The (im)perfect storm (part 1)

Halloween, 1991. A boat christened the Andrea Gail leaves its Massachusetts port for its final swordfishing expedition of the season. It’s already late in the season, and the crew knows the trip may be a more challenging one than usual; one of the crewmen even has an eerie premonition of disaster. But he goes aboard anyway, knowing that he has bills to pay and no other way to pay them.

He would not come back alive. The Andrea Gail and all of its crew would be lost at sea, the victims of a freak coincidence of weather: a violent clash of storm fronts that would swamp and batter the boat with towering waves.

The 2000 movie The Perfect Storm was based on the 1997 book of the same name, in which Sebastian Junger attempted to reconstruct the final hours of the Andrea Gail. If they were lucky, the ship would shoot skyward to the crest of each wave, then suddenly plunge over the cliff of water into darkness, again and again. If they were unlucky — even once — the ship would take the wave broadside, roll, and capsize, sending the crew to a cold, watery grave.

It’s impossible for a landlubber like myself to imagine the full terror of that storm. But the apostle Paul, I suspect, would have understood their predicament completely.

. . .

Paul, as we’ve seen, was on his way to the emperor aboard a grain ship from Alexandria. When they left port on the previous leg of the trip, winds from the west forced them off course; it was only with difficulty that they were able to find safe harbor at Fair Havens, on the southern coast of the island of Crete.

There was a disagreement as to what to do next. Paul, who had been shipwrecked three times himself, advised that they should stay put for the winter. But the centurion in charge followed the advice of the owner of the ship and its pilot instead. It was decided to set sail for Phoenix, a port some forty to fifty miles further up the coast. It was a better place to spend the winter, they said.

Assuming they could get there.

“When a moderate south wind began to blow, they thought they could achieve their purpose; so they weighed anchor and began to sail past Crete, close to the shore,” Luke tells us (Acts 27:13, NRSV). I imagine their relief at the seemingly fortunate turn of events; Phoenix would be no problem now. “But soon a violent wind, called the northeaster, rushed down from Crete” (vs. 14).

It was indeed a “nor’easter” — a violent wind sweeping down from the northeast — clashing with and then absorbing the force of Hurricane Grace, that created the perfect storm that sunk the Andrea Gail and killed its crew. In Paul’s case, the wind from the south was gentler. Nevertheless, he and his shipmates suddenly found themselves at the intersection of opposing weather fronts, and there was nothing they could do but let themselves be driven along by the wind. The word Luke uses here, in fact, is the one from which we derive the English “typhoon.”

Better batten down the hatches, boys.

The crew did what they could. Passing to the leeward side of a small island named Cauda, they were able to get the lifeboat aboard. Luke’s language is uncertain here, but apparently they also attempted to reinforce the hull of the ship with ropes or cables, then lowered a sea anchor that would slow the speed at which they were driven along or would plunge into the troughs between the enormous waves. So fierce was the storm that they even feared running aground on the sandbars of Syrtis — some 400 miles away.

How desperate were they? Luke says that the following day they began to throw the cargo overboard, presumably to lessen the chance of the battered boat sinking. To the owner and crew, the cargo was the whole point of the voyage; jettisoning it would mean a huge financial loss. But it was either that or risk losing the boat and their very lives instead.

Then, the following day, they threw the ship’s tackle overboard as well. This would have been all the gear and rigging they needed to load and unload cargo — the equipment they needed to be a functioning commercial vessel. All they wanted to do now was survive the storm.

But even that hope was soon gone: “When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days, and no small tempest raged, all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned” (Acts 27:20). All was darkness. Perhaps even Luke himself began to despair.

But did Paul?

We’ll see.