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The Shipwreck


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This essay is taken from the book Evidence and Paul's Journeys.

What People are saying about this book.

Midnight on the Fourteenth Day
(Acts 27.27-.32)

If you visit the island of Malta today you will find an inlet that is called St. Paul’s Bay. Ancient tradition has hallowed this bay as the site of Paul’s shipwreck. The earliest document mentioning this tradition was written more than four hundred years after Paul’s shipwreck. However, given the bearing on which their ship was drifting, this bay is the first possible point of contact that they would have had with the island of Malta. Also, there is other evidence that points to this bay as the scene of the shipwreck.

Luke states that at midnight on the fourteenth day the sailors sensed that they were near land. This is a curious statement. Accomplished seamen are sometimes able tosmell land while it is far away, but the gale driving them would not have permitted land smells to reach their vessel. It is possible that they dimly heard the sound of waves crashing against the shore, but this must remain a conjecture since Luke does not say why they thought land was nearby.


Map of
St. Paul’s Bay

Interestingly, we have the record of a nineteenth century British court martial that deals with a shipwreck in St. Paul’s Bay. The circumstances of the wreck are not quite the same as those found in Acts. While the British ship’s approach to the bay was also at night, there was no storm. The shipwreck was caused by the negligence of those on watch. But the general course of the British ship was the same as Paul’s vessel eighteen centuries before. Both approached the bay from the east.

For a ship to enter St. Paul’s Bay from that direction, it first must pass close to the Point of Koura, which juts out into the surrounding sea. It was at this point that the British lookout was first aware that land was nearby, since he could see the surf crashing against the Point. The gale that was driving Paul’s ship would have made the surf even more visible and the breakers would have been heard even before they were seen. Perhaps this is what Luke meant when he said that the sailors "sensed" that land was nearby. (15)

Luke records that, following this, the sailors dropped a line and measured twenty fathoms. A little further on, they dropped the line again and found fifteen fathoms. Now any ship that nears land will first pass over twenty fathoms, then over fifteen, as it closes with the shore. But the route of Paul’s ship was more complicated than simply closing with the shore. His vessel was not headed directly toward Malta, but was drifting leeward on a course almost parallel to it.

For the ship to have entered St. Paul’s Bay on this course, it would have had to pass within a quarter mile of Koura Point. You can follow the approximate line of the ship’s drift on the map of St. Paul’s Bay. Within a quarter mile of passing Koura Point, there is an average depth of twenty fathoms. A little farther west lies the fifteen fathom mark. Again, it needs to be emphasized that these depths are not found on a course that is closing with the island, but on one almost parallel to it.

Luke says that, when the sailors sounded fifteen fathoms, they threw out the anchors because of fear that they would end up on the rocks. You will notice, on the map of St. Paul’s Bay, that Salmonetta island is just west of Koura Point, about one quarter mile west of the fifteen fathom mark. This small island is made up of breakers that would not only have been heard at this point, but would have been seen. Their only possible chance for avoiding shipwreck was to try to anchor the ship and halt their drift until morning. At daybreak, they would be able to see whether it was possible to beach the vessel on shore. (16)

An attempt to anchor in the teeth of a gale is always an act of desperation. The anchors of ancient ships were incapable of holding in most bays during a storm. But the bottom of St. Paul’s Bay has a clay of unusual characteristics. This is remarked upon in official British navy sailing directions from the nineteenth century. The directions state that anchors in St. Paul’s Bay will never pull loose, no matter how bad the storm, because of the local clay. This is an unusual environmental condition.

Luke states that they anchored the ship from the stern. Sailing ships, both ancient and modern, anchor from the front, or prow, since it is impossible to maneuver a ship that is anchored from the stern. But it makes sense that they would anchor from the stern in this case, since the wind would then swing the front of the ship around and point it directly into the bay. In the morning, after looking for the best place to run aground, they could cut the anchors loose and drive the ship onto the beach. If they had anchored from the front of the vessel, with the rear facing toward the shore, they would not have had time to turn the ship around to face the shore and would have capsized.

Luke does not tell us why the anchoring was done from the stern. We discover the reason by analyzing the nautical evidence. Ancient literary sources reveal that this technique of anchoring from the stern was known. Appian reports that Rome won a naval battle against the Carthaginians by using this tactic, their ships suddenly wheeling in unison to meet the enemy. In the nineteenth century, Lord Nelson won the battle of the Nile against the French by this maneuver. (17)

At this point in Luke’s narrative, a short drama occurs. Some of the sailors let down the ship’s boat under the pretense of laying more anchors, but their real intention is to escape. Some scholars have argued that this episode must be fictional, since it would have been suicide for the sailors to make for an unknown shore at night on stormy seas. The argument is valid – it would have been suicide – but this does not mean that it did not happen. After all, the anchors holding the ship could have given way at any time during the night, or the ship might have begun breaking up under the pounding of the waves. They had been running in a gale for fourteen days, so the ship must have been in very poor condition. An attempt to make for shore may have seemed worth the risk. (18)

Full-Sized Engraving: Paul's Shipwreck


The Wreck (Acts 27.33-.44)

At dawn, none of the sailors recognized the coastline. Since Malta’s harbor was on the other side of the island, this was understandable. Even sailors who had been to Malta would have had no reason to recognize this particular bay.

Luke records that there was a sandy beach facing them. The modern St. Paul’s Bay does not have a sandy beach, but it is geologically possible that there was one two thousand years ago.

In preparation for running aground, the sailors cut the anchor ropes, untied the steering oars, then raised a sail on the prow. These details fit what we know about the handling of ancient ships. There were two steering oars in the stern that acted as rudders. For the ship to have been successfully anchored from the stern the previous night, those oars would have to have been lifted out of the water and lashed together. Luke did not mention that this occurred the night before, but he now reveals that it happened by saying that they untied the oars. The raising of the foresail makes sense, since the mainsail yard-arm had probably long since disappeared in the storm. The small foresail would give the ship some maneuverability.

In verse forty-one, Luke states that the ship ran aground on a sandbank. However, Luke’s Greek can be translated in more than one way. It can mean a sandbank, a shallows, or, more literally, "a place of two seas." This last phrase denotes two bodies of water separated by a sandbar. In St. Paul’s Bay, there is a narrow inlet of water between Salmonetta island and the Malta mainland. If they ran aground on a sandbank near this inlet, and this is the likeliest place for them to have run aground, it could legitimately be called "a place of two seas." (19)

According to Luke, the front of the ship went aground, but did not break up. It remained intact while the rear gradually disintegrated under the force of the waves. The passengers made their way ashore either by swimming or by floating on pieces of the vessel. Miraculously, there was no loss of life.

This is a very unusual event. For a wooden ship to embed itself in a sandbar without breaking apart, it must run into a mud that will slow it down, then its hull must lodge in a clay tenacious enough to hold it in place. As previously noted, St. Paul’s Bay possesses a clay capable of this. However, it is unusual to find mud at the depth of a ship’s hull close to a shore. Mud can be found where a creek empties into the sea, but even then it is usually carried away by the current. Only under certain conditions is the water close to shore calm enough for a deposit to form at hull level. As it happens, St. Paul’s Bay contains two creeks, as well as the necessary conditions for mud to form near the shoreline.

In short, there are two unusual geological conditions in St. Paul’s bay, both of which are necessary for the event that Luke describes. (20)



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Copyright 1998-2001 by Jefferson White