Back when I was taking sea voyages like the one shown below…
…my father (like most “old salts”) always emphasised the importance of running a “tight ship.” (Sometimes that didn’t quite come through, as you can see here.) By a tight ship, he meant one that was in good condition (“ship shape”) and capable of making voyages in open water (“seaworthy.”)
In the Greco-Roman world, a “tight ship” meant something different. This was because of the way ships were built. As J.G. Landels explained in his book Engineering in the Ancient World:
To hold the planks (of the ship’s hull) in the appropriate position for joining together, and to give them the correct curvature, a series of ‘timber-clamps’ (in Greek drychoi) were fixed around the keel during construction, but they were outside the hull, and did not eventually form part of the ship. In fact, the usual practice was to shape and fit the boat-frames inside the hull after it was complete or almost complete–the reverse order of construction fro that of a clinker-built boat.
In order to strengthen and protect a hull made in this way when the sea was very rough, the Greeks used devices called hypozomata–“under belts.” The most famous mention of them comes in the account of St. Paul’s voyage (Acts, Chapter 27, v. 17.) The generally accepted view (though there has been much argument about it) is that the ‘under-belts’ were heavy cables, running along the outside of the hull from stem to stern, which could be tightened up during an emergency by means of windlasses. The modern term for this practice is ‘frapping.’
For these people, a “tight ship” meant one whose hull was literally tightened up to withstand a storm.
But let’s step back and take a look at how Paul and his companions on board arrived at this state:
So, when a light wind sprang up from the south, thinking that they had found their opportunity, they weighed anchor and kept along the coast of Crete, close in shore. But shortly afterwards a hurricane came down on us off the land–a north-easter, as it is called. The ship was caught by it and was unable to keep her head to the wind, so we had to give way and let her drive before it. Running under the lee of a small island called Cauda, we only just managed to secure the ship’s boat, And, after hoisting it on board, the men frapped the ship. But, afraid of being driven on to the Syrtis Sands, they lowered the yard, and then drifted. So violently were we tossed about by the storm, that the next day they began throwing the cargo overboard, And, on the following day, threw out the ship’s tackle with their own hands. As neither sun nor stars were visible for several days, and, as the gale still continued severe, all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned. (Acts 27:13-20)
Paul had warned earlier that this would take place, but was ignored: ““My friends,” he (Paul) said, “I see that this voyage will be attended with injury and much damage, not only to the cargo and the ship, but to our own lives also.” The Roman Officer, however, was more influenced by the captain and the owner than by what was said by Paul.” (Acts 27:10, 11) When disaster struck, the frapping worked, but they were without cargo, including food. It was at this point that Paul did more than say “I told you so:”
It was then, when they had gone a long time without food, that Paul came forward, and said: “My friends, you should have listened to me, and not have sailed from Crete and so incurred this injury and damage. Yet, even as things are, I urge you not to lose courage, for there will not be a single life lost among you–only the ship. For last night an angel of the God to whom I belong, and whom I serve, stood by me, and said– ‘Have no fear, Paul; you must appear before the Emperor, and God himself has given you the lives of all your fellow-voyagers.’ Therefore, courage, my friends! for I believe God, that everything will happen exactly as I have been told. We shall, however, have to be driven on some island.” (Acts 27:21-26)
They were driven to the island of Malta, where they made landfall together.
Unlike the ship, many people enter the storms of life without and preparation or way of “tightening the ship.” They have nothing to fall back on, either in this world or in the world to come. The result is that their lives break up in “open water” without a lifeboat, and where it is the most difficult to find someone. It’s one thing to hit the reef near land; it’s quite another to do it far away from any assistance.
What about you? Are you sailing on a tight ship in life? Or are you just waiting for the next storm to tear your life apart? (Or has it already done so?) If that’s the case, you need to put your life in the hands of the Master who got Paul through this predicament and who runs a very tight ship from here to eternal life.
All Scripture quotations in this piece are from the Positive Infinity New Testament, which obviously had a few “old salts” on the translation committee and which gives what is, IMHO, the best rendition of this passage in English available.