The true, but incredible, story of a Book of Mormon pioneer
Brigham Young would have loved DeVere Baker. From the tabernacle pulpit President Young had once urged church members onto bigger and better things now they had found their place in the mountains. “There is too much of a sameness among this people,” he complained. “Away with stereotyped Latter-day Saints!” Although he was not born until 1915, DeVere Baker was one early member of the church who seemed determined to live as anything but a stereotyped Mormon.
Born to devout Mormon parents, DeVere had a fairly conventional upbringing in the small Utah town of Tremonton, north of Salt Lake City. However, while his childhood world lay hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean, he developed a fascination with the sea and with anything to do with ships. Unlike other boys his age, DeVere dreamed of sailing oceans much larger than the Great Salt Lake that lay just a few miles west of the family farm.
DeVere got his chance when World War ll arrived and he moved to California. Here his dreams took shape. To finance them and also feed his growing family, he developed a very successful shipyard that did work for the Navy. DeVere was serving as bishop of the Petaluma Ward when he suddenly became convinced that the plausibility and truthfulness of the Book of Mormon could be demonstrated by showing the world that a long ocean voyage was quite possible using the sea currents and a simple raft.
With the support of his wife Nola, DeVere sold virtually all their material possessions, including the family home, and set to work building what would be the first of five rafts named in honor of the prophet Lehi. This began an effort that would consume most of his life.
A lesser man may have omitted the failures and more embarrassing details when writing about his great quest, but in his 1959 book “The Raft Lehi IV: Sixty-nine Days Adrift on the Pacific Ocean,” Baker seemed determined to record almost everything for posterity. This included crew defections and falling over at a beach press conference after putting both his legs into one leg of his bathing costume. Launched amidst much fanfare in July 1954, the first Lehi wallowed off San Francisco harbor for six days before an SOS went out. Battered by bad weather and heavy seas the crew were eventually rescued by a banana freighter. The abandoned raft was reported drifting south over succeeding years.
This initial failure only spurred DeVere on; a year later Lehi 2 was ready to sail. This time, however, the departure became a fiasco when a young crew member launched the raft prematurely before anyone else, including Baker, had boarded. DeVere quickly commandeered another boat to give chase and once he regained control of the raft had to continue the journey. Another severe storm rolled in. After just three days the crew had to be rescued by the Coast Guard and the raft drifted southwards to a landfall in a Mexican lagoon.
DeVere’s failure to get more than a few miles offshore began to draw scorn from the press. The California newspapers loved a good story, but now they and the much more orthodox Mormon press in Utah turned their backs on these embarrassing developments, no longer reporting his efforts. The coastguard was tired of rescuing him.
Undaunted, DeVere locked himself away in a garage, emerging months later with Lehi 3. Lacking funds to complete the raft, what rolled out of the garage was simply a fragile plywood cabin without the actual raft beneath. This time, however, Baker successfully floated the strange craft, with his dog Tangaroa and one crewmember aboard, down the coast of California, eventually reaching Los Angeles. The feat brought renewed publicity and interest in his quest. A sponsor emerged, enabling DeVere to build the raft beneath the cabin, which then became the 24-foot long Lehi 4.
The Lehi 4 set sail July 5th, 1958 from Redondo Beach with four crew plus Tangaroa. Despite storms, heavy winds and shark encounters the raft stayed on track, easily demonstrating, as others have done, that one can live at sea off rainwater and fish for long periods. After a total of 69 days of sailing some 2100 miles across the northern Pacific, Baker and his small crew made landfall in Maui in the Hawaiian islands.
Thousands of locals applauded their safe arrival and the publicity was enormous. DeVere’s wife and their two daughters were flown out to Hawaii to join him. The successful voyage brought back favorable press coverage, lectures, TV interviews and an appearance on ‘This is Your Life.’ The BBC featured the tall and charismatic DeVere in a series about explorers under the by-line “Danger is my business.” His persistence and the success of the fourth voyage restored a measure of respectability to DeVere Baker. He felt vindicated and announced plans for more ambitious sailings and a film.
For a time it seemed that Baker would go on to achieve greater successes on the high seas. But, as time passed and the highly publicized feats of Thor Hyerdahl’s rafts overshadowed Devere’s success, sponsors failed to emerge. A public now more interested in post-war economic catch-up than the Book of Mormon’s truthfulness ensured that these expanded dreams remained elusive.
Nor were Baker’s dreams confined to the ocean. In a unique combination of science-fiction and Mormon theology, he authored several stories focused on a beautiful alien girl named ‘Quetara.’ A human scientist is kidnapped by her crew and falls in love with her, learning in the process how God came to be, billions of years previously, and how evolution allowed the endless variation of species to develop on each world in a grand, perpetual Cosmic experiment overseen and controlled by Deity. A subtext of this was ostensibly good latter-day doctrine – that countless other worlds, including, of course, the wise and alluring Quetara’s own planet, were inhabited by people just like us.
This was heady stuff for the nineteen forties, but it gave DeVere Baker a vehicle to present elements of his religion and to introduce the ultimate reason for all of his raft efforts. For, in fact, Baker’s plans foresaw much more than a sailing from his adopted California across the Pacific. Ultimately, he planned to literally recreate Lehi’s journey and sail from Arabia to America.
The stages of the journey, including the final twenty-plus-thousand mile crossing of the Pacific Ocean, were all carefully planned. Such a feat would force an unbelieving world to accept the Book of Mormon as God’s Word no less than the Bible. Baker hoped this would turn the tide of godless communism, which he saw as humanity’s greatest threat.
Twenty years ago, in December 1990, after a long period of poor health, DeVere Baker passed away in Provo, Utah. Despite sacrificing his money, health and most of his best years to a dream most Latter-day Saints would have total sympathy for, he died largely unknown and forgotten. Although he had earned his place in maritime history, his adventures were both out of print and out of favor. His dream of recreating Lehi’s ocean voyage remains unfinished, perhaps awaiting another adventurous spirit to rise to the challenge.
The Lehite voyage from Old to New World is, after all, by far the least understood aspect of the incredible saga that opens the Book of Mormon. Another decade and a half would pass before LDS researchers would begin to appreciate the pioneering contributions of DeVere Baker, someone who was anything but a stereotyped Mormon.
Warren P Aston