This week in our churches we will be celebrating the feast of St Paul’s shipwreck. As usual, the Mass readings will be chapters 27 and 28 of the Acts of the Apostles. Chapter 27 is all about the voyage and shipwreck, and many researchers refer to this chapter to better understand ancient seafaring.

Listening to the reading, we are all impressed by the adversity encountered by the 276 people on board. We understand that they survived this violent storm by divine intervention, and I do not dispute this. But who took all the right decisions to keep the ship afloat? Divine intervention placed an experienced captain at the helm.

The Acts of the Apostles are written by St Luke. He was St Paul’s companion on many of his travels. Luke mentions a captain and the ship’s owner, probably meaning, as often happens to this day, that the ship’s owner employed a captain to command his ship.

An Egyptian grain ship would have been fully laden with this precious commodity. Egypt was Rome’s bread-basket. ‘Panem et Circenses’ (bread and games) is what Caesar provided his subjects to keep them subdued and to avoid riots. So important was the delivery of this precious commodity, that Rome paid a bonus to ships entering the port of Ostia in the Mare Clausum, the period in winter when it was not considered safe to sail the seas.

Luke writes that before the storm, Paul appealed to the centurion, the ship’s captain and the owner of the ship, not to continue on their journey to Rome, but to seek refuge in a safe harbour. It was after the Passover, and therefore Mare Clausum was fast approaching.

Paul was a prisoner on his way to Rome to be judged by Caesar. What impertinence this prisoner had to propose a change in course to the ship’s owner and to an experienced captain who had been sailing this trade route for some time! And furthermore, in front of Julius, the centurion of the elite Augustan cohort, who was responsible to deliver him and the other prisoners to Roman justice.

The fact that the captain insisted that they continue with the journey was probably due to his reliance on his own experience, but also on the expected bonus for arriving in Rome during the Mare Clausum.

In this chapter from the Acts, the captain is only mentioned once. Even if Luke made no reference to him, one would correctly assume that the ship had a captain in command. He must have been an extraordinary sailor to have kept the ship from foundering.

Egyptian grain ship, by artist Victor Pulis.Egyptian grain ship, by artist Victor Pulis.

Ships in Roman times were not steered by a single rudder hinged to a stern post. That system had not yet been invented. They were steered by two large paddles on either side of the stern. The ship had one mast with a mainsail and a smaller sail at the bow called the ‘artemon’.

Carrying grain on the very long journey between Egypt and Rome would have been economically viable only if large quantities of grain were transported. These ships were massive, so much so that the one Paul and Luke were on carried 276 people. Another Egyptian grain ship, the Isis, sailing Mare Nostrum a century later, carried a total of 600 passengers and crew.

Sailing across the Mediterranean on a heavily laden ship with one mainsail for propulsion and poor steering was risky. Passengers had to bring their own bedding and food for the entire voyage. Furthermore, there were no cabins to accommodate them and they had to huddle on deck, exposed to the elements.

The ship got caught in the storm close to the island of Cauda, near Crete. They were 895 kilometers due east of Malta. The ship drifted for 14 days, but this does not mean that nothing was done to save the ship and to save lives.

Caught in the strong Gregale (northeast wind), which according to some biblical texts was actually the Euroaquilo (east-northeast), not being able to face the wind or tack without the risk of losing his mainsail or even the main mast, the captain ordered to give way to the wind and to be driven along.

In my humble opinion, the sea anchor is the mechanism that brought the Apostle Paul’s ship to Malta

With some difficulty they brought the skiff they were towing up onto the deck. This skiff would be used to carry mooring ropes when entering harbours and was also used for the ship-to-shore transport of passengers and goods. It was towed when sailing along the coast.

The captain knew that after Cauda they were in for a long haul before arriving in another safe harbour. Bringing the skiff onboard was the normal thing to do, but because of the storm, they did this with great difficulty.

Sounding the depth, by artist Victor Pulis.Sounding the depth, by artist Victor Pulis.

At this point Luke does not state that they lowered the mainsail and brought up the steering oars, although some scholars have commented that the lowering of gear in Acts 27:17 refers to the lowering of the mainsail. But in Acts 27:40, just before the shipwreck, Luke says that they untied the ropes that held the rudders and hoisted the artemon to the wind. It is obvious then that as soon as they got caught in the strong wind, the captain ordered the steering oars to be secured and the mainsail brought down, so as not to lose either of them.

The ship was heavily laden with grain. In the strong seas the seawater would enter the holds through the wooden planks. This would make the ship heavier, eventually taking in more water.

And there was a much bigger hazard; if the grain got wet it would expand and push the planks further out, taking in more water. So the captain ordered the ship to be frapped by running ropes under the ship and undergirding it, holding the planks firmly together, allowing less water to seep into the holds.

Now the ship was in a dangerous predicament. No mainsail, foresail or steering oars amounts to no steering! The big waves would push the ship alongside, from its port or starboard side. It would have rolled heavily, taking in more water, and would eventually be taken under by a big wave. Also, they feared being driven onto the Syrtis, the Libyan coast. With the direction of the wind and waves, this would have been their final destination.

So the experienced captain ordered that they deploy a “sea anchor”. Not all the translations of the Bible mention the “sea anchor”. Some translators, not knowing the name or purpose of this piece of equipment, refer to the lowering of “gear”.

The sea anchor is like a parachute that is tied from the stern of the ship and it creates drag. This would have lessened the rate of drift considerably, hopefully allowing the storm to pass over them and that they would again enjoy safe seas before approaching land. It would also create drag on the stern and thus keep the ship pointing in the direction of the storm, preventing the waves from hitting it along its side.

Sketch of an ancient ship with a sea anchor in tow, by Edward Dingli.Sketch of an ancient ship with a sea anchor in tow, by Edward Dingli.

Luke tells us that they feared ending on the Libyan coast and that they deployed the sea anchor. It is my theory that this experienced sea captain had the sea anchor tied to the stern’s starboard side (the right side of the rear of the ship). This would have created drag but would also have made the ship travel slightly westwards rather than towards the southwest. In my humble opinion the sea anchor is the mechanism that brought Apostle Paul’s ship to Malta.

Four lead anchors stocks from the stern, by artist Victor Pulis.Four lead anchors stocks from the stern, by artist Victor Pulis.

The storm was increasing in intensity so they threw some of the cargo overboard. This was precious cargo and the captain and ship’s owner knew that their profits were being thrown into the sea. But this order had two objectives. It would have lightened the ship, allowing less sea water to enter its holds, and it would have allowed for the expansion of the grain if it did get wet, without forcing the ship’s hold outward.

To further lighten the ship they even threw the ship’s tackle overboard. The intention must have been to further lighten the ship. But the captain would not have allowed them to throw the heavy lead anchors weighing several tons as he predicted that they would be needed to save the ship from wrecking on a distant shore.

Now on the 14th night the sailors sensed they were approaching land. Luke uses the plural, so it was not only the captain who was experienced, but also his crew. Luke does not tell us that they saw land or landward light. It was raining and therefore visibility was greatly reduced. They did not smell the land because there were unimaginable smells onboard, coming from 276 people sharing close quarters.

So how did they sense land approaching? Only the feet of an experienced sailor could feel the difference in wave motion as the sea starts to hit shallower waters.

They took soundings and found 20 fathoms, and soon after, 15 fathoms. With land fast approaching the captain ordered four anchors dropped from the stern (the ship’s rear). Why from the stern?

The sea anchor was causing the waves to push the ship from the stern. Dropping the anchors from the bow (front) would have the ship spinning 180 degrees. The ‘sacred anchor’, a four-ton lead stock now resting at the Maritime Museum in Vittoriosa, was probably secured to the stern.

In Roman times, inner Salina Bay would have been a sandy swamp, but with a deep channel for small ships to berth in the small harbour of Burmarrad. Picture shows a scene from the documentary.In Roman times, inner Salina Bay would have been a sandy swamp, but with a deep channel for small ships to berth in the small harbour of Burmarrad. Picture shows a scene from the documentary.

But the captain’s main intention shows considerable foresight. He wanted to drop anchors and wait for dawn to break. With sunlight, he could then decide which course to take – head for some beach, to port or starboard or straight ahead.

Whichever course he took meant he would cut loose the anchors in a different way. If he wanted to travel straight ahead, he would have cut all four anchors together. If he wanted to go starboard (right) he would have started by cutting loose the portside (left side) anchors, and vice versa, as in fact happened, if he wanted to veer portside towards the sandy beach.

If the ship was anchored from the bow they would not have been able to beach the ship. Only an extremely experienced sea captain would have thought of anchoring from the stern the night before.

Again, more precious cargo is thrown overboard. The captain is not thinking of profits. His main objective is to lighten the ship as much as possible and to make a run for it and beach his ship on the sandy shore. Now that the heavy anchors are on the seabed, more grain overboard would make the ship ride higher and possibly venture as far inshore as possible.

His last command was to untie the ropes that held the steering rudders and to hoist the artemon to the wind, heading to port, with the waves hitting the ship from the stern. The ship stuck fast on a sandbar inside Salina Bay from where all 276 people could swim, or drift on wooden planks, to the shallows of the swampy shore.

At the dawn of Christianity, Our Lord designed that the Apostle of the Gentiles was to shipwreck on our shores and to make Melita a Christian fortress. Divine providence placed an experienced captain, whose name we do not know, in command of an Egyptian grain ship on its fateful voyage in AD60.

Mark Gatt has been scuba diving for the past 30 years and is an active Civil Protection volunteer. He has commanded and coordinated a group of rescue divers and was involved in many underwater search and recovery operations for missing persons at sea. While scuba diving just off Qawra Point he made a wondrous underwater discovery – the remains of a huge Roman-period lead anchor stock embossed with the names of the Egyptian gods Isis and Sarapi(s). This led him on a mission of research that led to the production of the documentary PAVLVS The Shipwreck 60 AD, a two-minute teaser of which may be viewed at 104694616. To contact the author, e-mail

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