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42 Questions


Question 5
Jared's Barges and a "furious wind"

"Apostle James Talmadge [sic] said that The Book of Mormon contained no absurdities and nothing unreasonable (Articles of Faith, P. 504).  If that is true, what about Jared's barges?  Ether chapter 6 tells us that a "furious" wind propelled the barges to the promised land.  It took the furious wind 344 days to blow the barges to the new world.  Even if the furious wind could only push the barges at 10 miles per hour, the distance traveled would have been 82,560 miles, or enough for more than three trips around the globe!  Is that reasonable?"  (Walter Martin, The Maze of Mormonism, Rev. & Enlarged Ed., [Regal Books, Ventura, CA:1978], P. 316.)

Response: (by Malin L. Jacobs & Stanley D. Barker)

"Furious Wind" and Jaredite Barges

This is a loaded question.  The reader is set up by the phrase "...only 10 miles per hour..."  In the late 20th century, ten miles per hour (mi/hr) seems quite slow.  Until the industrial revolution, however, ten mi/hr was quite fast, and could be achieved for only relatively short distances, by sprinters or by men on horseback, for example.

Very little is known of ship speeds in antiquity, but the following information is typical:

By the sixth century A.D., Arab entrepreneurs were sailing their dhows all the way from the Arabian peninsula to China.  Arab ships rode the monsoons to the Malibar coast of India, then on to Ceylon in time to catch the summer monsoon (June to September) and speed across the often treacherous Bay of Bengal, past the Nicobar Islands, through the Malacca Straits, and into the South China Sea.  From here they were able to make a quick, if risky, thirty-day run up to the main trading station at Canton in China.  The trip from the Arabian peninsula to China took approximately 120 days of straight sailing, or six months counting provisioning stops along the way. 1

The straight-line distance for this trip was about 5,000 miles.  Doubling that distance (to allow for a probable actual distance traveled by the boat because of the necessity of tacking) gives 10,000 miles.  It if took 120 days of sailing, the average speed was about 3.4 mi/hr.

In 1947 Thor Heyerdahl sailed a reed raft from Peru to the Tuamotu Archipelago.  The trip covered 4,300 miles in 101 days, for an average speed of about 1.7 mi/hr.2  In 1970 Heyerdahl's RA II expedition crossed 3,270 miles of the Atlantic in 55 days, for an average speed of 2.4 mi/hr.3  Heyerdahl's speeds are in general agreement with what little is known of ancient ship velocities.

While the art of shipbuilding slowly improved over the centuries, the improvement was not so much in speed as in size and strength (oceangoing capability) and the resulting cargo-carrying capacity.  Christopher Columbus, utilizing some of the finest ships of his time, took 36 days to cross the Atlantic Ocean from the Canary Islands to Watling Island in the Bahamas, a distance of just over 3,600 miles.4  His average speed was about 4.2 mi/hr. The Mayflower took 63 days to make the approximately 3,500 miles from England to New England,5 for an average speed of about 2.3 mi/hr.

The fastest sail-power 24 hour average speed was set by the Yankee Clipper ship Lightning, which traveled 436 miles,6 for an average speed of 18.2 mi/hr.  The Yankee Clipper ship Andrew Jackson set a 15-day record for the crossing from Liverpool, England, for an average speed of 9.7 mi/hr.7  In 1973 an around-the-world racing yacht contest was held.  The winner traveled 27,120 miles in 144 days, for an average speed of about 7.9 mi/hr.8

The above examples show that while speeds of up to 18.2 mi/hr have been recorded for sailing ships, on multiple day sustained voyages even wind-power-only vessels specially designed to maximize speed have yet to reach an average speed of 10 mi/hr.

But what about the Jaredite barges?  The Book of Mormon states:

...and they were small, and they were light upon the water, even unto the likeness 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 were 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.9

From this description, it seems clear that the effective wind cross-section of the barges was relatively small.  This means that the barges had only a small area for the wind to push against.  Almost certainly they did not carry sail.  Consequently, the main forces driving them were the ocean currents, which would also see a small cross-section.  Most of the time the barges would be propelled by surface currents, as light vessels could not be driven more than a few tens of feet deep under water (and that only for a relatively short time) even by hurricane-strength winds and violent seas.  The "furious" wind would generate surface water currents, which, because of inertia and friction, would move much slower than the wind.  These currents would drive the barges, which, also because of inertia and friction, would move considerably slower than the currents.

Because of the turbulence and stormy conditions of the sea, such a mode of propulsion would be extremely inefficient, with only a minute percentage of the energy expended by the wind and water going into propelling the barges toward the promised land.  In light of the long term sustained speeds of sailing vessels (both ancient and modern) discussed above, and the inherent inefficiencies associated with wind power without sails, Jaredite barge average speeds of between one and two mi/hr seem reasonable.  The ten mi/hr low-ball speed provided by the originator of the question is totally off-the-wall.

At two miles per hour, the barges would cover 16,500 miles in 344 days.  While we don't know where the Jaredites started their long voyage, and therefore don't know the distance they actually traveled by sea, we do know some possibly representative distances.  The great circle distance from China to southern Mexico is about 8,200 miles.  The sum of great circles from Palestine through the Mediterranean to the Atlantic to southern Mexico yield about the same distance.  It is not reasonable to suppose that the wind and currents always flowed directly toward the promised land, as the barges would have to avoid land masses and other hazards.  Therefore, the distance traveled by the Jaredite barges would be greater than 8,200 miles, but probably less than 12,500 miles (halfway around the world on a great-circle route).

Given what is known of the speeds attained by both ancient and modern seafarers, and what we know of the construction of the Jaredite barges and their mode of propulsion, the Book of Mormon figure for the time of the Jaredite's crossing to the promised land is quite reasonable.

Earliest known Discussion:

This one.  Prior to the early 1900s the general population was sufficiently familiar with speeds of transportation to not make this an issue.  It is only in the late 20th century that many have forgotten how slow things were in earlier periods of history.


1.  Lynn and Hope Hilton, In Search of Lehi's Trail (Deseret Book, 1976), pp. 114-115.

2.  Exploration: 20th Century Triumphs, Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia, 1997 ed. (Softkey Mulitmedia Corporation, 1996).

3.  Ra Expeditions, Grolier's Multimedia Encyclopedia, 1997 ed. (Grolier Interactive, Inc., 1997).  See also for further discussion of the Heyerdahl expeditions including photos of the vessels used.

4.  Richard Humble, THE EXPLORERS (Time-Life Books, 1979), p. 66.

5.  Melvin Maddocks, THE ATLANTIC CROSSING (Time-Life Books, 1981), p.20.

6.  Miles Hopkins Imlay, Rear Admiral (Ret.), Clipper Ships, ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA, 1968 Ed., Vol. 5, p. 931.

7.  Miles Hopkins Imlay, Ibid., p. 931.

8.  A. B. C. Whipple, THE RACING YACHTS (Time-Life Books, 1980), p. 168.

9.  Book of Mormon, Ether 2:16-17