The point of view in which Crane writes is third-person limited omniscient. A third-person point of view specifies an external narrator who is witnessing the story as though from afar, either at a near distance or a remote one. The narrator is not an agent in the story and does not participate in the story. This narrator witnesses the story and reports on it as it unfolds.
A limited omniscient third-person point of view means that the narrator has access--if desired--to focusing the thoughts, motives, and feelings of any one of the characters. Though the narrator in "The Open Boat" doesn't delve into psychological depths with the men in the boat, this omniscient knowledge of and insight into all characters and the accompanying broad view of surroundings and events is illustrated in this passage:
The crest of each of these waves was a hill, from the top of which the men surveyed, for a moment, a broad tumultuous expanse; shining and wind-riven. It was probably splendid. It was probably glorious, this play of the free sea, wild with lights of emerald and white and amber.
"Bully good thing it's an on-shore wind," said the cook. "If not, where would we be? Wouldn't have a show."
"That's right," said the correspondent.
The busy oiler nodded his assent.
Then the captain, in the bow, chuckled in a way that expressed humor, contempt, tragedy, all in one. "Do you think we've got much of a show, now, boys?" said he.
Whereupon the three were silent, save for a trifle of hemming and hawing. To express any particular optimism at this time they felt to be childish and stupid, but they all doubtless possessed this sense of the situation in their mind.
A third person point of view may be expressed as a limited point of view. This means that the narrator is limited to the thoughts, feelings and motives of one character and all perception and experience comes through that one character’s expressions, thoughts, feelings, and reactions. As you can tell from the quotation above, this clearly is not the exclusive case with the narrator in this story: the narrator witnesses and speaks for all the characters, even to the extent of seeing them sometimes as a unified group:
A young man thinks doggedly at such times. On the other hand, the ethics of their condition was decidedly against any open suggestion of hopelessness. So they were silent.
What does occur in this third-person limited omniscient point of view is that the narrator focuses greater and greater attention on filtering perceptions through the correspondent. This filtering focus is not so apparent in the beginning of the story but becomes more evident as the story progresses. It is foreshadowed in passages like this one in which the correspondent's perceptions are featured: "there was this comradeship that the correspondent, ... knew even at the time was the best." By the end of the story, the narrator limits the focus almost exclusively to the correspondent:
Then [the correspondent] saw the man who had been running and undressing, and undressing and running, come bounding into the water.
The speaker of the story, who speaks as a first-person narrator, is not named. We may conclude that he has had a good deal of experience with small boats, and with the language of sailors. His concentration shifts in the course of the story. At first, he seems to be aware of all four men on the boat, collectively, and he makes observations that permit us to understand the ideas and responses of the men, who are linked in a virtual “brotherhood” because of their having been stranded on a tiny boat amid the high waves that are menacing their existence (paragraph 9). At about paragraph 49, however, the speaker shifts his concentration primarily to the correspondent, while he describes the other men more dramatically.
Might we assume that at this point, Crane is merging the speaker of the story with his own voice, as nearly as we can determine it? Throughout, the speaker introduces some of his own ideas, and also, at times, speaks ironically. This accounts for some of the more humorous expressions in the story. Thus, the speaker comments wryly that the men, while rushing from the sinking ship to save themselves, “had forgotten to eat heartily” and therefore were now being weakened with hunger (paragraph 49). The speaker is in control of the tone of his descriptions, as when he points out that the human back, to a rower, is subject to innumerable and painful kinks and knots (paragraph 82). The speaker is also observant and philosophical, as when he comments that the four men at sea need to turn their heads to contemplate the “lonely and indifferent shore” (paragraph 206).
The story’s final sentence, about the fact that the three surviving men can be “interpreters,” is suggestive of a good deal of thought and observation that could lead beyond the content of the story.
Though the point of view is third-person limited-omniscient, Crane's merging of his thoughts with the narrator's would not be as effective, not as dramatic, or objective, for it is this third-person distance that Crane feels would be most suitable for his idea that men are insignificant compared to the forces of nature, or nature itself. The point is driven home well with his particular point of view: another or different point of view would cloud his message and obscure his central theme: a different point of view would be too emotional, too fraught with survivability.