The primary conflict in Theodore Taylor's novel, The Cay, concerns the two main characters--Phillip, an American boy, and Timothy, a West Indian sailor--and their long stay on a deserted island after surviving the torpedoing of their ship. It becomes a story of man versus nature, and how Timothy teaches Phillip, who is blinded when their ship goes down, to fend for himself against the elements. Phillip is initially dependent upon Timothy, but the aging sailor knows that they may be stranded for a long time, and he teaches Phillip how to fish and take care of himself in case he is left alone. Timothy eventually dies, and Phillip uses the lessons learned from his West Indian friend to stay alive until he is rescued. There are other conflicts between the two characters earlier in the story. Phillip, who has been brought up by a racially intolerant mother, has little respect for the "ugly" black man at first, but the boy comes to love the man after he gets to know him.
The conflict in The Cay is multifold. First, Phillip, the eleven-year-old white boy stranded on the cay, must deal with the task of surviving on the small cay after he is blinded. He must learn to become more independent and navigate his way around the island while blind. Timothy, the Caribbean man who is stranded with Phillip on the cay, teaches the boy skills to become more independent. These skills become even more vital after Timothy dies, leaving Phillip alone until he is rescued.
In addition, Phillip faces the conflict of dealing with his racist feelings towards Timothy. Phillip's mother taught him to regard black people as lesser, and he must overcome these feelings to learn to not only co-exist with Timothy on the island but also to learn to trust him. It is Timothy who cares for Phillip and teaches him how to survive after being blinded, and Phillip comes to recognize Timothy's humanity.