Shipwrecked (again!)

I’ve complained about cancelled flights and lost luggage, but have never been in a plane crash or anything close to one. I’ve never been in a boat that capsized or ran aground. I’ve had minor fender-benders here and there, but no major accidents.

Does that make me lucky? Probably not. I would guess that the vast majority of people could say the same.

So if a friend of yours gets into a serious car accident, you consider the incident unfortunate and pray for them. If they get into another, you begin to wonder: are they just unlucky, or is there something wrong with their driving? A third or even a fourth accident? You might start suspecting they’re harboring a secret death wish.

By the time the apostle Paul found himself on a merchant vessel bound for Rome, he had already experienced shipwreck three times.

Here comes number four.

St. Paul’s Bay, Malta

Paul already knew that the ship would “run aground on some island” (Acts 27:26, CEB), but did not know which one. It would turn out to be the island of Malta. The traditional site of the shipwreck is now known as St. Paul’s Bay, an inlet near the island’s northwestern tip. More specifically, many believe the ship ran aground near St. Paul’s Islands (naturally), at the northern end of the bay. (In the picture above, you can see them near the horizon line; the larger mass on the left edge of the picture is Malta, while the two smaller masses immediately to the right of that are the islands.)

Of course, St. Paul’s Bay — in Saint Paul’s day — was not a resort paradise lined with expensive hotels. It was a dangerous place to navigate in a storm. While the storm had lessened, it was still urging the ship ahead faster than was safe, with more force than the anchors could withstand.

When it became light enough for them to survey their situation, the crew made a plan. They saw what looked like a sandy stretch of coastline where they might be able to beach the ship. They had already made her as light as possible by throwing their precious cargo of wheat overboard. Now they cut the anchors loose, readied the steering oars, and raised the foresail, hoping to guide the battered vessel onto the beach.

Some believe that the sailors attempted to navigate through the narrow channel between St. Paul’s Islands and the Maltese mainland. Here, the prow of the boat struck a “sandbar” (Acts 27:41, CEB, NIV) or “reef” (NRSV) and stuck fast. The stern, still being hammered by the waves behind, began to break apart.

It was time to abandon ship.

The soldiers, however, were worried that some of the prisoners might escape. It’s hard to imagine that they would actually have been able to do so: could they really have swum to safety, wearing shackles, in that merciless surf? But we don’t know who these other prisoners were, and sometimes, a soldier who let an important prisoner escape could pay for that mistake with his own life. Not willing to take that chance, the soldiers decided to kill the prisoners, including Paul.

That’s gratitude for ya.

But Julius, the centurion, overruled them — Luke specifically tells us that he wanted to save Paul’s life. Over the din of the pounding waves and the disintegrating hull, Julius barked orders: “Anybody who can swim, jump for it and get to shore! Go now! Everyone else, grab onto anything that floats.”

It worked: “In this way everyone reached land safely” (Acts 27:44, CEB). All 276 of them.

I imagine Paul panting on the shore, still clinging to some bit of flotsam. Did he think of the ancient stories? Noah had come through the flood; the Israelites had followed Moses through the sea; Jonah had survived the belly of the beast. And Jesus himself had brought the disciples through a raging storm on the Sea of Galilee.

Once more, God had saved his chosen from the storm and sea.

He still does.