Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Misunderstood Course of Nephi’s Ship

As has been pointed out in numerous posts in the past, the ship Nephi built that was unlike any other ship built by man, was a sailing ship that was “driven forth before the wind” in typical 12th- to 18-Century fashion. Prior to the building of such sailing ships, often referred to as square-riggers, sails were supplemental to a ship’s propulsion—the main movement accomplished by oars, such as the huge Triremes and Quinqueremes and similar galleys that criss-crossed the Mediterranean from the 1st Millennium B.C. to as late as the 16th-Century A.D.

Left: Maltese Galley 1000 B.C. to 12th-Century A.D.; Center: Square Rig, 13th to 14th-Century; Square Rig with aft Lateen Sail, 15th-Century onward

The point of knowing about sailing ships and the sails they employed—as has frequently been stated in this blog—is to understand Nephi’s oft-stated comment that the ship he built was “driven forth before the wind.” That is, the wind reached the sails from aft (rear) and pushed the ship forward. This also means, like all sailing ships prior to about the17th- to 18th-Century, the ship had to go where the winds blew it. This is why Columbus sailed south to the Canary Islands along the African coast two thousand years later before eventually turning west on the current that took him to the New World.

This, of course, means that one must know and understand the winds and currents of the deep ocean in order to consider the path or course Nephi’s ship sailed to the Land of Promise.

Unfortunately, almost all Book of Mormon historians simply give a direction for the ship, such as eastward from Arabia, through Indonesia, through the South Sea islands, and across the Pacific to Central America. That may appear logical when simply looking at a map, but when studying the winds and currents, it becomes impossible for such a course to have been taken by a ship “driven forth before the wind.”

It is interesting that Bruce R. Sutton in his book “Lehi, Father of Polynesia,” is one of the very, very few that starts off correctly when he states the course of Nephi’s ship. He states on page 75, Chapter 11, that:

“Lehi and his family sailed south with the trade winds from or near Salalah, Oman, along the East African coastal Current, merging into the South Indian Current, sailing east, along the West Wind Drift, then northwards, along the South Pacific/Peru Current”--but then he goes on erroneously to say--“into the Pacific Equatorial Countercurrent and making their landing in Mesoamerica, on the Pacific Coast, near the present day borders of Mexico and Guatemale, possible between Tapa Chula, Mexico, and Puerto de San Jose, Guatemala.”

Here is the problem in that statement:

First of all, the trade winds blow from the southeast toward the northwest, and in the Indian Ocean, come off the western Australian coast and blow toward the northwest across the Indian Ocean and into the Arabian Sea. The winds and currents Nephi’s ship took were not these trade winds, or they quite possibly would not have reached the Southern Ocean as claimed.

Second, the Indian Ocean contains a gyre of ocean movement, as all large ocean areas contain. This gyre, a circular path caused by the Earth’s rotation, swirls counter-clockwise as all currents in the southern hemisphere do, and descends as a result of the Coriolis Effect. Thus, there is no South Indian Current as such—there is the South Equatorial Current of the Indian Ocean, made up of the Mozambique Current running south, picking up the South Indian Current running eastward, then the West Australian Current and back into the northern rim of the South Equatorial Current.

Third, if one were to sail along the east coastal waters of Africa, they would be in the Aguinas Current, which flows toward the tip of South Africa and eventually colliding into the West African southerly currents and the Atlantic Ocean.

Fourth, staying in the South Equatorial Current of the Indian Ocean, a sailing ship “driven forth before the wind” would be driven into the gyre of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, otherwise known as the West Wind Drift, which is blown by the wind of the Prevailing Westerlies. Actually, the sailing ship in the South Equatorial Current gyre would be driven into the Southern Ocean and the West Wind Drift current by these Prevailing Westerlies.

Fifth. The current flowing past the west coast of South America is typically referred to as the Humboldt Current, named for its discoverer, Alexander von Humboldt. It is also referred to in the IMO world as the Peru Current, but never the South Pacific/Peru Current.

Sixth. If a ship “driven forth before the winds” were to sail up the west coast of South America without landing where the winds and currents die down around the 30º South Latitude, it would be driven back into the Pacific by the so-called Peruvian bulge and more likely as not, driven down into Polynesia. If not, then driven back across the Pacific toward Indonesia in the South Equatorial Current of the Pacific Ocean. It would not be possible for such a ship driven before winds and currents, to reach the Countercurrent as claimed, which would be much further north than the South Pacific gyre would send a sailing ship “driven forth before the wind.”

It should also be noted that this so-called Equatorial Countercurrent is not so much a current, as a calming movement of water between the two powerful gyres of the North Equatorial Current and the South Equatorial Current. In fact, this countercurrent is mostly without force and disappears completely in late winter and early spring, having a strength only during the late boreal summer. Crossing this current as late as the 18th century caused ships to be becalmed for days and weeks on end. This is where many sailors died, especially among Magellan's crews.

It is important if one is going to use currents to get the Lehi Colony from Arabia to the Land of Promise, that one should understand those currents and not just make them up, or claim they go elsewhere than they do.

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