control and stability, helping the hull to move forward rather than slipping to the side.
    Such smooth construction also helped the forward motion of the boat to generate lift to counteract the leeward force of the windthey also made it possible to build vertical masts attached or stepped to the keel and provided strength to withstand the stresses of wind on the sails, which allowed for large sails, more than one mast and additional canvas. Only in this way could early ships meet the stresses and pressures placed on a vessel crossing the deep oceans—and this knowledge was not known to the Phoenicians, Egyptians or Europeans until hundreds of years after Lehi sailed.
(See the next post, "When Did Sails Appear on Ships - Part II," for more  information on the sailing capability of early ship building)

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