The conflicts in "The Open Boat" are, primarily, man against nature and, as a subsidiary conflict, man against self. The men in the boat cooperate and work reasonably well together, so there is no serious conflict between them, but the captain and the correspondent, at any rate, are riven with internal conflict. The captain blames himself for the loss of his ship and is plagued with guilt when he thinks of all the people who have died. The correspondent, perhaps the most sensitive of the four men, and certainly the one with whom the author identifies most closely, struggles to maintain a stoical exterior in the face of a frightening situation which often seems hopeless.
Although these internal conflicts heighten the drama and human interest of the story, it is the conflict with nature that is life-threatening. As the story progresses, the correspondent in particular becomes resigned to his fate. He recalls a poem about a soldier dying far from home and is indifferent when he sees a shark in the water. At this point, it appears that he at least has given up the conflict. However, the climax comes when the men decide to swim ashore despite the danger. The climactic passage begins as the correspondent goes overboard:
The January water was icy, and he reflected immediately that it was colder than he had expected to find it off the coast of Florida. This appeared to his dazed mind as a fact important enough to be noted at the time. The coldness of the water was sad; it was tragic.
It appears at first that the correspondent will not survive this ordeal, but when they reach the shore, the three surviving men discover that it is the oiler, the strongest of them, who was swimming ahead, who has died on the way to the beach.