Sinking the Ark

As part of the December edition of the ICR’s Acts & Facts magazine I looked at an article by John Morris attempting to defend the feasibility of constructing the Ark by arguing that Noah and his sons would have had time to move the required volume of lumber. This is, however, hardly the most problematic aspect of the story, and so for the just-posted January edition Morris has written The Survival of Noah’s Ark, which is an attempt to defend the boat’s ability to float in the conditions.

Skeptics raise a serious objection to the Flood account given in Scripture: How could Noah’s Ark and its precious cargo survive the turmoil of the Flood? Wouldn’t it have sunk beneath the waves, sending its cargo to a watery grave?

Some very important questions there. Having read Morris’ defence, I would have to say that the answers are still “it couldn’t” and “it would have” respectively.

Morris begins by telling us just how much of a problem this is:

Without a doubt, the Flood involved unimaginable forces and processes. Simultaneously, “the fountains of the great deep” broke open (Genesis 7:11), and the resulting volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, asteroid impacts, colliding tsunamis, and underwater gravity slides all contributed a great tectonic convulsion that permanently altered the planet.

Some of the waves would have been hundreds of feet high and moved at near jet speed. Yet the Ark rode through this cataclysm safe and sound. How could it do so? Wouldn’t it have capsized? If it had, it would have spelled doom for all land-dwelling animals and the image of God in man. Satan would have won the war.

Such a result would have been unfortunate, given that the flood was God’s idea in the first place. When talking about the biblical flood story comparisons to the Epic of Gilgamesh are almost inevitable. In the latter narrative the flood was the result of a group of gods scheming to wipe out mankind. However, one of these gods relayed the plan to the story’s ‘Noah’ – Utnapishtim – and instructs him to construct a boat to preserve life. This makes a little more sense than the “I’m going to kill everyone now, except you, you, and you” story found in most bibles.

Morris has a number of contributing answers to his question of “how could the Ark have survived?” Here’s number one:

One important thing to remember is that the Ark was not designed to go anywhere. In fact, once the whole earth was flooded, there was nowhere to go. It only had to float and keep the occupants alive.

In the earlier quote you may have noticed a large number of extra-biblical “results” of the flood – in fact, the entire list starting with “volcanic eruptions” comes not from Genesis but the various models put forward by creationists to explain how the flood could have done all they claim. The “tectonic convulsion” is most significant here. Certain explanations of the flood involve the continents positively racing around the globe into their present locations. Noah may have had difficulty keeping up, even if you ignore the currents underlying the hundred-foot jet-speed waves.

But it’s true that the bible never talks about any method of propulsion at all, so we may as well just say that they drifted and got lucky. Nevertheless, this doesn’t really help. Sitting tight and trying to ride out a storm doesn’t mean that it wont save you.

Oddly relegated to reason #2 is God himself:

Obviously, the whole Flood account involves supernatural oversight. God was in full control. When we investigate how He exercised that control, we stand amazed.

Here Morris reminds us that if the problems get too great for him to explain away he can just say “goddidit” and call it a day. But he doesn’t want to have to resort to that, as it will convince all of nobody. Instead, here’s his third point:

Note the ratio of length to width of the Ark’s design: 300 cubits to 50 cubits, or approximately 450 feet long to 75 feet wide. This ratio of 6 to 1 is well known in naval design for optimum stability. Many modern naval engineers, when designing cargo ships to battleships, utilize this same basic design ratio.

Assuming that he’s right here – I don’t know, but I think he might be – this is the closest to a solid argument he has in this article. Realise, though, that there is a bit of numerology going on the the Ark’s proportions. The third dimension is 30 cubits, and the ratio between thirty and fifty is quite close to the famous golden ratio (which is one plus the square root of five, all divided by two, or about 1.618). These kind of ratios often have a use, especially in construction, so it may be possible that in the case of the width-length ratio the authors of the story hit upon usable numbers simply by chance.

Then there is the fact that while you can build a paper plane with ideal ratios between wingspan and length, scaling it up to jumbo-jet size wont necessarily produce a flying aircraft. There is much more to the issue than the ratios.

The Ark’s long, slender shape would have maximized cargo space and kept the vessel pointed into wave trends, thereby minimizing chances of it being broadsided by a wave that could capsize it. If we could take a cross-section of the Ark, we would see a pair of forces consisting of the Ark’s weight acting downward and buoyancy acting upward that form what naval engineers term a “righting couple.” This pair of forces acting in opposite, but parallel, directions tends to force the vessel to “right” itself when tilted. As shown in the figure, for any degree of tilt up to 90 degrees, the couple would right the Ark and return it to an upright orientation.

The righting couple is a product of how as the weight force can be considered to act on a single centre of mass, so too can the force of buoyancy be said to act on the centre of the area under water. When a boat is tilted these two points are no longer directly above and below each other, and the resulting torque does indeed act against the direction of tilt. Crucially, however, this is a feature of all boats, and is not specific to the Ark. Morris is here trying to pass off a general principle of buoyancy as something that means that the Ark specifically would have survived the conditions. And while the righting couple may help stop a boat from capsizing, it won’t prevent it in all cases. Boats do sink after all – we want to know why this boat in particular would not.

Unfortunately, that’s all he has. His final point is the following:

Several engineering studies of Ark models have compared the design, as given in Scripture, to several other potential design ratios and plans. The most elaborate and extensive comparison was carried out by the Korea Institute of Ship and Ocean Engineering. As in each of the studies, the Ark’s design was shown to be optimum for its task and circumstances.

Morris doesn’t link to the Korean thing – he doesn’t give any references at all this month – but it’s something that I have seen before. The only parameters they seem to have looked at were the length-width-height ratio (see above), so if this is the “most elaborate and extensive” study then it’s just more evidence that they haven’t got much in this aspect. I’m less interested in how a scale model would preform than I am in how long it would take a full-sized Ark to leak, fill with water, and sink to the bottom. We have built wooden ships with similar dimensions to the Ark, but they have needed pumps.

Scientific research confirms what the Bible says. The whole Flood account in Scripture has “the ring of truth” to it. Its Author evidently intended us to believe it.

Given the lack of details in the story (among other things) I must dispute that interpretation. Now, if the bible had mentioned those pumps, and everything else that would have been required…

5 thoughts on “Sinking the Ark

  1. Don’t give them ideas. It’s only a matter of time before a Creationist claims either to have found a Bible verse that suggests there were pumps on the Ark (“For yea, that which cometh in shall surely be pumpeth out.) or to have found the ark, complete with pumps.

  2. John Morris’s “eruptions, earthquakes, asteroid impacts, colliding tsunamis, and underwater gravity slides” are just a diversion. His father set out to use the science of hydraulics to explain the ordering of the geologic record, he called it ‘hydrological sorting’; he failed and finished using his (own special version of) the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics to ‘prove’ that all systems decay to ‘disorder’. John has been watching too many disaster movies.

  3. I think one of the really major issues with the YEC paradigm is the use of catastrophism exclusively to explain everything. I recall reading Walt Brown’s “In the Beginning” and noting how he held that the crust of the earth blew off into space and peppered the moon and Mars with craters while also creating the entire asteroid belt. I can’t help but think: how on earth could an ark survive the crust of the earth blowing into space!?

    Thankfully, I think there are other orthodox answers to this problem which involve neither exclusive catastrophism (for all geology must now have catastrophism in the sense that it takes into account local floods and earthquakes and the like) nor the feared “compromise” word.

  4. You missed your need to correct John on his claim for the Ark’s capacity. Make it 25 feet shorter and ten feet wider, and you’ve added 13%. But 75 feet is better because you need a 120-ft. pine to make a 74-ft. beam with a dove-tail on each end, to tie the sides of the hull together. You’re still doing only a log barn, which proves a “tranquil” Flood, vs. the pseudoscience of True Belief. Oh, yes, please don’t let John get away with the nonsense that a long boat points naturally into any wind or waves.


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