The Apostle Paul’s Shipwreck – Part I

“The situation of the ship on the fifteenth morning” painted by H. Smartly, engraved by H. Adlard.
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Evidence and Paul’s Journeys

Following his last great missionary journey, the Apostle Paul returns to Jerusalem. There he is arrested and sent to the Roman provincial capital of Caesarea, where he is tried and eventually transported as a prisoner to Rome, to appear before the emperor’s court.

The account in the Acts of the Apostles of Paul’s voyage to Rome, and his shipwreck en route, is supported by a wealth of historical detail.  No other passage in the New Testament has such a striking evidential confirmation of its historical accuracy.  Not only are the political, social, and legal details of the voyage and shipwreck striking in their accuracy, but also the meteorological and nautical details.

Chapter Five of the book Evidence and Paul’s Journeys is titled “Paul’s Voyage to Rome and Shipwreck” and is reproduced in full below. 


The Augustan Cohort (Acts 27.1-.2)

Paul, along with some other prisoners, is handed over to a Centurion of the Augustan Cohort. Boarding ship at Caesarea, Paul is accompanied by two companions: Aristarchus and the author of Acts.

Ancient inscriptions attest to the existence of an auxiliary legion called the “Augustan Cohort” in Palestine during the first century. However, historical evidence suggests that the duty of escorting prisoners was reserved to legionary centurions alone.

Thus a centurion from an auxiliary legion could not have been Paul’s escort. It is possible that Luke’s reference is not to the auxiliary legion located in Palestine. The phrase “Augustan Cohort” simply means “the troop of the emperor.” He may be referring to a group of Centurions on detached service, one of whose responsibilities was to escort prisoners. Such units existed in the second century, though there is no evidence for them in the first century. In short, there is not enough evidence to either confirm or deny Luke’s reference to the “Augustan Cohort.” (1)

Luke states that he and Aristarchus accompanied Paul on the voyage. How likely is it that a prisoner, even if he were a Roman citizen, would have been permitted to take friends with him to Rome? The only other evidence on this question is found in a letter written by Pliny, who was the Roman governor of Bithynia fifty years after Paul’s voyage. He tells of a prisoner sent to Rome who was permitted to take his slaves with him. It should be noted that Paul’s ship was a public conveyance and that other passengers were aboard. So it is possible that Luke and Aristarchus were passengers as well. (2)

Caesarea to Myra (Acts 27.3-.5)

Leaving Caesarea, the ship arrives in Sidon the next day. After leaving Sidon, the prevailing winds force them to pass east and north of Cyprus on their way west to Myra.

The distance between Caesarea and Sidon is 67 land miles, and to travel that distance in a single day requires a leading wind. The prevailing wind at that time of year (Acts 27.9 reveals that it was early fall) was from the west. This would have allowed them to cover the distance in the time stated

Luke records that the prevailing wind forced the ship to pass east and north of the island of Cyprus. Both meteorological and nautical evidence confirm this statement. Given the prevailing west wind, they would have had to pass north of the island to continue west.

It was only after their vessel reached the Cilician coast that they could make headway against the wind. At that point, they would be aided by currents running along the coast, as well as by land breezes emanating from the Turkish land mass. Other ancient sources confirm that ships were forced to this route when the wind was from the west. The Greek writer Lucian records that it took his ship nine days to sail from Sidon to Myra by this route. (3)

The Egyptian Grain Ship (Acts 27.6)

Landing at Myra, the Centurion transfers Paul and the other prisoners to an Alexandrian grain ship bound for Rome.

Myra was a major port in the eastern empire. It lay directly north of Alexandria, Egypt, on the far side of the Mediterranean. An Egyptian ship sailing for Rome would have to sail north to Myra at this time of year, because it was impossible to sail directly northwest to Rome. The prevailing wind from the west forced ships sailing from Egypt to Rome to follow this indirect route.

This presents us with a series of interesting evidential coincidences. The same westerly wind that accounted for the shortness of Paul’s trip to Sidon is the wind that required his ship to sail north of Cyprus, and is also the wind that brought the Egyptian ship to Myra. All three of these events confirm the direction of the prevailing wind.

 Luke, in Acts 27.1, states that the ship they boarded in Caesarea was sailing for ports along the coast of the province of Asia. In other words, the ship was not bound for Rome, but was making ports of call along the southern coast of what today is Turkey. The harbor at Myra was one of the great trans-shipping ports of the ancient Mediterranean. Thus it makes sense that Paul and the others would leave the coastal vessel there and board the larger grain ship for the final leg of the voyage to Rome. (4)

From Myra to Crete (Acts 27.7-.8)

The Egyptian grain ship leaves Myra, then sails slowly westward for several days. Finally, they stand off the town of Cnidus, having reached that point only with the greatest difficulty. Because the wind is against them, the ship’s captain decides to sail southwest, in order to pass to the south of the island of Crete. After passing Cape Salome on the eastern end of the island, they make their way along the southern coast. It is with difficulty that they reach the harbor called Fair Havens.

The distance from Myra to Cnidus is 130 land miles. The ship could have covered that distance in a single day with a favoring wind. Luke says that it took several days, which again confirms that the prevailing wind was against them. In sailing west to Cnidus, they were leaving the shelter of the Turkish land mass.

Finding it impossible to proceed any farther west at Cnidus, the ship turned to the southwest to get behind Crete. This change in course is an important piece of evidence. It tells us that the wind had shifted, though Luke does not actually say that this occurred. The wind must now have been blowing from the northwest, since if it had been blowing from the west they could have crossed the Aegean Sea north of Crete. More importantly, a westerly wind would have made it impossible for them to sail to the southwest to get behind Crete.

Luke does not mention this change of wind direction, but he records its consequences. Meteorological evidence reveals that in late summer and early fall the prevailing wind often shifts to the northwest in the Mediterranean. Since this was the time of year they sailed, this is a further confirmation that the wind was now blowing from the northwest.

There is another interesting piece of nautical evidence. Had Paul’s ship turned to the southwest at any point between Myra and Cnidus, they would never have reached Crete. The islands in their path would have prevented them from turning to get behind Crete until the angle of descent was such that the northwest wind would have made that maneuver impossible. Southern Crete could not be reached by an ancient sailing ship from any point along their route, except by turning southwest at Cnidus.

After Paul’s ship reached Cape Salome on the eastern edge of Crete, they ran along the southern coast and used the island as a shelter from the wind. Luke records that it was with difficulty that they reached the harbor of Fair Havens. He then states that they halted there, but does not say why.

Meteorological and nautical evidence tells us why. Looking at the map of southern Crete, you will see that Cape Matala lies just four miles west of Fair Havens harbor. At the Cape, the coast curves to the north. Had their ship sailed past Cape Matala, they would have been exposed to the northwest wind and would have found it impossible to continue westward. The reason for their halt at Fair Havens was to wait for a change in the wind. Luke’s statement that they made the harbor at Fair Havens only with difficulty also fits the evidence. A sailing ship working its way westward against a northwest wind, even under the shelter of Crete, would have had problems reaching Fair Havens. (5)

Sailing to Phoenix (Acts 27.9-.12)

It was past the Jewish Day of Atonement, or mid-October, when the wind finally changed. A fair wind from the south began to blow and the captain decided to make for a better harbor at Phoenix, on the western end of Crete. Because of the lateness of the season, his decision was controversial.

During the winter, no ships sailed on the Mediterranean. As Luke records, they could either winter at Fair Havens or use the temporary southern wind to make for Phoenix.

Luke maintains that Fair Havens was not a good winter harbor, and that the captain and the sailors wanted to try for Phoenix. The argument against sailing for Phoenix was the lateness of the season, with the real possibility of a sudden, adverse wind that could wreck the ship. (6)

There are two pieces of evidence that bear on this passage. First, although Fair Havens is not the best of harbors, modern surveys reveal that it is a safe winter harbor.

Second, Luke implies that the Centurion made the final decision to sail. Although it may seem odd to us today that an army commander would make this decision, in the Roman military there was no separation between land and sea forces. The Roman navy was an extension of the army, with army commanders serving as naval officers.

However, this was a private ship and not a naval vessel. Some scholars argue that the captain, who was the owner of the ship, would have made the decision, rather than the Centurion. But inscriptional evidence from the first century indicates that ship owners who took part in the vital grain trade between Egypt and Rome were generally licensed as agents of the Roman state. They were a kind of public utility and were under strict government regulation. Since the Centurion represented the Roman state, his permission may have been needed to sail. (7)

Scholars have also argued that the ship’s owner would not have wanted to risk his ship so late in the season. However, according to the Roman historian Suetonius, throughout this era the city of Rome faced continuing shortages of food during the winter months. Thus the Emperor Claudius offered substantial bonuses to ship owners who took the chance of sailing late in the season. This may have been the reason for the captain’s willingness to try for the harbor at Phoenix. From there, it would have been possible to make for Rome if the weather held. (8)

The location of Phoenix’s harbor remains something of a mystery. There are two bays at the western end of southern Crete, only one of which corresponds to Luke’s description as being open to the southwest and northwest. Today this bay is not deep enough to serve as a harbor, though it may have been of sufficient depth two thousand years ago. A geological survey has established that parts of the western coast of Crete are twenty feet higher today than in antiquity, the result of earthquake activity over the centuries. The line of the bay has been traced and has been shown to have been deeper in Paul’s time. Whether it was deep enough for use as a harbor remains an open question.

The second bay, which has a deep harbor and is used by ships today, faces the opposite direction from that recorded by Luke. If this is the bay for which Paul’s ship was heading, then Luke’s description of it is wrong. But then, Paul’s ship never reached Phoenix, so Luke may have erred because he never saw the harbor. On the other hand, he may not have been mistaken. There is simply not enough evidence to decide which of the two bays was the site of the ancient harbor. (9)


The Gale (Acts 27.13-.20)

In verse thirteen, Luke says that after leaving Fair Havens the ship sailed close to shore. While this passage demonstrates Luke’s reliability as an observer, it shows that he was no sailor. The ship did not sail close to shore on purpose. They had no choice in the matter. Cape Matala lies four miles south by west of Fair Havens, with the wind now coming from the south. Because ancient ships could not lie closer to the wind than seven points, they would have had a struggle to keep the ship from being blown against the coast until finally rounding the Cape. (10)

From Cape Matala, it was 34 miles to Phoenix, with the southern wind now favoring their course. They should have reached the harbor in a few hours. Instead, there was a violent change in the weather. A gale suddenly roared down on them from Crete’s seven-thousand-foot tall mountains, forcing them to turn and run before the wind.

Luke records that the sailors called this wind Euraquilo. An unusual name, it has been found in one ancient inscription and is a slang compound of Greek and Latin. The Greek Erus (east) and the Latin Aquilo (north) translates as “northeaster,” a strong winter wind. Meteorological evidence reveals that a sudden change from a mild southerly wind to a violent northeasterly wind often occurs in late fall in the eastern Mediterranean. (11)

According to Luke, they ran before the wind to avoid capsizing, then found temporary shelter behind the small island of Cauda, southwest of Cape Matala. Luke says nothing about an attempt to anchor there, which indeed would have been impossible, since the only anchorage on that island is open to the east-northeast.

Temporarily safe behind Cauda, they had two choices. First, they could turn and run before the storm once more. In that case, they would be faced with the eventual possibility of the ship’s wrecking on the north African coast. Luke mentions the fear of the sailors that they would be driven onto that coast. Their second choice – which is the course that they took – was to secure the ship, point it into the wind, and drift slowly westward in the teeth of the storm.

Luke does not actually state that they pointed the ship into the wind. He says only that they decided to drift with the storm. But for a sailing vessel to drift in a gale without capsizing, it must either face toward the wind or away from it. We know that they did not face the ship away from the wind, because in that case they would have drifted slowly to southwest, to the African coast. Since Luke records that they wrecked on the island of Malta, to the northwest, we know that they faced the ship into the wind.

While they were temporarily behind Cauda, three distinct operations were performed. First, with difficulty, they hauled in the small boat that, like other ancient ships, they towed on a line behind them. Second, they took ropes and undergirded the ship to strengthen it against the waves. Third, and most importantly, they trimmed the sail. This was probably done first, although Luke mentions it last. Each of these actions are steps that would have been taken to secure an ancient ship in a storm.

In modern translations of this passage, the lowering of the mainsail is usually not mentioned. Instead, Luke is quoted as saying that they lowered a sea anchor. However, the literal translation of Luke’s Greek is that they lowered “the ship’s gear,” which would include the mainsail.(12)

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