Apostle Paul Is Lost at Sea!

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We now follow the Apostle Paul through a more eventful part of his voyage that will lead to him being lost at sea for an extended period. The ship he was in was probably much larger than those that were simply engaged in coastal trading. From the total number of souls on board (Acts 27:37), and the known fact that the Egyptian merchantmen were among the largest in the Mediterranean, we conclude that she was a vessel of considerable size.

The weather under which Paul was sailing was unfavorable from the first. They were "many days" before reaching Cnidus (Acts 27:7) and since the distance from Myra to this place is only a hundred and thirty miles, it is certain that they must have sailed slowly.

The Bible informs us that, when Cnidus was reached, Paul and company could not make good their course any farther, "the wind not suffering them" (Acts 27:7). At this point they lost the advantages of a favoring current and were met by all the force of the sea from the westward. It was judged the most prudent course, instead of contending with a head sea and contrary winds, to run down to the southward, and after rounding Cape Salmone, the eastern most point of Crete, to pursue the voyage under the lee of that island.

Knowing, as we do, the consequences which followed this step, we are inclined to blame it as imprudent, unless, indeed, it was absolutely necessary. For while the south coast of Crete was deficient in good harbors, that of Cnidus was excellent. It was well sheltered from the north-westerly winds, fully supplied with all kinds of stores, and in every way commodious, if needful, for wintering.

Ship in distress at sea
Ships in distress at sea
Ludolf Backhuysen, c. 1690

This excellent harbor, then, from choice or from necessity, was left behind by the seamen of the Alexandrian vessel. Instead of putting back there for shelter, they yielded to the expectation of being able to pursue their voyage under the lee of Crete, and ran down to Cape Salmone.

At a short distance to the east of Cape Matala is a roadstead, which was then called "Fair Havens," and still retains the same name, and which the voyagers successfully reached and came to anchor (Acts 27:8). There seems to have been no town at Fair Havens but there was a town near it called Lasaea, a circumstance which Luke mentions, not with any view of fixing the locality of the roadstead, but simply because the fact was impressed on his memory.

Fair Havens

If the vessel was detained long at the anchorage at Fair Havens, the sailors must have had frequent intercourse with Lasaea, and the soldiers too might obtain leave to visit it and possibly also the prisoners, each with a soldier chained to his arm.

We are not informed of the length of the lost time Paul's ship experienced at Fair Havens, but before it they left the place, a "considerable time" had elapsed since they had sailed from Caesarea (Acts 27:9); and they had arrived at that season of the year when it was considered imprudent to try the open sea. This is expressed by Luke by saying that "the fast was already past" a proverbial phrase among the Jews indicating the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29, 23:27). It is exactly the time when sailing the sea is pronounced to be dangerous by Greek and Roman writers.

It became, then, a very serious matter of consultation whether they should remain at Fair Havens for the winter or seek some better harbor. Apostle Paul's advice was very strongly given that they should remain where they were. He warned them that if they ventured to pursue their voyage, they would meet with violent weather, along with great injury to the ship and cargo lost, and much risk to the lives of those on board.

Paul addressed such arguments to his fellow-voyagers as would be likely to influence all. The master would naturally avoid what might endanger the ship, the owner (who was also on board) would be anxious for the cargo and to the centurion and to all, the risk of perilling their lives was a prospect that could not lightly be regarded.

That Apostle Paul was allowed to give advice at all implies that he was already held in a consideration very unusual for a prisoner in the custody of soldiers and the time came when his words held a commanding sway over the whole crew.

Sailing into danger

Yet, we cannot be surprised that, on this occasion, the centurion was more influenced by the words of the owner and the master than those of the Apostle. There could be no doubt that their present anchorage was "incommodious to winter in" (Acts 27:12), and the decision of "the majority" (but not Paul) was to leave it so soon as the weather should permit.

On the south coast of the island of Crete, somewhat farther to the west, was a harbor called Phoenix, with which it seems that some of the sailors were familiar with. They spoke of it in their conversation during the delay at Fair Havens, and they described it as "looking toward the south-west wind and the north-west wind." If they meant to recommend a harbor, into which these winds blew dead on shore, it would appear to have been unsailor-like advice.

With a sudden change of weather, the north-westerly wind ceasing, and a light air springing up from the south, the sanguine sailors "thought that their purpose was already accomplished" (Acts 27:13). Paul's ship weighed anchor and the vessel bore round Cape Matala. The distance to this point from Fair Havens is four or five miles. With a gentle southerly wind she would be able to weather the cape.

The change in the fortunes of these mariners came without a moment's warning. Soon after weathering Cape Matala, and while they were pursuing their course in full confidence, close by the coast of Crete (Acts 27:13), a violent wind came down from the mountains, and struck the ship, so that it was impossible for the helmsman to make her keep her course.

The character of the wind is described in terms expressive of the utmost violence. It came with all the appearance of a hurricane and the name "Euroclydon" (Acts 27:14) which was given to it by the sailors, indicates the commotion in the sea which presently resulted (Acts 27:14). The consequence was that they were compelled to scud before the gale.

The rough seas would ultimately push Paul's ship away from Crete. The storm was so violent "we were not able to bring her head into the wind, we let her go and were driven along" (Acts 27:15, HBFV). The strength of the winds forbade any attempt to control the ship's direction at sea. The only option was to let the ship travel wherever the winds would take her. Paul and those on board would spend roughly two weeks lost at sea until circumstances, beyond their control yet again, would force them to abandon ship.

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