Phillip Enright is an eleven year old boy living on the island of Curacao in the Dutch West Indies. Phillip, who narrates the story, does not give the reader much information concerning his physical characteristics. He is white, fairly athletic, and spends a great deal of time fishing and sailing with his father and taking long walks around different parts of the island. After Phillip's blindness, his hearing becomes more acute. Phillip is well under six feet tall, since he can stand up in the hut that Timothy builds on the cay; Timothy, who is very tall, cannot stand inside without his head hitting the thatched roof. Phillip's clothes eventually become "tatters," and his hair feels "ropy." Phillip shows his strength when he is able to pull Timothy from the water while he is suffering from "d'fever," but his greatest accomplishment is when he finally summons the courage to climb the palm tree to retrieve the fresh coconuts.
In The Cay, Phillip is initially excited that the war, which he has heard so much about but has never experienced, has eventually reached the island of Curacao. He is the narrator and gives rich descriptions about his surroundings and other people, revealing that he is very aware of his surroundings, but he does not reveal much about himself. However, he is proud of his twelve years and is offended when he is treated like a little boy. He would seem to be average height for his age, him fitting comfortably in the hut that Timothy makes them.
He lives with his parents in Curacao which is in the Caribbean after his father was required to move from Virginia, America to do his part for the "war effort," working to increase aviation fuel production. Phillip is very over-protected by his mother who always has concerns that he will get hurt whereas his father would rather Phillip knows the dangers and understands the truth. Phillip and his best friend, Henrik do lots of exploring since Phillip's father rarely has time for fishing or sailing anymore. Phillip describes Henrik as having a round face and being "chubby" with "straw-colored hair" and red cheeks.
After the boat in which Phillip and his mother are returning to America is torpedoed, Phillip finds himself in the company of Timothy who is "very old" with the whitest teeth and "pink-purple lips" with a face that "couldn't have been blacker." Over time, Phillip learns to trust and respect Timothy and his "stubborn" nature. After going blind, Phillip enjoys the feel of the rain because it is something he can "hear and feel." He questions Timothy as to why people have different colors of skin and Timothy equates it to flowers being different colors and reminds Phillip that beneath the skin, Phillip as a white boy and Timothy as a black man, "is all d'same."
As time goes by, Timothy suggests that Phillip is strong enough to climb the coconut trees and Phillip does wonder about his appearance (in chapter 10). Although he can't see, he knows that he looks scruffy as his clothes are 'in tatters." He knows his hair is messy and "ropy" with no possibility of even trying to comb it. As he is blind, Phillip also wonders about his eyes and Timothy informs hi that "Dey stare." Phillip gets around the island with the help of a cane which Timothy makes for him and Phillip admits to a few scratches and a renewed sense of independence which he needs as Timothy gets increasingly sick.
After the hurricane, Timothy, having protected Phillip, dies and Phillip is left alone with Stew Cat to fend for himself. Timothy has taught Phillip how to survive and time has passed that Phillip's skin is "very dark now" and his hair is long. After he is rescued, Phillip is reunited with his parents and eventually regains his sight after three operations.