Paul's Last Journey Underway
After a period of unstated duration, the governor sent Paul to Rome. He committed Paul and some other prisoners to the care of a centurion named Julius, whose mission was to escort them all to their destination. Presumably for all in his custody, this was Rome. The reappearance of the pronoun "we" indicates that Paul was allowed to take Luke as a traveling companion. At this time he was also attended by Aristarchus of Macedonia.
From Caesarea, Paul's ship sailed northward about sixty-nine miles to the port of Sidon. Here Julius treated Paul with special courtesy, allowing him to go ashore and meet with Christian friends. After all, Paul was far from being a convicted criminal. He had been found innocent by the lower court in Caesarea, and he was going to Rome at his own request. So, the centurion did not seek to restrict his liberty. Perhaps the kindness shown by Julius throughout the journey shows that he was a sympathizer with the Christian faith, although not an actual believer.
The ship reembarked and sailed "under Cyprus." The meaning is that the ship sailed on the lee side, opposite the prevailing winds, which came from the southwest. In other words, the ship rounded the island on the northeast. Had it gone the other way, the winds would have hindered its progress. Then the ship drew in close to the coast of Asia Minor and used land breezes to make headway. After passing over the seas of Cilicia and Pamphylia, the ship at last reached Myra, well to the west. So far, the trip had taken perhaps ten to twenty days.
At Myra, Paul changed ships. The centurion located a ship bound for Italy and took his prisoners aboard. The ship belonged to the fleet that regularly supplied Rome with grain from Egypt, Rome's breadbasket. This one had just arrived from Alexandria. Soon they set sail again and moved slowly westward, taking many days before they came to Cnidus, on the Asian coast just north of Crete. The reason for the delay was a strong wind blowing against them from the northwest. This is the prevailing wind in the eastern Mediterranean during late summer. According to the ancient writer Pliny, it started in August and lasted forty days. To escape it, the ship turned south with the intention of skirting Crete on the lee side. But it managed to get around the point of Crete only with some difficulty, perhaps due to the many rocks in its path. After reaching safety, it moved easily along the southern coast of the island until it reached a friendly harbor, a small bay called Fair Havens, close to the city of Lasea. Beyond, the coast turned northward. Therefore, the ship could not continue until the contrary wind had subsided. So, the captain halted and waited for better conditions.
Paul's Warning Ignored
The conditions he hoped for never developed. Time crept onward until summer was gone. Any attempt to cross the Mediterranean after the coming of autumn was dangerous and foolhardy. Roman writers state that navigation on the open sea fell off after 14 September and came to a complete halt after 11 November. It did not resume until February. When the delay continued beyond the fast, Paul became concerned about proceeding with the voyage. The fast or feast that the account is referring to is the Day of Atonement. Its date varied from year to year, but fell generally in October. The date was 24 October if the year of the voyage was in fact AD 60.
No doubt under the direction of the Holy Spirit, Paul now advised the two men in command—the centurion and the captain, who was also the ship's owner—to go no further, but to remain where they were for the duration of the winter. He warned that if the voyage continued, the result would be disastrous. The ship would sustain ruinous damage, bringing great loss not only of cargo, but also of human lives.
Since the ship was in the service of the Roman government, the highest ranking officer on board was not the captain, but the centurion. It was therefore his decision whether to sail onward. But lacking the nautical experience of a professional sailor, he naturally attached great weight to the captain's judgment, and the captain assured him that it would be safer to winter somewhere else. At Fair Havens, they were exposed to a full semicircle of winds. If they could move but a short distance farther along the southern coast of the island, they would reach Phenice (actually, Phoenix), a harbor that was much better sheltered. A ring of land enclosed it on three sides, leaving the open side to face land farther east.
Although the time for good weather was slipping away, a soft breeze suddenly came up from the south, exactly the sort of wind that was good for making the transit to Phoenix. Therefore, the ship set sail and cruised smoothly along until it reached Cape Matala, just four miles away. Then, where the coastline veered northward, they turned northwest and began crossing open water toward their destination. It appeared that all was going well. The remaining distance they had to cover by a straight path was only about forty miles.
But no sooner had they gone beyond the possibility of safe retreat to Fair Havens than they were swallowed up by catastrophe. A tempestuous (literally, "typhonic") wind, known to ancient mariners as Euroclydon, descended upon them. It swept down from Mt. Ida, the imposing beshadowed peak rising eight thousand feet above the rim of Crete at a point only twenty miles from the voyagers' path. The name of the wind, which was a well-known recurring hazard to navigation directly southwest of the island, blends the names of the east wind and north wind. But from geographical data we can compute its angle of approach more precisely. The typhoon must have slammed them from E.N.E. (east-northeast). Smith estimates that it was north of east by 25°. The ancient sailing vessel, bearing no large sails besides the mainsail, was not equipped to deal with any extreme of wind or weather, and suddenly the peaceful voyage collapsed under great peril, becoming instead a frantic struggle to survive.
Joining Battle with the Mighty Sea
After Euroclydon caught the travelers in its mad rush, the captain's first response was to try turning the ship into the wind and holding it steady. But in this he failed. To obtain forward thrust from a headwind is possible only by setting the sail in such a manner that driving force is small compared with tipping force. Trying to face a typhoon was therefore a fool's option, leading to the ship capsizing. The captain's only alternative was to run ahead of the wind. The fierceness of the storm left no opportunity to make adjustments. The sailors could only let the ship scud along at breakneck speed while they held on tight.
About 23 miles to the south they came to a small island named Clauda. There they were able to slip around to the lee side and find some calmer water. Immediately they took all possible measures to make the ship more seaworthy in a storm.
First, they hauled in the small dinghy that had been trailing behind. Luke's use of the first person suggests that he himself helped to pull the boat aboard. His remark that it was hard work suggests that the boat was full of water, as it would naturally be under the circumstances.
Then the crew undergirded the ship with cables, here called "helps." Because an ancient ship carried only a single stout mast with a long yard at the top, it was poorly designed for strong winds. The swaying mast was a lever against the hull, applying forces sufficient to break it apart. Scholars have debated how the cables were employed, but Smith argues that they were most likely wrapped around the ship's middle at right angles to the length. The same technique has been used in modern times to hold together an endangered ship. Other techniques have been less common because they are less effective.
Finally, "fearing lest they should fall into the quicksands," they "strake sail." A better translation of verse 17 shows clearly what peril the ship faced and what expedient the captain adopted. "Quicksands" is the place name Syrtis, which referred to shallow sandbars just off the African coast. "Strake sail" should be rendered "lowered the gear." Luke is informing us of a new danger on the horizon. If the captain allowed the ship to continue racing before the wind in a southwesterly direction, it would wreck on sandbars and shoals a few hundred miles to the south. To save the ship, the captain ordered all superfluous gear in the top to be lowered, likely including the yard and mainsail. With these on deck, the ship was easier to manage in a heavy wind. But he did not let the ship drift without sail, or it would still have gone straight to Africa, although at a slower pace. So, he must have set a storm sail or sails that would carry the ship westward on a starboard tack (that is, with the wind on the right side). Besides the mainsail, many ancient ships owned one or more lesser sails. The most common was a foresail mounted on a forward leaning mast in the bow. Its purpose was to assist steering. Later in his account of the beleaguered ship carrying the apostles, Luke mentions that it retained a sail named artemon (v. 40), which was likely a foresail. Perhaps this was also the storm sail used to maintain control of the ship's direction.
For three days a great wind drove the ship along. On the second, they lightened the ship by jettisoning some of the cargo. It is likely that on an Alexandrian ship headed for Rome, the cargo was mainly bales of grain (v. 38). On the third day, they cast overboard some of the tackling. The wording "with our own hands" leaves no doubt that Luke, and possibly Paul as well, did his share of the work. The need for the assistance of both passengers and crew suggests that what they discarded was the yard. It was a huge beam that, when brought down, spread over much of the deck. Getting rid of heavy gear was critically necessary if water had already seeped into the hull, causing the ship to ride lower in the water.
The storm raged on day after day. After many days with no sun or stars visible in the shrouded sky, it appeared that the ship would most certainly come to a tragic end and be remembered as lost at sea.
Words of Hope
For a long while Paul said nothing to the whole company. They rejected his counsel earlier, so he waited to speak again until events proved him right. Now that their lives were threatened, he judged that they would listen to him with greater respect. So, he stood before the soldiers, passengers, and crew and brought them a new message from God. He began by saying that they should have heeded his warning. The disaster he predicted had come to pass. In telling them, "I told you so," he was not seeking to score a point at their expense. He was not smug in attitude, and his goal was not recrimination. Rather, he was solemnly exhorting them to accept his authority as a man of God.
Yet he now had a message of hope. An angel had appeared to him during the night and promised that they would finish the voyage without casualties. The ship would be wrecked, but every soul would escape alive. The angel explained that God would not allow the storm to keep Paul from appearing before Caesar. But His loving intervention would not be limited to saving Paul’s life. He would also save the lives of Paul's fellow travelers. The angel said that God had given all these people to Paul. Evidently, he meant both that they would survive and that they would come to faith in God through Paul's witness. But even though a great tragedy would be averted, they still faced hardship. In consequence of the ship being wrecked, they would be cast upon an island.
After fourteen days, the ship was riding westward "across" (not "up and down") the Adriatic Sea. The ancients considered the sea to extend well south into the Mediterranean. About midnight, the sailors discovered that they were approaching land. They could not see in the darkness, so the first indication of a shore ahead was doubtless the sound of breakers. Immediately they took a sounding and measured twenty fathoms (120 feet, the Greek word for fathom signifying six feet). A short while later, they took another sounding and measured fifteen fathoms (ninety feet). In the meantime, they had busied themselves with preparations to anchor the ship, for they feared being driven onto rocks. As soon as they were ready, they cast off four anchors from the stern (the rear). Normally, boats are anchored from the bow, but on this occasion the captain wished to keep the prow forward in the gale.
The sailors could not determine where they were, but in fact they had entered a bay on the northeast side of the Island of Malta, which runs northwest to southeast. The inlet is known today as St. Paul's Bay. On their left side, they had just passed the point of Kura, a narrow strip jutting out from the mainland. From there came the sound of breakers. Now when they cast anchors, they were standing about a quarter mile from shore. Ringing the end of the bay was a wall of rock.
But it was still dark, and they could not assess their situation. When Luke says, they "wished for the day," he conveys the great anxiety of everyone on board. The ship was so weakened that it might sink before day arrived, or they might discover in the morning that the shore afforded no place to land. The crew talked secretly together and decided that their best chance of survival was to abandon ship without delay. But the only means of escape was the dinghy taken aboard earlier, which was large enough for the crew only. The crew therefore lowered it and prepared to get in, under the ruse that they were going to let out anchors from the bow. The soldiers believed them at first, but Paul perceived the crew's plan and alerted the centurion, warning him that if the crew escaped, everyone else on board would be lost. At the centurion's orders, the soldiers rushed to the side while the boat was still empty and cut its ropes so that it fell away. What they did seems like an impulsive reaction. It would have been more prudent to reserve the boat for possible use later.
More Timely Advice
Before daybreak, Paul stood up again before the whole company and gave last-minute directions, in anticipation of the critical moment when they would all have to move quickly to save their lives. By now, the soundness of his counsel had won everyone's respect, and they were willing to do his bidding. He instructed them all to take food. For the duration of the storm they had abstained. The wording does not mean that they had taken no food, but that they had not eaten normally. They had been too busy or too seasick or too overwhelmed to organize regular meals. As a result, through lack of food, they were all in a weakened condition. Paul's purpose in urging them to eat was no doubt to make them stronger for the great physical exertion that might soon be required. Lest anyone had succumbed to a sense of despair that would keep him from eating, he used a vivid figure of speech to assure them again that they had nothing to fear. Their preservation would be so complete that not one hair would fall from anyone's head. He then took nourishment for himself as an example for the rest. He broke bread, thanked God for it, and partook of it in their presence. The others were greatly cheered by his words and ate bread also.
We now learn that the ship’s company was somewhat larger than a modern reader might assume. No less than 276 people were on board. Luke's main purpose in providing this information was likely to help us appreciate how miraculous their deliverance was. Yet we suspect that he also wanted us to understand that the crew conducted a head count right before the last meal. They needed to know the total number to be fed before they divided the rations still available. Care was required so that everyone would receive a portion, however small. Perhaps another reason for the head count was to assist the crew later when they had to determine whether everyone had come safely to land.
The last preparation for leaving was to throw everything loose or detachable overboard, including all the remaining food, so that the ship would ride as high as possible in the water. As a result, it would run aground nearer the shore.
At the first light of day, every eye stared anxiously at the dimness ahead. Soon it was obvious that they had come to a place wholly unfamiliar to captain and crew. The shore did not appear to offer any refuge for a foundering ship. Much of it was rocky. Yet, to their relief, as they scanned the ground enclosing the bay, they spotted a creek with a sandy beach. Judging that it might be a good place to land, the crew prepared to move the ship inward. First, they slipped the anchors. "Taken up" means "cut away." In other words, they cast off the anchors because they added weight to the ship. Also, they loosed the "rudder bands." These were two large paddles, one emerging from each side of the stern, used for steering. Previously, they had been lashed in place to prevent uncontrolled movements that might hinder a straight course. Now they were unlashed to help direct the ship toward a safe landing. Lastly, the crew hoisted a small sail to catch the wind. It was a foresail, not the mainsail, which, along with the yard, had been jettisoned many days earlier. Then after every precaution within their power, they set off for shore.
The wind carried them until they entered water near where two seas met. Luke is probably remembering that as they approached the creek, a channel suddenly appeared to starboard, showing open sea beyond. It divided the mainland from a small island on the north edge of the bay.
Before the ship came fully to the beach, however, it ran aground, the forepart sticking fast in the mud. The hinder part, remaining free, was subject to the violent agitation of the waves, which perhaps repeatedly lifted and dropped it as if it were a hammer on the bottom. It therefore began to break apart. If any were to survive the shipwreck, they had to flee quickly. But escape was difficult, because the water was still not shallow enough to permit wading to land.
The centurion now had to decide how to handle the prisoners. Remember that there were others, perhaps many others, besides Paul (v. 1). The soldiers, seeing that the prisoners could not be removed under guard, advised Julius that the best course was to kill them. They knew that they would be held responsible if any ran away after gaining dry ground; also, that the Roman military command dealt severely with failure in guard duty. As we have discussed elsewhere, a soldier who allowed a prisoner in his charge to escape was severely punished. If the escapee had been accused or convicted of a capital crime, the negligent soldier was executed, and the method of execution might be gruesome. He might be burned alive. Therefore, the proposal to kill the prisoners would have merited consideration under other circumstances. But the centurion did not support it. He saw the immense injustice in killing Paul, a man whose counsel served them well, a man with indisputable credentials as a mouthpiece for God, and, of course, an innocent man. The centurion therefore ruled that all the prisoners should be given a chance to flee ashore.
By his orders, the first to forsake the ship were all who could swim. Then came all the rest, keeping themselves afloat by hanging onto wooden pieces of the disintegrating ship. After everyone passed from rough water to dry beach, it was found that nobody was missing. As Paul predicted, every life had been saved.