Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Could the Ancients Have Sailed to the Americas? Part I

In a recent FARMS website, John L. Sorenson’s article of a discussion about crossing the sea in a small boat was discussed, along with numerous comments from experienced seamen. The problem is, the comments are often taken out of context to make it appear that someone, at any time, could have sailed across the oceans wherever they wanted, under any circumstances.

Such was simply not the case.

Let’s take a look at Sorenson’s comments, and then the reality of life at sea:

1. “This classic question (of crossing the sea anciently) used to be answered by scholars with the a priori response, ‘Of course it is unrealistic!’ Nearly all who gave that answer were landlubbers. Their response has reflected their own psychology rather than real-world experience. One scholar has referred to this attitude as ‘intellectual mal de mer when archaeologists look seaward.’ Others have called this isolationist opinion ‘thalassophobia,’ or fear of the sea.”

While it is true that many types of people have scoffed at ancient seafaring capabilities, the idea of deep ocean sailing and sailing in coastal waters are two entirely different things. In the time of the Jaredites, the Lord said that man could not cross the great deep without the Lord’s specific help (Ether 2:25). And when the Lord wanted the Jaredites to cross the deep waters, he showed them how to build their vessels (Ether 2:16), and unique they were for they could move both upon and beneath the water (Ether 6:6,10).

When the Lord led Lehi and his family into the seas of Irreantum to cross the ocean to the Land of Promise, he did so in a ship Nephi had carefully been instructed in building (1 Nephi 17:8). So let us not make too light of the scoffing of ancient vessels crossing the oceans.

2. “Old hands at small-boat sailing have never voiced such qualms. Experience has shown that while some voyagers may indeed be lost at sea, there is still a reasonable chance for a successful passage along certain routes.”

These “small-boat” sailors who never voiced such qualms are those of the modern era—who took up sailing small boats into deep, or blue, water after enormous knowledge had been gained about currents and winds, tacking, and sailing close-hauled. However, the key phrase here is “along certain routes.” We cannot neglect this most important point. The routes provided by winds and currents with square-rigged, deep-sea, ocean going vessels is the only way sailing “driven forth before the wind” (1 Nephi 18:8-9) could be accomplished in ancient times. The exception to that was sailing across the calm seas of the Mediterranean under oar-powered boats with mean rowing, as all such Phoenician, Greek, and Roman vessels were—some with two and even three tiers of oars. In the Red, Persian and Arabian seas, the lateen sails of the Arab dows allowed them to sail the coastal waters, but always in sight of land.

These are the "small boats" mentioned above. Almost always these boats sail either within sight of land or not far from it and almost never go way out into deep waters, such as a cruise from North or South America out to Hawaii, let alone cross the entire Pacific without island hopping. On rare occasions a very knowledgeable and adventurous sailor has gone into deep water in a small boat, but seldom without a motor as backup. Others, who sailed deep water, did so from island to island, such as in the south Pacific. Also note that these boats are modern in design, have full tacking capabilities, and are made of modern materials that are strong enough to handle the pounding of blue water.

The famed trading ship routes so flippantly mentioned by Sorenson in other works, were nothing more than light-weight, weakly hulled, shallow-draft vessels—called “cockleshells manned by maniacs,” by an 1881 author of “The Tiny Craft Mania” in “American Magazine Vol 12,” in which he begins his lengthy article with “There is a crank among seafaring men at this present writing that is likely to develop in to a novel but royal road to suicide—namely the (attempt at) crossing of boundless oceans in boats scarcely fitted for fishing excursions to adjacent islands.”

In the article he describes the flimsy and early vessels of the ancients: there were such craft as the Lisbon Beanpod, the Scanpavia and the Felucca of the Mediterranean, the Greek Mystico, the Balanza of Scicily, and numerous other coastal ships. In Asia, along the Arabian Sea and in the gulfs through India and Indonesia, there were the Ceylon Dow, shaped like a Dutch Dogger; the Pattomar or Pottamach of the Malabar coast; the catamaran or surf boat of the Madras; the Budgerose and Dingy used on the Ganges; the Burmese boats; the chop or cargo boats of the Chinese, the Mandaria and the Junk; the Japanese cedar junk, and others. It is said that the wine boats of the Douro, the Cotria, was one of the finest sea-boats afloat—these wine boats were remarkable constructions, but could never hope to cross the deep ocean and would only be seen in the Western Hemisphere if brought here piece-meal.

(See the next post, “Could the Ancients Have Sailed to the Americas? Part II,” for more of Sorenson’s comments compared to the reality of the times)

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