Of Anchors, Sails, and Steering Devices
Abstract: The fact that anchors, sails and steering devices are not mentioned in the account of the Jaredite voyage to the promised land does not mean that they were absent. It would seem unlikely that a people would attempt to cross an ocean in vessels that lacked this essential equipment for regulating speed and changing course. It seems even less likely that eight vessels would arrive as a group at their planned destination after traveling for almost a year without such equipment. Given how common these items were on ancient sea-going vessels, we should assume they were present on the barges unless there is clear evidence to the contrary. The limited account that we have gives almost no information from which to determine how the barges were powered or steered, but it can certainly be read in a manner that accomodates the presence and use of anchors, sails, and steering devices.
Unstated Background Information. In our modern society, we often talk about flying to one place or another, sometimes without mentioning the airplane that made the flight possible. We naturally expect our friends to assume the fact that we couldn’t have flown without the airplane. While we might or might not mention the airplane, it would be even less likely for us to mention whether the airplane we flew on had wings, engines, or a tail assembly. These three features are present on virtually every airplane in existence, so they are seldom mentioned as we talk or write about our travels. When we write on any topic, we often omit background information that everyone in our culture takes for granted. So, it would be wrong for a reader of an account of an airplane flight in our day to assume that the failure to mention wings, engines, or a tail assembly suggests that they were absent.
Professor Hugh Nibley explains this concept as it applies to the question of whether Lehi’s party had camels, which aren’t mentioned in the Book of Mormon:
“But neither does Nephi mention camels. Why not? For the very reason that they receive no notice in many an Arabic poem which describes travel in the desert, simply because they are taken for granted. In the East the common words for travel are camel-words; thus rahal and safar, the two basic words, both mean “to set out on a journey” and also “to saddle a camel,” the presence of camels being inferred when no special mention of them is made. When I say I drove from Heber to Salt Lake, no one would think to ask “in a car?” though for all my hearers know I may have driven a chariot or a tricycle. In the same way when the Arab reports that he has journeyed in the desert he never adds “on a camel,” for in his language “to travel” means to go by camel.” (Hugh Nibley, Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Vol. 5: Lehi in the Desert/The World of the Jaredites/There Were Jaredites, Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, 1988, p. 56.)
As we read about sea-going vessels in the Book of Mormon, it may be important to remember that writers often omit this type of basic background information. We probably shouldn’t assume that the basic equipment that was common on sea-going vessels in ancient times was absent in a given case just because that equipment isn’t specifically mentioned in an account. The writer may have assumed that readers would take the presence of such equipment as a given.
Vessels Without Guidance. In an analogy about the spiritual depravity of his people, Mormon mentions three items that were common on sea-going vessels, and, at least in his opinion, essential. Speaking of his people, he said: “But now behold, they are led about by Satan, even as chaff is driven before the wind, or as a vessel is tossed about upon the waves without sail or anchor or without anything wherewith to steer her; and even as she is, so are they.” (Mormon 5:18, emphasis added. All Book of Mormon quotations are from Royal Skousen, ed., The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text [New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2009].) It would appear from this simple analogy that Mormon considered a sail, an anchor, and a steering device to be basic, essential equipment on sea-going vessels. (Given the context, it’s possible that the anchor referred to is a sea anchor, used to stabilize and slow a vessel in foul weather.) In Mormon’s view, a vessel without these three items would be as aimless as chaff in the wind and as lost as a people without Christ and God in the world. Mormon’s assessment that an anchor, a sail, and a steering device are essential to a successful sailing voyage is well founded. It appears that most sea-going sailing vessels, ancient and modern, have had this type of equipment.
Nephi’s Ship. The account of the voyage of Nephi’s ship to the promised land doesn’t specifically mention an anchor, a sail, or a steering device. However, it uses other words that suggest the presence of both a sail and a steering device.
Nephi tells us, “we did put forth into the sea and were driven forth before the wind towards the promised land” (1 Nephi 18:8, emphasis added). It seems reasonable to assume that a ship that is driven forth before the wind probably has a sail. In the next verse, Nephi again implies that this was a wind-powered ship, saying that they were “driven forth before the wind for the space of many days” (1 Nephi 18:9, emphasis added). Later, Nephi tells us “we sailed again towards the promised land” (1 Nephi 18:22, emphasis added). The use of the word again in this sentence tells us something about the phrase driven forth before the wind. Note that Nephi says that they sailed again, but he hasn’t used the verb to sail earlier in his account. Nephi assumes that his readers will equate the phrase he used earlier, driven forth before the wind, with sailing. It appears that he uses both terms to tell us that their ship was powered by the wind. Later, he continues, “after we had sailed for the space of many days, we did arrive to the promised land” (1 Nephi 18:23, emphasis added). Even without ever specifically telling us that his ship had a sail, Nephi’s use of the phrase driven forth before the wind, together with the verb to sail, strongly suggest to us that his ship had one or more sails.
We can similarly infer from Nephi’s language that his ship had a steering device. When Nephi was tied up, the Liahona (a compass-like device) quit working, so Laman and Lemuel, “knew not whither [where] they should steer the ship” (1 Nephi 18:13, emphasis and clarification added). Later, when Nephi was freed, he says that he “did guide the ship, that we sailed again towards the promised land” (1 Nephi 18:22, emphasis added). Because the ability to steer the ship was interrupted, Nephi’s account describes the interruption and continuation with the verbs to steer and to guide. Each of these verbs strongly suggests that the ship had a steering device (such as steering oars or a rudder) even though no such device is specifically mentioned.
Note that Nephi only mentions the concept of guiding the ship when it becomes an issue. Before and after this incident, he is content to tell us that the ship was moving towards the promised land, probably assuming that his readers would infer that it was being steered. Apparently, there was no issue with the anchor, because Nephi never mentions this third essential item.
The Jaredite Barges. The account of the voyage of the Jaredites to the promised land likewise doesn’t specifically mention anchors, sails, or steering devices. Neither, however, does it use the word ship. It uses the word barges to refer to the eight sea-going vessels built by the Jaredites. As it turns out, the English word barge has been applied to several types of watercraft—some without sails, but others with sails (together with anchors and steering devices).
River and Canal Barges. In current usage, the word barge usually refers to flat-bottomed freight boats. At the time of Joseph Smith, in upstate New York, the word barge usually referred, not to a sea-going vessel, but to a canal boat. The Erie Canal, which had opened just a few years before the Book of Mormon was translated, passed through Palmyra, New York. It carried a variety of barges, or canal boats, which were flat bottomed freight boats powered by ropes tied to mules or horses that walked along the road at the side of the canal. These canal boats didn’t have sails or anchors. Often, they were steered by pushing a long barge pole against the bottom and sides of the canal.
At that time, and to some degree even today, the word barge also sometimes refers to shallow flat-bottomed freight boats that travel on canals and rivers powered by sails. For example, freight barges with sails were used then (and some are still in service today) on the Thames River in England. Thus, the Oxford English Dictionary contains the following as one of its definitions for the word barge: “A flat-bottomed freight-boat, chiefly for canal- and river-navigation, either with or without sails” (Oxford English Dictionary, 2d ed., under the word “barge” at 1.c, emphasis added).
The purpose and design of freight barges, however, were different from the purpose and design of the vessels called barges in the Book of Ether. The freight boats of Joseph Smith’s day were designed specifically for use on relatively calm canals and rivers. With or without sails, their design would not serve well on the open sea. The barges built by the Jaredites, however, were designed (with the Lord’s help) specifically as sea-going vessels to carry people and provisions safely on a long voyage across a stormy sea. This brings us to another definition for the word barge.
Small Sea-going Vessels with Sails. About two centuries before the time of Joseph Smith, the English word barge was a general term that referred to any ship or vessel and particularly to “a small sea-going vessel with sails” (OED, under the word “barge” at 1.a). Although the Oxford English Dictionary suggests that this usage was obsolete before the time of Joseph Smith, Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language alludes to this now obsolete meaning. It tells us that, at the time of Joseph Smith, the word barge and the word barque were essentially (or originally) the same word (Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary, at http://webstersdictionary1828.com/, under the word “barge”). This dictionary defines the word barque as “a small ship; but appropriately [specifically], a ship which carries three masts without a mizen top sail” (Webster’s, under the word “barque,” clarification added). Thus, during the 1500’s and 1600’s, and possibly to a very limited degree up to the time of Joseph Smith, the word barge, like the word barque, sometimes referred to a small sea-going vessel with sails. This meaning of the word barge is now obsolete.
Royal Skousen, a BYU professor who has spent many years scrutinizing Book of Mormon manuscripts, printed editions, and internal and external textual evidence, has concluded that the specific words of the Book of Mormon text were revealed to Joseph Smith from the Lord and were not formulated by the Prophet. Skousen and others have found in the Book of Mormon many cases of Early Modern English, the English language in use from about 1500 to about 1700, which was obsolete at the time of Joseph Smith (Carmack, Stanford, “A Look at Some ‘Nonstandard’ Book of Mormon Grammar,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 11 (2014): 209-262). Skousen deems it plausible that in the Book of Mormon, the word barges is used with the now-obsolete Early Modern English meaning: small sea-going vessels with sails. (Personal communication, December 8, 2014.)
If these eight Jaredite barges were indeed small sailing vessels, then, despite the absence of the word sail in the account, we should expect the text describing these barges and their voyage to be compatible with the presence of sails.
The Design of the Barges. It appears that the Jaredites had already acquired barge building experience before they built these eight sea-going vessels (see Ether 2:16). Perhaps they had previously designed barges for river travel, or perhaps, during their four-year sojourn on the seashore, they had designed and built fishing vessels. Despite any previous experience, these eight sea-going vessels weren’t designed solely by the Jaredites. They were built “according to the instructions of the Lord” (Ether 2:16). Apparently some aspects of the design were new to the Jaredites. We are given this description:
“And they were small and they were light upon the water, even like unto the lightness of a fowl upon the water. And they were built after a manner that they were exceedingly tight, even that they would hold water like unto a dish; and the bottom thereof was tight like unto a dish, and the sides thereof was tight like unto a dish, and the ends thereof were peaked, and the top thereof was tight like unto a dish, and the length thereof was the length of a tree, and the door thereof—when it was shut—was tight like unto a dish.” (Ether 2: 16-17)
This description mentions no anchor, no sail, and no steering device. The failure to mention these items should not, however, be taken as evidence that they were missing. Given the almost-universal presence of such equipment on ancient sea-going vessels, it’s much more likely that their absence would have been mentioned (if they were absent). In fact, this brief description is very limited. It also doesn’t mention ballast, stowage for water, food, repair materials and livestock, passenger quarters/berths, a food preparation galley, etc. The description (which is appropriate for the author’s purposes) focuses solely on four features that may have been unique or unusual to the author—(1) smallness, including length, (2) lightness on the water, (3) ends that are peaked [not square, but narrowing to a point], and especially (4) tightness of construction. Because many modern sailing vessels have similar features, we can safely conclude that these features can be compatible with the presence of a sail, a steering device, and an anchor.
One would always expect the bottom and sides of any boat to be as tight as possible. The unique feature of these sea-going vessels, then, was the fact that, in addition to having watertight sides and bottom, they also had a water- and air-tight top. That is, the covering (deck) of each barge extended over the entire hold (the interior cavity of the vessel), so that the hold was air- and water-tight.
Potential Problems. The Brother of Jared approached the Lord with three concerns about the barges:
“And behold, O Lord,  in them there is no light.  Whither shall we steer? And also  we shall perish, for in them we cannot breathe save it is the air which is in them; therefore we shall perish.” (Ether 2:19, numbering and emphasis added.)
Perhaps it’s worth noting that the Brother of Jared did not voice any concern about how the barges would be powered. While the record doesn’t mention sails, the absence of this concern may suggest that these barges, perhaps like those the Jaredites had built previously, were powered in the customary manner—with sails. Let’s review the three concerns that were raised by the Brother of Jared.
Ventilation. The Lord first addressed the third of these concerns by describing some means of ventilation. The curious thing about the Lord’s words is that they may mention only one ventilation hole that was somehow not only in the top of the vessel, but also in the bottom. The phrase “a hole in the top thereof and also in the bottom thereof” (Ether 2:20) can be taken to be ambiguous—possibly referring to only one hole, which was not only in the top, but also in the bottom. The subsequent language seems to confirm that this ventilation system somehow consisted of only one hole, “thou shalt unstop the hole thereof and receive air. And if it be so that the water come in upon thee, behold, ye shall stop the hole thereof, that ye may not perish in the flood.” (Ether 2:20, emphasis added). I find this wording interesting, but I have no explanation for it. While we don’t know just how the ventilation system worked, we know it served its purpose.
Light. The bulk of the Lord’s response deals with the Brother of Jared’s first concern—the need for light within the dark holds of the barges. As we know, the Lord miraculously provided this light (see Ether 6:2-3).
Direction. The Brother of Jared’s second concern was expressed as a question, “Whither shall we steer?” (Ether 2:19). The adverb whither means “where.” Perhaps it goes without saying that someone who wants to know where to steer a vessel is confident that the vessel can be steered–it must have had a steering device such as steering oars or a rudder. The Brother of Jared was concerned, not with how to steer these barges, but where to steer them. In the account of the Nephite voyage to the promised land, when Nephi was tied up, the problem wasn’t that their ship had no steering device, but rather that, without the Liahona, “they knew not whither they should steer the ship” (1 Nephi 18:13, emphasis added).
Because the Brother of Jared asked the Lord where to steer the barges, we should be able to safely assume that the barges had a steering device. He needed some type of compass or charts or other guidance for steering them in the right direction to safely reach the promised land. Sailors in our day use charts, compasses and other instruments to steer their vessels into winds and currents favorable to their destination. The Brother of Jared was likely asking the Lord for divine direction to do the same thing. Oddly enough, the account doesn’t appear to tell us specifically how the Lord gave them such guidance. One passage, however, tells us generally that they were “directed continually by the hand of the Lord” (Ether 2:6). Such direction would have given them the information they needed to steer their barges towards the promised land.
Powered by the Wind. Like the account of the voyage of Lehi’s family, the account of the voyage of the Jaredites to the promised land also uses other words that appear to suggest the presence of sails. Moroni tells us “the Lord God caused that there should a furious wind blow upon the face of the waters towards the promised land; and thus they were tossed upon the waves of the sea before the wind” (Ether 6:5, emphasis added). As the account continues, Moroni tells us, “the wind did never cease to blow towards the promised land while they were upon the waters; and thus they were driven forth before the wind” (Ether 6:8, emphasis added). Of course, this same phrase, “driven forth before the wind” is used twice to describe the voyage of Nephi’s ship (1 Nephi 18:8, 9). Indeed, it’s the phrase which, in that earlier account, is specifically equated with sailing. As the account of the Jaredite barges continues, the similar phrase “and thus they were driven forth” (Ether 6:10, 11) is used twice more.
There’s a difference between this account and the account of Nephi’s voyage, in which the term driven forth before the wind is combined with the term we sailed. The Jaredite account never uses this latter, more direct term. Nevertheless, repeated references to being driven forth before the wind are good indicators that sails, the sole known means of capturing the wind to drive a vessel forth, were present. (It may be worth pointing out again that the ends of the barges were peaked. This means that the back end of the barges [the stern], like the front [the bow], came to a point. This shape provides no flat surface across the stern that might have caught a little wind to power the barges [see Ether 2: 17].)
Mariners in our day sometimes sail into favorable ocean currents, receiving a bit of a boost from the speed and direction of the waters, in addition to prevailing winds. One might expect the Lord to guide the Jaredites on a course that would give them this same advantage. Anchors, sails and steering devices would help the Jaredite vessels reach favorable winds and currents. They would also help them into and out of provisioning ports they would probably have needed along the way.
Covered Many Times in Water. Some students of the Book of Mormon have concluded that sails were not present on these vessels. This may be because the account refers to many occasions on which these vessels were covered with water. If the vessels were covered by water to any extensive depth, then the pressure of moving through the deep water might have snapped off any protruding sailing masts (and other above-deck features). Let’s review the words used in the account to see whether they suggest how deeply the barges might have been buried under the water.
Light and Tight. A vessel that is buoyant (light upon the water) and that can be made airtight (tight like a dish) simply cannot be pushed down by waves to any significant depth. It can be doused by large waves so that it is momentarily covered with water, but the laws of physics will almost immediately bring it back to the top of the water. Think of trying to push a beach ball beneath the surface of a pool by dumping a large container of water over it. The water might momentarily cover the ball, but the ball would stay on (or very near) the surface of the pool. In a similar fashion, the waves of the sea might crash over the deck of a buoyant, airtight vessel, but the vessel (as long as it remains upright and retains its structural integrity) would regain the surface as soon as the wave is spent. During repeated, but brief, anxious moments as waves broke over their decks, the barges might often have been covered with water. Most of the time, however, the decks of the barges, though wet from rains, ocean spray, and previous dousings, would remain above the surface of the water. All of the terms in the account that describe the barges being covered with water can be read in a manner that is consistent with this premise.
The Deep. The word deep is used six times in reference to the voyage of the Jaredite barges, but never as an adjective that would suggest placement of the barges below the water surface. The word deep is always used as a noun in the phrase the deep, or some variation thereof and, as such, simply is another way of saying “the ocean.” The phrases include: “this great deep” (Ether 2:25), “this raging deep” (Ether 3:3), “the deep” (Ether 6:7), and “the great deep” (Ether 7:27 and 8:9). These phrases are simply references to the ocean—the deep blue sea.
As a Whale in the Midst of the Sea. The Lord told the Brother of Jared that the Jaredites would be “as a whale in the midst of the sea” (Ether 2:24). Some might take this phrase to mean that the Jaredites would find themselves deep beneath the sea, but this interpretation is implausible for at least three reasons. The first is the reason stated previously. The buoyant, airtight nature of the barges would not allow them to sink below the surface for more than a brief moment.
The second reason is that the term the midst of the sea suggests breadth, not depth. It refers to having the sea all around you, but not on top of you. In the Bible, this phrase is commonly used to depict water all around, but not above those who are in the midst of the sea. The writer of Proverbs describes “the way of a ship in the midst of the sea” as “too wonderful” (Proverbs 30:18-19, emphasis added). Many other passages in the Old Testament tell about how God parted the Red Sea and the children of Israel walked on dry ground through “the midst of the sea” (Exodus 14:16, 22, 23, 27, 29; Exodus 15:19; Numbers 33:8; and Nehemiah 9:11). In the New Testament, this term is used in only two verses that describe the miracle of Jesus walking on water. Each account describes a ship that remains on the surface of the sea as being “in the midst of the sea” (Mathew 14:24 and Mark 6:47).
The third reason is that the context of this phrase in Ether 2:24 works perfectly well with (and may require) this meaning. The context suggests that the design of the barges allowed them to be as safe as a whale might be as we see it swimming at the surface of the sea, surrounded on all sides by water. Although great waves might dash upon the whale (something that only happens at the surface), it soon returns unharmed from beneath the waves to the surface. Similarly, while great waves would break over the barges, the barges, like the whale, were designed by the Lord to return safely to the surface.The passage says, “For behold, ye shall be as a whale in the midst of the sea, for the mountain waves shall dash upon you. Nevertheless I will bring you up again out of the depths of the sea” (Ether 2:24).
The Depths of the Sea. As used in the Book of Mormon, the term the depths of the sea always refers to the area beneath the surface of the sea. Based on context, it can refer to any or all of the realm beneath the surface, extending to the bottom of the sea. It appears that generally, one does not expect to escape from the depths of the sea. Once below the surface, one is likely doomed. Thus to be swallowed up in the depths of the sea, to be thrown into the depths of the sea, or to sink into the depths of the sea may initially entail being just below the surface, but the term usually implies the inability to escape an impending death by drowning (see 1 Nephi 17:48, 18:10, 15, and 20, 3 Nephi 8:9).
In the account of the Jaredite barges, the term the depths of the sea still refers to the realm beneath the surface of the waves, but without the doom usually associated with it. In each of the three instances in this account when this term is used, the force that sends the barges into the depths of the sea is the pounding of waves (or of wind and waves). As we’ve discussed, this force might temporarily cover a barge with water, but it simply could not hold it under the surface. In each instance, the barges regain the surface without harm (see Ether 2:24-25 and 6:6). It appears that in these instances, the term the depths of the sea refers to an area beneath crashing waves, but it needn’t imply any significant depth at all.
Encompassed About; Buried. The term encompassed about is used twice to describe the fact that the barges were surrounded by, or enveloped within, waters (see Ether 3:2 and 6:7). This term tells us that the water covered them, which is consistent with waves crashing over them. Likewise, the word buried means covered. Someone who is baptized is “buried in the water” (see Mosiah 18:14-15). In the account of the Jaredite voyage, the barges are “buried in the depths of the sea” when “mountain waves” broke over them (Ether 6:6). While the barges were buried in these waves, their tightness kept them safe (see Ether 6:7). Each of these terms is consistent with the idea that the barges remained near the surface of the sea, where they were repeatedly doused by waves, by rain, and sea spray. It might be helpful to note that the Biblical account in which Christ calmed the sea describes a ship that was “covered with the waves” (Matthew 8:24) in a storm, but did not sink. That ship, which wasn’t watertight, is described as being covered with the waves while staying afloat on the surface of the sea (and while the mast and sails remained above the waves).
Tight Like unto the Ark of Noah. The comparison between the barges and Noah’s ark applies just to one feature—tightness. The account tells us that the barges were “tight like unto a dish; and also they were tight like unto the ark of Noah” (Ether 6:7). Except for tightness, this passage draws no other parallel between the barges and either a dish or an ark. Just as vessels that are “light upon the water, even like unto the lightness of a fowl upon the water” (Ether 2:17) needn’t have feathers like a foul, vessels that are “tight like unto the ark of Noah” (Ether 6:7) needn’t be devoid of sails like an ark.
A Crew on Deck. Perhaps the biggest leap of faith required to accept the possibility that the Jaredite barges had anchors, sails, and steering devices is that these tools only function well when manned by an attentive crew. If the barges had anchors, sails, and steering oars or rudders, then they would also, of necessity, have had crews, who would have worked on deck, outside the protective interior cavity of the barges. It is possible that crews were needed to actively guide and stabilize the barges even during stormy weather. Perhaps there were times when they stowed the sails, dropped the anchor, and removed steering oars during the roughest weather. However, to the degree that the Jaredites used these devices, they would have used them from the deck. Steering could only take place out on the deck, where the crew could see the craft, the waves, and any hazards (including other barges). Just as the record never mentions sails, anchors or steering devices, it is also silent about any crews that might have been on deck to use these tools to manage the barges during the voyage.
Given the ferocity of the winds and waves described in the account, we might think that no crew would venture up on deck to steer these vessels. However, intrepid sailors have done exactly that for centuries. Jared’s party had the advantage of knowing that they were being led by God to a land of promise (see Ether 1:42). It’s possible, but by no means required by the account, that much of the singing, praying, and praising of God on the barges (see Ether 6:7-9) took place among crews valiently guiding them, with God’s help, through storms. Other than singing, praying, and praising God, the record doesn’t mention any activities of anyone on board during the entire voyage. With absolutely no information at all about anything else the people did on these vessels, we can only guess the extent to which some of them may have worked on deck to guide their vessels towards the promised land.
Conclusion. The Book of Mormon account of the Jaredite voyage tells us very little about how the barges were powered and guided to their destination. Mormon, who had read the more complete account of this voyage in Mosiah’s translation of the twenty-four Jaredite gold plates (see Mosiah 28:19 and Ether 4:1-3), believed that a vessel without an anchor, sail, and steering device would have been helpless on the open sea (see Mormon 5:18). For all we know, he may have learned the importance of this equipment from reading that account. Of course, until we have that account ourselves, we won’t know whether it has additional information about the barges. We only know that Mormon, who was acquainted with that account, considered anchors, sails, and steering devices to be essential. If we choose to read any assumptions into our shortened account of this voyage, we should probably avoid asumptions that might put our views of the Jaredite barges at odds with Mormon’s general rule about sea-going vessels. The text that describes the voyage of these ancient sea-going vessels allows that they might have been equipped with anchors, sails, and steering devices.