Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Was There Really an Alternative Course for Lehi to Take? – Part I

Recently a reader sent in a few questions asking to be answered. Since the answers take up a larger space than acquitted to the comments section, we are answering them here:
• Reader: “Since we do not know the extent of how God instructed the building of the ship, we cannot say that they were unable to tack.”
Response: First of all, the subject of seafaring in the age of sail remains alien to many, a cold and inaccessible subject, rendered the more so by a technical language all its own. The inevitable result is a continuing and peculiar juxtaposition of the acknowledged importance of the subject and the poorly researched status of it. Continually regurgitated but seldom scrutinized by historians, our flawed understanding of sailing capability has exerted a malign influence on the work of those historians whose studies are based upon it (Sam Willis, “The Capability of Sailing Ships: Windward Performance,” The Northern Mariner/Le marin du nord, vol.XIII, no.4, October 2003, pp29-39). Stated differently, this means that the knowledge of sailing is almost non-existent among the average person, and that of the Age of Sail, even among mariners, known very little and understood even less.
A tack chart showing the various stages of tacking with a vessel where the sails are configured in a Bermuda Rig with a tall mast and fore and aft sails. A square-rig ship can sail only in the “Running with the wind” range

Secondly, there are seven stages in tacking, all of which would have to be known and well understood by Nephi and his brothers, such as being able to angle the sail equally both in and out of the wind, or when the sails needed to be in, or well out, or partially in, or in tight, etc., or when to zig-zag and how to do it, crossing the wind over the bow and then back, etc. Of course, the Lord could have told them, written it on the Liahona, or even shown them in a vision, however, knowing how something is done does not necessarily equate to being able to do it correctly without experience. Could one remove tonsils even if shown? Could one split the atom, even if that had been briefly instructed? Could one learn, without actual experience, how to ease out the clutch in a manual shifting car without stalling the engine or snapping a neck?
    Since Nephi and his brothers were not mariners and had no experience sailing, it is hard to image that they could have accomplished such tacking without very extensive training and knowledge. As an example, if one is bearing away from the wind (the wind is mostly behind the sails) there is the Close Reach, or the closest one can sail into the wind, which is about 22º with today’s sailing boats and sails; however, anciently, even thru the Age of Sail, that figure was closer to 30º to 40º.
    In addition, in tacking there is also the Beam Reach, the Broad Reach, Close-Hauled and Close Reach, as well as the Dead Run, all of which would have to be known and understood with experience for using and controlling.
    We see and know about tacking today and think nothing of it, even in sail-driven boats. However, the sails that allow such accomplishment were and are usable on small craft or racing vessels of today, but in the ancient past like Lehi’s time, the only adjustable sails were on dhows, a small coastal fishing craft that could carry five or six people.
    As ships got larger, and ventured out into the open seas, the square rig was the method of propulsion, which required the wind at one’s back. Over time, movement toward the wind was achieved through zig-zagging (beating), which made any destination twice as long to reach, and then only with advanced sailing expertise.
    In their heyday, square-rigged vessels ranged in size from small boats to full-rigged ships. But this rig fell from favor to fore-and-aft gift rigs and Bermuda rigs after the development of steam power and new materials, yet ocean-going sailing ships stayed mostly square-rigged into the mid 20th century.
A square-rigged ship of the 18th century will full rigging, including side sails to catch all the wind blowing from behind the ship and driving it forward

Third, in the age of sails or the days of square riggers—a gaff rigged fore-and-aft sail—ships could only sail down wind, that is, with the wind at their back. However, the advantage of such rigs is that they allowed the fitting of many small sails to create a large total sail area to drive large ships. Fore-and-aft could be sailed with fewer crew and were efficient working to windward or reaching, but creating a large total sail area required large sails, which could cause the sails and cordage to break more easily under the wind. 18th-century warships would often achieve tops speeds of 12 to 15 miles per hour, although average speeds over long distances were as little as half that. Some clipper ships that had square rigs and for whom speed was critical could be much faster; for example Cutty Sark could make 17 knots (20 miles per hour). The late windjammers were as fast as the clippers, though being much bigger.
    To show the seriousness of these square riggers, and to understand the significance of trying to plot a courses across a map, in actual reality, sailors would sometimes know they were going to be shipwrecked two days ahead of the event! With the weather steady for a few days; the wind strong; and the lee (downwind) shore was long both ways, it would become apparent to the hapless sailors that the vessel could not avoid wrecking itself on the lee shore. This because all they could do was sail with the wind, and obviously subject to its pathway, even it took them into rocks, points, capes, or shoals.
    Eventually, mariners in the 17th century learned to use a “Bermuda Rig”(Marconi Rig), a tall yachting rig with a high, tapering fore-and-aft mainsail, which allowed it to sail into the wind; however, when running down wind, such a rig required the addition of a spinnaker, with a spinnaker boom, and additional jibs, which in turn, required a larger crew (Lynn Fitzpatrick, “Bermuda’s School Spirit,” Cruising World, Bonnier Corp., pp. 44–6, 2008, pp44-46). Obviously, this required an expertise and crew size that would not have been available to Lehi’s untrained crew.
    As Willis acknowledges, “while they could sail to windward it required enormous effort and some risk to rigging to achieve this—not to mention a large crew. So, for most practical purposes, they would plan their voyages based on sailing down wind.”
The running rigging are the lines which move to set and control the sails. once set, it is the easiest rigging to use in. an ancient sailing ship. This sail is fixed and is used to have the wind at your back (“driven forth before the wind”)

Fourth, once ocean-going vessels in antiquity were achieved, the square rig was the generic type of sail and rigging arrangements in which the primary driving sails were carried on horizontal spars which are perpendicular, or square to the keel of the vessel and to the masts. These spars are called yards and their tips, beyond the last stay, are called the yardarms. Such ships were obviously called square-riggers.
    For ocean-going ships, like the one Nephi would have had to build, a square rig is aerodynamically the most efficient running rig, that is, sailing downwind—or having the wind at your back coming across the stern—and was what drove the Age of Sail, even the commercial ships, the windjammers, China Clippers and all the ocean-going, deep-water ships up until the late 19th century.
    This sailing downwind is the course square-riggers take and seldom tried tacking, except to sail in wide zig-zag pattern, and is why so many early explorers were becalmed at times, sometimes for several days, waiting for a “favorable wind.” Such a ship was what Nephi built according to his own words. That is, he said they “were driven forth before the wind toward the promised land. And after we have been driven forth before the wind for the space of many days…” (1 Nephi 18:8-9, emphasis added).
    This phrase, by the way, was always meant to show the easiest way of sailing when sailing in the same direction as the wind, and has since become an idiom meaning “to achieve something easily.”
(see the next post, “Was There Really an Alternative Course for Lehi to Take? – Part II,” regarding the answers to a Reader’s questions about Lehi sailing to the Land of Promise.

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