The encounter between Paddy and Yank in the very beginning of the play serves several purposes. It establishes the time period of the drama, the early years of the Twentieth Century. America has entered the modern Industrial Age, but Paddy's presence on the ship establishes that the "old days" before industrialization are within memory. The conversation between Yank and Paddy develops the sharp contrast between the modern era and its engine-powered ships that Yank so identifies with and the beauty and freedom of working ships under sail that Paddy remembers and mourns:
Oh, to be back in the fine days of my youth, ochone! Oh, there was fine beautiful ships them days--clippers wid tall masts touching the sky . . . Oh, to be scudding south again wid the power of the Trade Wind driving her on steady through the nights and the days! Full sail on her! Nights and days! Nights when the foam of the wake would be flaming wid fire, when the sky'd be blazing and winking wid stars. Or the full of the moon maybe. Then you'd see her driving through the gray night, her sails stretching aloft all silver and white, not a sound on the deck, the lot of us dreaming dreams . . . .
The imagery in Paddy's speech contrasts sharply with the cramped, confined, below-decks setting in which his encounter with Yank occurs, and Yank's reaction expresses the modern disdain for the romance of Paddy's era. Instead of celebrating beauty and freedom, Yank celebrates the power and speed produced by men like him shoveling grimy coal into fiery furnaces :
Sure I'm part of de engines! Why de hell not! Dey move, don't dey? Dey're speed, ain't dey? Dey smash trou, don't dey? Twenty-five knots a hour! Dat's goin' some! Dat's new stuff! Dat belongs! But him [Paddy], he's too old. He gets dizzy. Say, listen. All dat crazy tripe about nights and days; all dat crazy tripe about stars and moons; all dat crazy tripe about suns and winds, fresh air and de rest of it--Aw hell, dat's all a dope dream! Hittin' de pipe of de past, dat's what he's doin'. He's old and don't belong no more. But me, I'm young! I'm in de pink! I move wit it! . . . De engines and de coal and de smoke and all de rest of it! He can't breathe and swallow coal dust, but I kin, see? Dat's fresh air for me! Dat's food for me! I'm new, get me? Hell in de stokehole? Sure! It takes a man to work in hell. Hell, sure, dat's my fav'rite climate. I eat it up! I git fat on it!
The conversation between Yank and Paddy also establishes the terrible working conditions brought about by industrialization that Yank and the others live in daily. Yank may revel in breathing and swallowing coal dust, but his description of the men's job aboard this "modern" ship voices strong social criticism.
Another purpose of the encounter between Yank and Paddy is that it establishes Yank's character so strongly that the dramatic changes that occur within him as the play develops become even more meaningful.