As the young captain watches his ship pull away from shore, he remarks that he and the ship seem
to be measuring our fitness for a long and arduous enterprise, the appointed task of both of our existences to be carried out.
Unsure of himself, he walks the deck at night and discovers in the water the naked body of a man, whom he pulls out of the water. Keeping him hidden, the captain develops a relationship with Leggatt, a first mate who has killed a man in a storm with "a sea gone mad." In their developing friendship, both men find meaning through the sharing of Leggatt's secret. And, after the captain of Leggatt's ship comes aboard in search of his murderous mate, the narrator decides that he must help Leggatt escape. Spotting some islands on the east side of the gulf, the captain suggests to Legatt that there he can become a free man.
As he has the ship steer close to the islands, the captain's first mate worries that the ship will not "weather." But, the captain, who senses a "great black mass brooding over our very mastheads" discovers the hat he has given Leggatt floating on the water:
Now I had what I wanted--the saving mark for my eyes. But I hardly thought of my other self, now gone from the ship, to be hidden forever from all friendly faces, to be a fugitive and a vagabond on the earth, with no brand of the curse on his sane forehead to stay a slaying hand . . . too proud to explain.
No longer a stranger to his ship, the captain has made his rite of passage, feeling the ship move "under his feet to his own independent word. So, too, has Leggatt found his freedom, though he must wander. Clearly, then, the motif of sailing and handling a ship are metaphors for the psychological states of the captain and Leggatt as well as their rites of passage.