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Interpreting Interpreter
Reframing Nephi’s Shipbuilding

This post is a summary of the article “Khor Rori: A Maritime Resources-Based Candidate for Nephi’s Harbor” by George D. Potter in Volume 51 of Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship.

An introduction to the Interpreting Interpreter series is available at


The Takeaway

Potter advances a comprehensive argument for an alternative view of Nephi’s ship, his shipbuilding skills, and of the location of Bountiful. In proposing a more conventional design for an ancient sailing ship, Potter concludes that Nephi would have needed to draw from the imported raw materials, shipbuilding expertise, and natural harbor accessible within an existing port city. For Potter, Khor Rori fits those requirements better than the commonly proposed Khor Kharfot.


The Summary

In this article, George D. Potter reinforces and expands on his previous proposal for Khor Rori in Oman as a potential location for Nephi’s Bountiful. His present effort builds progressively, starting first with a proposed design for Nephi’s ship, and then exploring the geological features and maritime resources that would have been needed to build that ship. His central thesis throughout is that it is mistaken to assume that Nephi and his family were alone in Bountiful, isolated from external raw materials and expertise, and that without these external aids Nephi’s ocean crossing would have been essentially impossible. Given that Khor Rori would have had those features and resources, and otherwise meets the textual requirements for Nephi’s Bountiful, Potter strongly favors that location over others that have been proposed in the region.

In proposing a design for Nephi’s ship, Potter draws off the Book of Mormon text to assume that the ship had: 1) a large, strong hull with a covered deck (“we did go down (link to 1 Nephi 18:6) into the ship with our loadings and our seeds”), 2) a sail and rudder (“I, Nephi, did guide the ship, that we sailed again”). In addition to these characteristics, and based on his included drawings, Potter clearly has in mind a more conventional sailing vessel, specifically arguing against the possibility that Nephi’s ship was a large raft. He does so on the basis that the prophet Joseph likely knew the difference between a raft and a “ship” (Note: this argument assumes that Joseph chose the words of the Book of Mormon, which may not have been the case), and that rafts generally lack the ability to steer.

To build this ship, Potter suggests that Nephi would have needed a protected harbor, with Potter seeing Nephi’s phrase “go down” as also implying entering a moored ship, and the phrase “put forth into the sea” as implying control over the ship within the protection of a natural harbor. He argues that launching such a large vessel (estimated at 100 tons) would have required building it above the tideline and lowering it into calm water with a ramp, a process which would seal the hull and allow for the building of the deck, following Hebrew and Egyptian boatbuilding methods. For Potter, Nephi would have needed to exit and enter that protected port many times to test the ship and train the crew, implying a breakwater that allowed safe passage.

Khor Rori is the only location in southern Oman with these natural features, and also appears to fit the other textual requirements for Nephi’s Bountiful. This includes the presence of fruit and wild honey (where Khor Rori would have been more verdant anciently than it is today), wild game, a mountain with ore and flint, as well as a place to throw Nephi into the “depths of the sea”. Potter also notes two additional clues that he sees as weighing in Khor Rori’s favor: the potential for Khor Rori to have been the ancient city of Ophir, a name which means “abundant”—a synonym for “Bountiful”—and the presence in Khor Rori of steel manufacturing, which might have provided the expertise necessary for Nephi to forge steel swords similar to the sword of Laban.

Potter then presents a variety of arguments about the need for Khor Rori’s maritime expertise and access to raw materials, given its potential status as an active trading port. Potter cites the lack of suitable raw materials at locations such as Khor Kharfot (or in Oman more generally), including the lack of long, straight hardwoods, fabric for sails, and iron ore. Khor Rori’s local agriculture and access to Indian Ocean trade would have provided potential sources for those materials.

In Potter’s estimation, Nephi’s youth and technical inexperience would’ve required him to receive specialized nautical and shipwright training at the hands of experts. Though Potter acknowledges that God might have provided this instruction directly, Potter contends that “while the Lord gave Nephi the instructions on how to build the ship, he did not give him the lifetime of experience that shipwrights need to perform their particular craft.” Potter provides similar arguments for the seamanship skills that Nephi would have required for the journey.

All of these arguments require extensive interaction between Nephi’s family and a local population present in or around Bountiful, a fact on which the text appears silent. But Potter suggests the text is ambivalent on that point, and that the entire region was likely to have been populated regardless of which potential Bountiful site one prefers. A question Potter asks summarizes his position nicely:

“If members of Nephi’s family were interacting with locals, why would he have chosen to construct his ship at a remote site when he could have simply moved to Khor Roi with its excellent harbor, vital maritime resources, abundant fresh water, and plentiful food resources?”


The Reflection

Though I’m not sure Potter is on the mark with everything here (I wouldn’t agree with his framing of Nephi’s age or his metallurgic experience. Potter suggests he was in his early teens at the start of the journey, based on the fact that he had three unmarried older brothers, and that medieval Jewish custom was to marry as young as possible. Potter doesn’t mention that there were plenty of exceptions to this, and that it was common for men to marry as late as thirty. Potter also posits that Nephi’s scribal experience would have made it unlikely for him to have learned a trade as a metalsmith, though a recent Noel Reynolds article suggests that scribal training was often part-time, and that adherents could have learned a supplementary trade), his article provides a useful summary of the evidence for Khor Rori, as well as the lingering questions surrounding Nephi’s transoceanic voyage. Those who favor Khor Kharfot (myself among them), or any other unpopulated location, should take note of the potential problems with that proposal, most notably the lack of obviously suitable raw materials.

Potter also includes a note on supernatural explanations that made me wonder—should we always favor natural explanations over supernatural ones, as his quote implies? There are certainly cases in scripture where natural explanations would have no bearing, and where it would be futile to search for one. No one would ever propose that, in 3 Nephi 11, Christ climbed down from the heavens using a hidden staircase, for instance—the story is either supernatural or it’s a fraud. And if someone can believe that God is capable of descending to earth via divine means, the ability to provide verbal instructions to his servants would seem to be a reasonable minimal assumption for the capabilities of deity. In fact, Nephi himself makes a solid version of this argument in 1 Nephi 17.

Another thing that strikes me is how much rides on the proposed design of the boat. The list that Potter provides outlining Nephi’s required shipwright and sailing skills could’ve been very different if he chose a different (i.e., less conventional) design—building and sailing it would require a different set of skills (or geographic features, etc.), and perhaps fewer such skills altogether. For instance, the design for the ships used by the Jaredites appears to require few, if any, nautical skills on the part of their passengers. That the Lord may have done something similar for Nephi’s vessel should open up possibilities for the requirements of his transoceanic voyage.

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