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Voyage To Rome

A story of St. Paul

Setting off

Paul was committed to appearing before Caesar. He seems to have viewed this prospect with considerably more confidence than he had the trials and inquiries to which he had been subjected in Judea. At this early date there was no official Roman persecution of Christianity. The opposition came from the Jewish ecclesiastical hierarchy. Every Roman official having anything to do with the case, Lysias, Felix and Festus, besides the Jewish king Agrippa, had given his verdict for Paul's innocence. He evidently had sufficient confidence in the impartiality of Roman justice to expect a formal acquittal before the tribunal of Caesar. Whereas a matter of two years previously he came to Jerusalem convinced that not only bonds and imprisonment, but probably death, awaited him there. He now cherished a reasonable expectation that he would soon be embarking upon a new phase of evangelistic activity. It had long been his ambition to visit Rome and preach the Gospel in the world's capital city. Now it seemed that his wish was to be fulfilled.

It was probably a comparatively cheerful party that stood on the deck of the little coasting vessel making ready to cast off from the jetty at Caesarea. Paul himself was under guard, with a number of other prisoners also consigned to Rome, but Julius, the centurion in charge, appears to have been a kindly and considerate man and allowed Paul to associate with his friends, Luke and Aristarchus. These two had determined to go to Rome with him and were most likely on the boat as fare-paying passengers. Luke may have had with him his manuscript of the major portion of the Book of Acts, or at least the notes and documents on which the Book was to be based. It does not come readily to the mind that in the ensuing shipwreck this invaluable literary work might easily have been lost. Through all the vicissitudes of that experience the "beloved physician" must have been at pains to preserve his work intact, that he might complete it during the ensuing two years spent with the Apostle at Rome.

The "little ship of Adramyttium", a port of Mysia not far from Troas in Asia, was built only for close inshore sailing. Julius could expect to get part of the way to Rome by its means, but when it reached the ports of Asia he would look for a larger ship bound directly for the Imperial City. The first port of call was Sidon, sixty miles or so along the coast, and this was reached after one day's sailing. Whilst cargo was being loaded and unloaded Julius gave Paul leave to visit his friends in the town. One can imagine the hurried coming together of the believers and the short session of fellowship and exhortation before the three travellers had to rejoin their ship. From Sidon the normal route lay across the sea south of Cyprus to the port of Myra (modern Finike) in Lycia but at this point rumblings of the approaching storm became evident. "We sailed under Cyprus, because the winds were contrary." The Etesian winds, which blow with gale force from the north-west during the summer months, should by now, late August, have given place to a soft south wind which the shipmaster would be relying on to take him home to Asia without trouble, but had failed to do so. So he had to tack round the north side of Cyprus under the shelter of the high mountains of the Asiatic mainland in order to escape the full force of the adverse wind and so attain his objective.

Travel by Corn Ship

Myra was a kind of maritime interchange point where vessels plying between Judea and Asia made contact with those sailing between Egypt, Greece and Rome. Julius was probably not surprised to find, riding at anchor in the harbour, one of the giant Egyptian corn ships whose function was the transport of wheat and barley to Rome, for Egypt was the principal source of Rome's food supply in those days. In the name of the Emperor, Julius demanded, and obtained, passage for his soldiers and prisoners. He may very well have used his good offices to include Luke and Aristarchus also. At any rate, any seagoing captain would accept passengers for a suitable consideration so that without doubt the Apostle's two companions experienced no difficulty in getting accommodated.

Several detailed descriptions of Alexandrian corn ships exist in the works of ancient Roman writers and it is possible to visualise the vessel which was involved in the shipwreck. Built especially for the transport of wheat, they were about three hundred feet long and could carry something like fifteen hundred tons of cargo. They were, of course, sailing ships, having one enormously strong mast bearing a gigantic sail carried on long cross spars, and usually two lesser masts with smaller sails for use generally in stormy weather, when it was dangerous to use the mainsail. In order to keep the ship moving in times of calm or to manoeuvre her in difficult positions, rowers handling huge oars, four to six men to an oar, were often included. Steering was not by rudder as in modern ships, but by two large paddles, one on each side of the stern. Under full sail and a fair wind the vessel could make about seven knots, equal to eight miles an hour. When in the open sea they sailed by day and night, steering by the sun and the stars; in the vicinity of land it was usual to anchor at night for safety. Under these conditions the run from Egypt to Rome could be accomplished in about a fortnight. A great many ships were engaged in the trade and when, as sometimes happened, during seasons of prolonged stormy weather the arrival of the ships was delayed for a protracted period, Rome suffered famine conditions.

So Paul found himself on the second stage of his journey to Rome. At the outset there were difficulties in consequence of the persistent adverse wind. "And when we had sailed slowly many days, and scarce were come over against Cnidus, the wind not suffering us, we sailed under Crete, over against Salmone." Leaving Myra, the vessel coasted close to the land, the high mountains of the Asian hinterland shielding it from the north-west wind which was still blowing with unmitigated force. From Myra to Cnidus is about a hundred and fifty miles, no more than a two day cruise with a good wind, but under these circumstances, constantly veering and tacking against the head wind, they "sailed slowly many days". At Cnidus, where the coast of Asia turns sharply northward, the vessel encountered the full force of the wind blowing down from the Aegean Sea, so that the captain had no choice but to turn and run before it in a more or less southerly direction towards the island of Crete, passing the eastern extremity and immediately running under its southern coast to secure the same kind of shelter he had just lost on leaving Asia. The ship, protected from the wind by high cliffs, could now veer and tack its way along the coast of Crete and make some progress.

Facing Winter

After about a hundred miles of this they reached the port of Fair Havens—no longer existing—and it was here that the captain began seriously to consider whether he should put off the rest of the voyage until the following spring. It was customary to treat the period October to March as a "close season" for sailing; ships caught in mid-voyage would "lie up" at a convenient port and wait until the passing of winter made the seas safer for navigation. Verse 9 indicates that this time had been reached; "now when much time was spent, and when sailing was now dangerous, because the fast was already past..." The "fast" referred to is the Day of Atonement, 24th September in that year, roughly at the end of the sailing season. The unusual persistence of the north-west Etesian gale, which should have subsided a month before, justified the captain's doubt as to the wisdom of proceeding.

This is where Paul comes to the fore-front, a position he maintains until the end of the story. He advised staying where they were; he believed there was grave risk of damage and loss if the voyage continued. Paul could speak with some authority; he was no stranger to sea travel. During the course of his missionary journeys he had crossed and re-crossed these same waters a number of times and he had known storm and shipwreck before. To that might be added the probably not inconsiderable maritime experience of Luke. It is not likely that there was any Divine revelation to either of them in this matter; more likely that their combined judgment was adverse to proceeding. It seems that something like a vote was taken and the majority thought was against them. The wisdom of staying in Crete for the winter was conceded, but a strong body of opinion advocated taking a minor risk and pushing on another thirty-four miles to Phenice (modern Lutro) which had a better harbour and, from the point of view of shore amenities and attractions, was preferable to the rather third-class port of Fair Havens. The vessel had a total complement, crew, passengers, soldiers and prisoners, of two hundred and seventy-six and most of them would be greatly dissatisfied if there was not enough amusement and excitement on shore to keep them occupied. As if to justify the decision to make the move, at long last the persistent northwest wind dropped, a full month late, and was replaced by the usual seasonal south wind which could normally be relied upon to continue for a considerable period. With alacrity and no doubt some enthusiasm the anchors were hauled in, the mainsail spread, and the vessel began to scud along the Cretan coast in good style. Past difficulties and delays were forgotten; thoughts were centred on the more cheerful prospect of a few months' respite from the daily round amid the pleasures and attractions of Phenice while the ship lay at anchor waiting for springtime.


Their rejoicing was premature. Before they had reached the safety of Phenice a new and more serious danger presented itself. Without warning, a raging hurricane, the dreaded "Levanter", as it is called nowadays, swept down from the mountains of Syria and whipped the sea into fury. The Levanter is a wind of gale force originating over Syria and blowing westwards across the sea; when such a gale meets the south wind from the African coast the result is a cyclonic storm, a typhoon. (The word itself is derived from "Typhon", the storm-demon of Greek mythology. "Tempestuous" in v.14 is "typhoon" in the Greek). Caught in the grip of this storm the mariners were helpless. To make Phenice was out of the question; the gale was driving the ship in a south-westerly direction away from all land and there was little or nothing they could do about it. Their entire attention had to be given to keeping the ship afloat and in front of the wind to avoid the danger of capsizing.

Twenty-three miles from the mainland of Crete lies the rocky islet of Gozzo, known in ancient times as Cauda. The account says "when the ship was caught, and could not bear up into the wind, we let her drive; and running under a certain island which is called Cauda, we had much ado to come by the boat, which when they had taken up, they used helps, undergirding the ship; and fearing lest they should fall into the quicksands, struck sail, and so were driven". All of which is quite unintelligible until the nautical expressions are sorted out and the map consulted. The storm struck the ship somewhere between Fair Havens and Phenice. For twenty-three miles she pounded along with her huge mainsail bellied out to full capacity by the raging wind, her mainmast straining and threatening to snap under the tremendous pressure, the ship's timbers creaking and groaning as if to give way. Her south-westerly course, dictated by the wind, brought them within a few hours and by good fortune within sight of the little islet. This was probably a bit of good seamanship. The ship was brought round to the "lee" side of the island, protected by its shelter from the full force of the gale. This is what Luke means by "running under a certain Island.." With this temporary respite they first took in the boat. Ancient ships always had in tow behind them a small boat; in a storm there was danger that it might be swept away and so they took it up on board and made it secure. Next "they used helps, undergirding the ship", an ancient practice known as "trapping", consisting of passing strong ropes completely round the hull to hold the timbers together against the hammering action of the heavy seas. The quicksands here mentioned are those known as the Greater Syrtis, off the North African coast near Cyrenaica, some two hundred miles southwest of Crete. The sailors knew that with the wind in its present quarter they stood in grave danger of being blown directly on the sands, so they "struck sail". This is a term implying that they lowered the mainsail and set the smaller storm sails in such fashion that the vessel no longer ran directly before the wind. This allowed her to drift westerly several points out of the wind and they hoped to pass well to the north of the quicksand and so avoid the danger.

The policy was one of despair, for they were thereby committed to drifting, at the mercy of the elements, without any guarantee of reaching land before the vessel succumbed to the battering of the waves and foundered with all on board. The storm continued and now black despair settled on the ship's company. "When neither sun nor stars in many days appeared, and no small tempest lay upon us, all hope that we should be saved was taken away" (v.20). The compass was unknown in those days; ancient ships set their course by the sun in the daytime and the stars at night. The sky was obscured by heavy clouds and the mariners had no idea where they were. They might be hundreds of miles from land in the open sea; they might be dangerously close to unknown reefs or rocks. Their vessel was waterlogged and liable to go to pieces at any moment; they gave up hope and waited for the end.

That night Paul saw a vision; the angel of the Lord appeared to him with a message of assurance. "Fear not, Paul" he said "thou must be brought before Caesar; and, lo, God hath given thee all them that sail with thee" (v.23). Such visions were no new experience to the Apostle; several instances are recorded in the New Testament and it does seem as though the Spirit-filled mind of Paul was peculiarly receptive to other-worldly revelations, particularly at times of stress such as this. There was evidently much more in the message than is recorded, for in the morning Paul recounted his experience to the entire company, exhorting them to be of good cheer, for that although the ship must be lost, they themselves would be saved, cast upon a certain island. The extent to which he was believed is debatable, but in quiet certainty Paul reiterated "I believe God, that it shall be even as it was told me."


At midnight on the fourteenth day since leaving Crete, there was a sudden excitement on deck. The lookout believed he had sighted land! Perhaps a light, perhaps the darker outline of a mountainous mass silhouetted against the darkness of the night sky with its storm clouds. Eager to clutch at any straw, the sailors dropped their sounding line and found the sea-bottom at twenty fathoms ‑ a hundred and twenty feet (orguias ‑ practically the same as the English fathom). That at least confirmed they were not far from land. The vessel drifted a little farther and they tried again; this time the depth was only ninety feet. They were evidently approaching a shore, but on what coast and of what nature they had no idea. "Fearing lest we should have fallen upon rocks" they dropped four anchors to hold the ship stationary "and" says Luke rather quaintly "wished for the day".

Again Paul took the lead; throughout the voyage he was the one most in command of the situation. He reminded them that for fourteen days they had eaten virtually nothing, in their labours and anxiety they had ignored the necessities of life. He recommended that now there was prospect of escape they would be wise to build their strength; there was no knowing what may be demanded of them in the next few hours. Assuring them "there shall not an hair fall from the head of any one of you", and taking bread, he solemnly gave thanks to God and began to eat. Heartened by his example, the whole company followed suit. The knowledge that, for the moment at least, they were at anchor not far from some kind of land, and the example of Paul's own confidence and doubtless that of his companions, changed despair into hope. "Then were they all of good cheer." The storm continued; the ship was still taking in water and in danger of foundering even as she rode at anchor, so that after the meal "they lightened the ship and cast the wheat into the sea" (v.38). This wheat was, of course, the cargo. There must have been at least a thousand tons of grain in the vessel. It is not necessary to suppose that all of it was jettisoned, but a considerable quantity, enough to remove the immediate danger, went overboard, and by that time it was daylight and the most experienced among the crew began to scan the coastline in an endeavour to judge where they were.

No one recognised the land. As they looked across the heaving waters they did see what appeared to be a wide creek with a flat beach and the possibility of running head-on into that beach and so getting to land became the focal point of discussion. The wind would be behind them and if the mainsail could be raised a bit and the vessel get some way on, their manoeuvre might succeed.

Unknown to them at the time, they were at the north-eastern tip of Malta, having drifted nearly five hundred miles during those fourteen days. Luke's description of the place is so precise that the exact spot has been identified and is now known as St. Paul's Bay, seven miles from the Maltese capital, Valetta. The "certain creek" which the sailors perceived, although it looked like a creek from the position of their vessel, is not really a creek at all. A small island now called Salmonetta is separated from the mainland by a channel only a hundred yards wide; strong currents enter this channel from both sides of Salmonetta and meet in the middle, creating a tumultuous mass of rough water. This is the place described in v 41 as "a place where two seas met", a fine example of St. Luke's accuracy of description. Confident that their plan was workable, the crew raised up the anchors and "loosed the rudder bands" (v.40). During the long period of drifting the two steering paddles had been lifted out of the sea and lashed to the deck for safety. They were needed now for this operation and consequently were unloosed and lowered into the sea, with strong men ready to manipulate them as necessary. The great mainsail was slowly hoisted, and as the still fierce wind filled it the ship began to move forward towards the shore.

Too late, the steersmen, bearing heavily upon their paddles, realised the true nature of what they had taken for an inland creek. The other end of the channel came into view, and beyond it, the open sea on the other side of Salmonetta. Before anything could be done they were in the middle of the maelstrom formed by the opposing currents meeting head-on. Beneath this meeting-point of the waters there is an extensive mud-bank. Luke says that "the ship ran aground, and the forepart stuck fast and remained unmoveable, but the hinder part was broken with the violence of the waves" (v 41). It was this mud-bank in the middle of the channel upon which the ship had stranded; the bows were held firm but the stern, still floating, began to be battered to pieces. A vessel three hundred feet long could easily break in two in such circumstances and that is what appears to have happened in this case.

They were only fifty yards from land. The water was rough but the distance not great. Those who could swim threw themselves into the sea and got to the muddy shelving beach without mishap. The remainder followed them, riding over the breakers on planks or anything that would carry them. "And so it came to pass" the narrative concludes, that, just as Paul had foretold, "they all escaped safe to land".

(To be continued)


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