Phillip Enright is a young man living with his parents during World War II in Curacao, an island in the Dutch West Indies. He lives a somewhat privileged life, since his father holds an important position with an oil company on the island. Due in part to his mother's Deep South roots, Phillip harbors racist views about the native West Indians around him. He is immature, selfish and opinionated--boyish traits that eventually dissolve during his stay on the cay.
Timothy is a native of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. An aging, veteran sailor, he saves Phillip when the ship on which they are travelling is sunk near Panama. Timothy proves to be a kind, patient man who treats Phillip as a father would a son. Timothy occasionally shows his anger, slapping Phillip when the boy insults him, but Timothy's wisdom is evident through most of the novel. After Phillip goes blind, Timothy teaches the boy how to care for himself. Timothy realizes that the two may be stranded on the island for a long period of time, and the old sailor understands that he may die before they are rescued. He teaches Phillip to be self-sufficient, and during the hurricane, Timothy shields the boy from the storm, eventually dying from the ordeal. Timothy's courage and unselfishness wins Phillip's love and admiration, and the sailor's foresight proves to save the boy's life.