Alexandrian Mariners & Rough Water Seamanship


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“And when it was decided that we should sail to Italy, they delivered Paul and some other prisoners to one named Julius, a centurion of the Augustan Regiment. So, entering a ship of Adramyttium,we put to sea, meaning to sail along the coasts of Asia. Aristarchus, a Macedonian of Thessalonica, was with us. And the next day we landed at Sidon. And Julius treated Paul kindly and gave him liberty to go to his friends and receive care.

From there we put out to sea again and passed to the lee of Cyprus because the winds were against us. When we had sailed across the open sea off the coast of Cilicia and Pamphylia, we landed at Myra in Lycia. There the centurion found an Alexandrian ship sailing for Italy and put us on board.”                                                                                                                              Acts 27: 1 – 6

1.  Within the Book of Acts, Luke shows remarkable precision in his discussion of maritime items and geographical references

2.  Luke’s correctly identifies the best shipping lanes at the time

  • Mariners sought to utilize the shelter of Cyprus by sailing north along its eastern coast, then west along its northern one
  • The prevailing winds in the summer would have been westerly in that part of the Mediterranean Sea 1

3.  Cilicia and Pamphylia were adjoining provinces long the southern coast of Asia Minor

  • Luke correctly links these provinces together in naming the gulf crossed when sailing west 2

4.  Luke’s correct in identifying Myra in Lycia as the principle place to catch a ship in that part of the world bound for Italy

  • Myra’s port was referred to as Andriace
  • It was the chief port used by Egyptian (i.e., Alexandrian) vessels for carrying wheat from both Egypt and Myra on toward Rome 3


“When we had sailed slowly many days, and arrived with difficulty off Cnidus, the wind not permitting us to proceed, we sailed under the shelter of Crete off Salmone. Passing it with difficulty, we came to a place called Fair Havens, near the city of Lasea.

Now when much time had been spent, and sailing was now dangerous because the Fast was already over, Paul advised them, saying, “Men, I perceive that this voyage will end with disaster and much loss, not only of the cargo and ship, but also our lives.”

Nevertheless the centurion was more persuaded by the helmsman and the owner of the ship than by the things spoken by Paul. And because the harbor was not suitable to winter in, the majority advised to set sail from there also, if by any means they could reach Phoenix, a harbor of Crete opening toward the southwest and northwest, and winter there. When the south wind blew softly, supposing that they had obtained their desire, putting out to sea, they sailed close by Crete.”
– Acts 27: 7 – 13

5.  Luke accurately notes the typically slow passage to Cnidus in the face of prevailing northwest winds

6.  Luke correctly locates Fair Havens near the Town of Lasea

7.  He also accurately reflects that the harbor at Fair Havens provides poor shelter to winter in 4


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“Before very long, a wind of hurricane force, called the “northeaster,” swept down from the island. The ship was caught by the storm and could not head into the wind; so we gave way to it and were driven along. As we passed to the lee of a small island called Cauda, we were hardly able to make the lifeboat secure. When the men had hoisted it aboard, they passed ropes under the ship itself to hold it together.”  – Acts 27: 14 – 17a

8.  Luke also lays out the typical maneuvers that Alexandrian Mariners (or any set of experienced seaman) would take during a serious storm. These include:

  • Pulling the skiff aboard to prevent it from acting as a drag on the ship’s forward motion – such a drag increases likelihood of disaster
  • Passing ropes beneath the ship allows the crew to “tighten the hull”; the fear is that the wheat/grain (see verse 38) in the cargo hold expands once water gets inside – this could break the hull of the vessel from within 5

nautical“Fearing that they would run aground on the sandbars of Syrtis, they lowered the sea anchor and let the ship be driven along. We took such a violent battering from the storm that the next day they began to throw the cargo overboard. On the third day, they threw the ship’s tackle overboard with their own hands. When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days and the storm continued raging, we finally gave up all hope of being saved.”  – Acts 27: 17b – 20



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9.  And the use of proper mariner terminology is evident within the text:

  • The term “sea anchor” in verse 17 may be better rendered “main sail” – in short they took their sails down
  • Throwing cargo overboard would cause the boat to ride higher in the water 6

“Now when the fourteenth night had come, as we were driven up and down in the Adriatic Sea, about midnight the sailors sensed that they were drawing near some land. And they took soundings and found it to be twenty fathoms; and when they had gone a little farther, they took soundings again and found it to be fifteen fathoms. Then, fearing lest we should run aground on the rocks, they dropped four anchors from the stern, and prayed for day to come.”  – Acts 27: 27 – 29

10.  Luke uses the correct nautical term for taking soundings (i.e., measuring how deep the water is) in verse 28. The term in Greek is “Bolizo” 7


 Image Source:Paul’s Shipwreck by Ludolf Backhuysen (1630 – 1708)

“Altogether there were 276 of us on board. When they had eaten as much as they wanted, they lightened the ship by throwing the grain into the sea. When daylight came, they did not recognize the land, but they saw a bay with a sandy beach, where they decided to run the ship aground if they could. Cutting loose the anchors, they left them in the sea and at the same time untied the ropes that held the rudders. Then they hoisted the foresail to the wind and made for the beach. But the ship struck a sandbar and ran aground. The bow stuck fast and would not move, and the stern was broken to pieces by the pounding of the surf.” – Acts 27: 37 – 41

11.  Everything this Alexandrian crew does is textbook rough water seamanship

  • They are in desperate straights as evidenced by the fact that they are throwing their cargo overboard
  • They are paid when they deliver their cargo safely
  • Yet, this is key to get the boat to ride higher in the water and to keep it from foundering
  • It also enables them to get closer into shore

12.  The Bible describes nautical practices and techniques with precision


  1. Archeological Study Bible – see note on Acts 27: 4 I Don’t Have Enough Faith To Be An Atheist, Norman Geisler and Frank Turek (page 258)
  2. Archeological Study Bible – see note on Acts 27: 4 I Don’t Have Enough Faith To Be An Atheist, Norman Geisler and Frank Turek (page 258)
  3. Archeological Study Bible – see note on Acts 27: 6, I Don’t Have Enough Faith To Be An Atheist, Norman Geisler and Frank Turek (page 258), (good source for additional information on Andriace and Egyptian vessels,
  4. Archeological Study Bible – see note on Acts 27: 7 and on Acts 27: 8, I Don’t Have Enough Faith To Be An Atheist, Norman Geisler and Frank Turek (page 259),
  5. Archeological Study Bible – see note on Acts 27: 16 and on Acts 27: 17, I Don’t Have Enough Faith To Be An Atheist, Norman Geisler and Frank Turek (page 259)
  6. Archeological Study Bible – see note on Acts 27: 17, Archeological Study Bible – see note on Acts 27: 18, Archeological Study Bible – see note on Acts 27: 19, I Don’t Have Enough Faith To Be An Atheist, Norman Geisler and Frank Turek (page 259)
  7. I Don’t Have Enough Faith To Be An Atheist, Norman Geisler and Frank Turek (page 259)