Four men are adrift in an open boat, their ship having gone down about dawn. Now, in the clear light of day, the men begin to perceive the full gravity of their situation. The captain is lying injured in the bow of the boat, and the January sea is tossing the men about, rising menacingly over the gunwales. The oiler and the correspondent are rowing, trying to reach Mosquito Light Inlet, where, the cook has said, there is a lifesaving station.
As the day passes, the men grow silent. The captain encourages them. “We’ll get ashore all right,” he says. As they row, seabirds hover above them, floating in groups next to them, one even coming close enough to be waved off. The men swear at it, deeming the bird an ill omen.
In time, the captain and the cook spy the lighthouse, a pinpoint at the throat of the horizon, and the crew rig a sail from the captain’s overcoat. Soon, the lighthouse appears larger, but the wind quickly dies, and the correspondent and the oiler are obliged to row harder. The land begins to loom, and the men can see the shore and hear the roar of the surf. Expecting now to be seen and rescued, the men are at first puzzled, then angered that no one is on the beach. They do not know that there is no lifesaving station here, and as the afternoon wears on, the men row steadily toward shore until their bodies ache.
Suddenly, they spot a man on the beach. In their excitement, they yell and wave a towel at him and the man waves back. Another man appears, riding a bicycle, and finally onto the beach drives an omnibus from one of the large resort hotels. The men in the boat wave and yell frantically, but the party on the beach, obviously there only for an outing, regard the men in the boat as merely fishermen and ignore them. The wind shifts, and night draws on, sealing up the land and leaving the men adrift in the starry darkness.
During the night, the men sleep as best they can, an occasional wave washing into the boat, chilling them to the bone. The oiler and the correspondent take turns rowing, though the oiler, the stronger of the two, plies the oars even as sleep overpowers him. As the correspondent takes his turn, he grows lonely. All about him is darkness and the exhausted sleep of his shipmates. He hears a swish and peers into the water. The dark fin of an enormous shark cuts the water near him, and the correspondent wishes that someone were awake with him against the thing in the sea. In this crucial scene, the correspondent muses on his fate. What an injustice it would be, he thinks, to drown now, after having endured so much, after having come so far and so close. He remembers a childhood verse about a soldier of the Legion dying in Algiers and feels a kinship with him. Finally, the shark swims away, the oiler awakes and relieves him, and the correspondent sleeps until dawn.
The next morning, the men decide to bring the boat to shore. It is a treacherous undertaking because of rough surf and the perils of capsizing. The waves become ferocious as they approach the beach, but the men jump into the raging sea. As he rises to the surface, the correspondent sees the oiler just ahead, swimming strongly. Passing on his left, the captain and the cook are holding on to the capsized boat. As he makes his way to the boat, the correspondent sees a man onshore rushing into the sea to help them.
Battling to stay afloat, the correspondent feels an undertow dragging at him, but in an instant the man from the shore has reached him and pulls him in. Rescuers now arrive with coffee and blankets. The correspondent and his shipmates have been saved—all but the oiler. He lies face downward in the shallows. As night comes, the men stand on the beach, watching the sea, realizing that they have learned a lesson in survival.