New Testament Seamanship

shipwreck-st-paulA letter was written to a newspaper many years ago:

Sir, – The story is told of an Exmouth pilot listening in church for the first time to the story of the shipwreck of St. Paul. The Reader ended dramatically at the verse ‘And fearing lest we should have fallen upon rocks, they cast four anchors out of the stern and wished for the day.’

In utter amazement at such seamanship the pilot was heard to mutter: ‘The damn vools, they’ll ev the backside of ‘er out.’

Yours faithfully,


Chaplain’s House, Livery Dole, Exeter, April 3

This shipwreck is described in Acts 27 to 28, and the detail given by the ever-meticulous St Luke is quite amazing.

First of all, what do we know about Roman ships? I have found this article. Prisoners were certainly transported in cargo ships. They, and the Empire’s warships, were sturdy vessels. The basis of all ships until the mid nineteenth century was already established: the forecastle or fo’c’sle, the main midships deck and the poop reserved to the officers and the helmsman. Steering was by a large oar coming out of one side of the stern. They were rowed when sailing was impossible due to an unfavourable wind.

The article says:

Anchors and a ship’s boat formed part of the normal equipment, and the whole ship appears to have been well furnished. A single square sail was generally used for propulsion, although in the merchantmen an additional square sail was used on a forwardly projecting fore mast something like a bowsprit, and occasionally a triangular, or “raffee,” topsail hoisted above the main sail.

We also have a fine website – Apostle Paul’s Shipwreck, an Historical Examination of Acts 27 and 28.

Sailing from what is now the western coast of Israel and Lebanon, the ship was bound for Italy. Clearly, Paul was not even a member of the crew but a prisoner. The course was to be a coastal one, since in those days, navigation by the sun and stars was far from being an exact science. Under Cyprus? This I would interpret as being to the lee of the island. Ships in the days of the Roman Empire were square rigged and could not sail upwind. They took down the sails and rowed. They changed ships at Myra in present-day Turkey. They found a passage which would take them to Italy. Paul foretold that they would have a rough time.

They were off Crete when the wind called the Euroclydon hit them. The Mediterranean is a nasty sea, and winds can come from anywhere without warning. In any other sea, there are always signs of bad weather, even if you don’t have scientific forecasts. In that sea, the winds come from everywhere and whip up maelstroms that go in every direction. It is so unpredictable.

Since the ship could not sail upwind, we let her drive – what we would call a run or a full reach. They feared running aground. They strake sail, and so were driven – they dropped the sails and certainly lost steerage. The anchors could have only been for this purpose – see below.

And the third day we cast out with our own hands the tackling of the ship. This seems a little obscure. Perhaps it means that the passengers and prisoners joined the crew to help, probably by rowing since the sails were down.  They sounded their depth with weighted ropes and found the water getting shallow.

Then we get the astounding verse – Then fearing lest we should have fallen upon rocks, they cast four anchors out of the stern, and wished for the day. The Roman ship had a sharp stern and this would have helped to absorb the shock of the waves. This is also the design basis of the Hillyard classic yacht. The sharp stern has its advantages and disadvantages. The anchors must have been used in such a way as to drag along the sea bed and not stop the vessel completely. The waves would cause the square stern of a modern boat to be ripped away, which caused the reaction of the pilot mentioned in the letter to the newspaper. This effect, when using a sea anchor (which they wouldn’t have had) is absorbed by the use of heavy-duty elastic or springs. An anchor (or sea anchor) can be used from the bow or one side of the bow to keep the vessel hove-to and slightly off the waves. Many yachts in bad conditions use this technique and avoid being knocked down and capsized. The drogue prevents broaching. It is the only way to heave-to and keep steerage when all the sails are down and you have no engine. Stern anchoring is risky as this video explains. The boat can get “pooped” by a cresting wave. However, stern anchoring is often used by fishing boats with some kind of absorbing device.

Here is a lecture on the use of the sea anchor and surviving storms.

The crew were about to abandon ship, but Paul told them to stay. Rule number one is to stay with your boat unless it’s going to sink. It must have been quite big, as the number of those on board is given as two hundred and seventy-six. Rudder bands – they knew the technique of lashing the helm. At last, they found a lee shore and hoisted the sail. The ship ran aground and broke up, and was abandoned.

After their time of survival on land, they found another ship, this time from Alexandria and stayed in Syracuse for three days. The passage speaks of fetching a compass. Now this is interesting, because the magnetic compass was first invented as a device for divination as early as the Chinese Han Dynasty (since about 206 BC). Its use in Europe was first recorded in around 1187 to 1202. Were the Romans using this magnetic compass, or did they have some other device by this name? It appears to have been unknown outside China at this time.

This New Testament account gives us quite a lot of information about sailing in those days, but many aspects are obscure. We find that the techniques of handling a ship were not very much different from anything up to the mid nineteenth century.

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