Theodore Taylor's The Cay follows young Phillip, a school-age boy living on the Caribbean island of Curaçao during World War II. The book follows Phillip's coming of age amidst the dangers of war, desertion, race-relations, and cultural and class conflict.
The story's rising action culminates in a devastating hurricane, the events of which forever change Phillip's view of the world. Before the hurricane, Phillip sees the world through the self-centered lens of his own limited, immature vision. During the hurricane, he experiences hardships that force him to confront the world from a less selfish and more altruistic stance. After the hurricane, Phillip makes decisions more maturely, with greater insight and with care and love for those around him.
Prior to the hurricane, Phillip is traveling aboard the British ship S.S. Hato. He and his mother are traveling to Virginia. Phillip, upset that his mother had taken him along, spends most of his time whining at his mother, or getting into mischief aboard ship. Unfortunately, the ship is capsized by German forces. Phillip ends up drifting unconscious. He is picked up by a black West African named Timothy. The two float aimlessly on a raft for days before sighting a small island (cay).
Philip had been injured when his boat was capsized. He slowly looses vision, becoming completely blind. In addition, he is resentful and rebellious toward Timothy, despite having been rescued by the old West Indian. He also feels superior to Timothy because Timothy doesn't know how to read or write. Phillip constantly disobeys and insults Timothy, but Timothy continues to care for him and helps him to survive.
Several months after the two begin living on the cay, a hurricane hits the island. The shelter Timothy and Phillip had constructed is blown away. The storm becomes viciously strong: attacking every structure, threatening both their lives. When it appears that neither of them would survive the storm, Timothy uses his own body to cover Phillip from the extreme weather. Timothy dies from the harsh impact of the hurricane against his bare flesh.
Phillip is deeply moved by Timothy's self-sacrifice. After the storm clears, he tearfully buries Timothy, feeling great shame at how he'd treated his caretaker in life. Afterwards, Phillip begins to look after Timothy's pet cat. He starts to try in earnest to attract planes coming by. Eventually he learns to send up black smoke signals. He is rescued several months later by a British plane.