After their ship to Virginia is torpedoed by German submarines, Phillip finds himself without his mother and stranded on a raft with an old, black man named Timothy and a cat named Stew Cat. Although he knows that his circumstances have propelled him into a strange situation, Phillip feels uncomfortable in Timothy's presence. He muses that in Virginia, black people had always lived in their own communities, apart from white people.
In Chapter 4, Timothy tells Phillip to get plenty of rest because they have much to accomplish the next day. Phillip is genuinely curious as to what they would have to do on a raft, hence his question.
Timothy answers that their job is to stay alive. His answer foreshadows his own eventual death and the trials both of them will face on their journey back to civilization. At this point, Phillip begins to realize that staying safe from the elements and the sharks will take every inch of ingenuity and courage they can muster on their own behalf.