Book of Arts

The account of St.Paul's ill-fated journey to Rome in the New Testament's Book of Acts provides some useful

insights into shipping practices during the first century of the common era. In this paper, I intend to summarise the

information and clues provided in the Book of Acts and present an overview of some of the basic interpretations of

the relevant passages. It is important to understand that the Book of Acts is a continuation of the gospel according to

Luke and any reference to him here is in his capacity as writer of the Book.

St.Paul, as a Roman prisoner, had been put in the charge of Julius, an officer in the "Emperor's Regiment" who was

to take the prisoners to Rome to see the Emperor. At Caesarea, Julius had his prisoners board a ship from

Adramyttium and they sailed overnight to Sidon. The next leg of their journey was more difficult as the winds were

again against them. As such, they sailed the ship on the sheltered east side of the island of Cyprus, then west to


In Myra, Julius moved his prisoners to a boat from Alexandria which was bound for Italy. The first leg of their

journey aboard this new ship was difficult as the winds were against them. It took several days to reach Cnidus.

With the wind against them still, they were forced to sail south, hoping to take shelter behind the island of Crete.

Keeping close to shore, they eventually arrived at Safe Harbours, on the southern coast of Crete. Here they stayed

for several days and the Book of Acts notes that St.Paul advised against continuing as the Day of Atonement had

already past (Acts 27:9-11).

The Day of Atonement is the traditional day at which shipping would stop for the winter in anticipation of the poor

weather to come. It is normally marked towards the end of September or the start of October.

However St.Paul's advice fell on deaf ears and Julius chose to accept the advice of the ship's owner and captain.

They pressed on towards Phoenix (on Crete's west coast) which offered better winter harbour. Their plans were soon

smashed by a strong wind from the north-east which blew them terribly off course. Helpless, the crew allowed the

ship to drift. As they passed to the south of the island of Cauda (which provided a brief period of shelter against the

wind), St.Luke notes that "...we managed to make the ship's boat secure. They pulled it aboard and then fastened

some ropes tight round the ship." (Acts 27:16-17) These verses are of special importance to Landels. Landels notes

that St.Luke is writing about under-belts or hypozomata, which are essentially large ropes tied around the hull of a

ship in order to keep it together in rough weather (Landels 1981, Pg. 138). This was necessitated by the type of hull

construction employed, called "carvel" construction" whic!

h required the hull to be built within an "exoskeleton" of sorts which would not make up part of the finished hull.

This method was typical of ship construction of the Mediterranean at the time. (Landels 1981, Pg. 137)

According to Today's English Version from the Canadian Bible Society, the ship's crew then lowered her sails and

continued to drift with the violent north-easterly winds. However, Farrar (1879) notes that the English version does

not describe the sail work well enough. His description is a succinct model of clarity, I present it here:

There was only one way to save themselves... to lie to, by rounding the prow of the vessel on the starboard tack as

near to the wind as possible, to send down the topsail and cordage, lower the ponderous yard to such a height as

would leave enough of the huge mainsail to steady the vessel, set the artemo, or storm-sail, and so... let her drift on,

broadside and leeward, at the mercy of wind and wave. (Pg. 568)

Over the next two days, equipment and cargo were dumped overboard (in that order) to lighten the load. Farrar

(1925, Pg. 569) notes that earlier versions of the Book (Syriac, Coptic, etc.) refer to the dumping the vessel's "huge

mainyard" overboard. This would have lightened the load considerably.

According to the Book of Acts, the ship and all souls on board drifted until the ship's crew believed they were

nearing land on the