God’s Word for You
Acts 27:27-29 twenty fathoms, fifteen fathoms…
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Friday, March 5, 2021
27 But on the fourteenth night we were still being driven across the Sea of Hadria when about midnight the sailors began to sense that they were approaching land.
The Sea of Hadria was the name for the entire central third of the Mediterranean, not just the water between Italy and Greece which is known as the Adriatic today. The sailors heard a difference in the noise of the sea ahead. Shallower water means rocks, sandbars, reefs, and finally the shore. Had it been a little later in the night, toward dawn, the approaching sunrise would have shown massive breakers to their left (port) side.
28 They took soundings and found that the water was twenty fathoms deep. A short time later they took soundings again and found it was fifteen fathoms deep. 29 Fearing that we might run up against the rocks, they threw out four anchors from the stern and prayed for day to come.
To find out the depth of water, sailors threw a lead weight tied to a line with knots and specially shaped wooden objects tied at intervals. A fathom is roughly the distance of a man’s outstretched arms, hand to hand (about six feet, the easiest measurement to make with a rope). Twenty fathoms would be about 120 feet, and fifteen fathoms would be about 90 feet.
A change of thirty feet in a short time meant that they were approaching the shore line. The central part of the Mediterranean is some of the deepest water, but the sailors didn’t exactly know where they were. If they were headed for the African coast, they might be miles away from shore and yet be in water so shallow that the ship could be wrecked in a heaving sea. If they were further north, there were a few islands south of Italy where they might find refuge (the Pelagie Islands), but they were too far south to hope for a landfall on Sicily (Sicily is the “football” that the “boot” of Italy forever kicks). Modern Tunisia was the region that the Romans called Africa, the central part of the north African coastline today. Their biggest fear was this coastline and its sandbars. As it happens, they were approaching the shore of Malta. If ancient tradition is correct and they were entering what is called St. Paul’s Bay (also Mistra Bay), they were passing Koura Point on the northeast side of the island where the seabed does indeed rapidly ascend from twenty fathoms to fifteen fathoms. Modern tourists enjoy the beach and go kayaking here, but a Roman-era sailing ship drifting on the skirts of a hurricane would have been in serious trouble.
They threw out an anchor, and then another, and another, and then four in all. The chances were fairly good that one or more of these would catch the sand of the rapidly shallowing seafloor and slow the ship down as she dragged the anchors along. Ships generally drop their anchor from the bow or front of the vessel, but ancient ships often had the ability to drop anchors from the stern or back of the vessel through additional hawse-holes, specially constructed openings to manage the release and retrieval of the heavy anchor cable or chain. When we think about the power of an anchor to hold a massive ship in place (even modern warships must use them), we gain a better understanding of the words of Hebrews 6: “We have this hope [of salvation through Jesus] as an anchor for the soul” (Hebrews 6:19).
As the long days of the storm were ending and the terrifying minutes of the ship’s wreck were fast approaching, there was little time now for prayer or singing, yet they prayed for day to come. But there is always the trust we have in our heart that God will be with us, for “he wounds, but he also binds up; he injures, but his hands also heal. From six calamities he will rescue you; in seven no harm will befall you” (Job 5:18-19). Luke and Paul were living out the words of the Psalm:
They reeled and staggered like drunken men;
they were at their wits’ end.
Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble,
and he brought them out of their distress.
He stilled the storm to a whisper;
the waves of the sea were hushed.
They were glad when it grew calm,
and he guided them to their desired haven. (Psalm 107:27-30)
Put your trust in God to carry you through all of your storms, storms of climate, of life, and of health. He will be with you; your own body is his temple (1 Corinthians 6:19). Put your trust in him.
Pastor Timothy Smith