Four men are adrift in an open boat, their ship having gone down about dawn. Now, in the clear light of day, the men begin to perceive the full gravity of their situation. The captain is lying injured in the bow of the boat, and the January sea is tossing the men about, rising menacingly over the gunwales. The oiler and the correspondent are rowing, trying to reach Mosquito Light Inlet, where, the cook has said, there is a lifesaving station.
As the day passes, the men grow silent. The captain encourages them. “We’ll get ashore all right,” he says. As they row, seabirds hover above them, floating in groups next to them, one even coming close enough to be waved off. The men swear at it, deeming the bird an ill omen.
In time, the captain and the cook spy the lighthouse, a pinpoint at the throat of the horizon, and the crew rig a sail from the captain’s overcoat. Soon, the lighthouse appears larger, but the wind quickly dies, and the correspondent and the oiler are obliged to row harder. The land begins to loom, and the men can see the shore and hear the roar of the surf. Expecting now to be seen and rescued, the men are at first puzzled, then angered that no one is on the beach. They do not know that there is no lifesaving station here, and as the afternoon wears on, the men row steadily toward shore until their bodies ache.
Suddenly, they spot a man on the beach. In their excitement, they yell and wave a towel at him and the man waves back. Another man appears, riding a bicycle, and finally onto the beach drives an omnibus from one of the large resort hotels. The men in the boat wave and yell frantically, but the party on the beach, obviously there only for an outing, regard the men in the boat as merely fishermen and ignore them. The wind shifts, and night draws on, sealing up the land and leaving the men adrift in the starry darkness.
During the night, the men sleep as best they can, an occasional wave washing into the boat, chilling them to the bone. The oiler and the correspondent take turns rowing, though the oiler, the stronger of the two, plies the oars even as sleep overpowers him. As the correspondent takes his turn, he grows lonely. All about him is darkness and the exhausted sleep of his shipmates. He hears a swish and peers into the water. The dark fin of an enormous shark cuts the water near him, and the correspondent wishes that someone were awake with him against the thing in the sea. In this crucial scene, the correspondent muses on his fate. What an injustice it would be, he thinks, to drown now, after having endured so much, after having come so far and so close. He remembers a childhood verse about a soldier of the Legion dying in Algiers and feels a kinship with him. Finally, the shark swims away, the oiler awakes and relieves him, and the correspondent sleeps until dawn.
The next morning, the men decide to bring the boat to shore. It is a treacherous undertaking because of rough surf and the perils of capsizing. The waves become ferocious as they approach the beach, but the men jump into the raging sea. As he rises to the surface, the correspondent sees the oiler just ahead, swimming strongly. Passing on his left, the captain and the cook are holding on to the capsized boat. As he makes his way to the boat, the correspondent sees a man onshore rushing into the sea to help them.
Battling to stay afloat, the correspondent feels an undertow dragging at him, but in an instant the man from the shore has reached him and pulls him in. Rescuers now arrive with coffee and blankets. The correspondent and his shipmates have been saved—all but the oiler. He lies face downward in the shallows. As night comes, the men stand on the beach, watching the sea, realizing that they have learned a lesson in survival.
Four men, crewmembers and a passenger of the sunken ship Commodore, are floating in a lifeboat scarcely bigger than a bathtub, their eyes fixed on the ocean waves that continually threaten to overwhelm them. The cook bails water from the boat while the oiler and correspondent row. The captain of the Commodore is injured, consumed with despair and visions of the sinking of the ship and the faces of its crewmembers.
The struggle to keep the boat upright and free of the waves is continuous. The men know it is daytime only because the color of the sea changes. They have no cause to look at the sky; their attention is only on the menacing waves. The cook says hopefully that he knows of a house of refuge on shore with a crew that could rescue the shipwrecked men. The men begin to squabble about whether the house of refuge will indeed have a crew, but the oiler twice reminds them that they are not yet ashore.
The ocean, “probably splendid,” continues tossing the boat, but the men are in such danger and hardship that they have no inclination to consider the sea’s beauties. Caught between childish optimism and hopelessness, the men talk idly about whether they have a chance of making land. The captain spots a lighthouse so far away that it looks like the point of a pin. The men still cannot discern any progress through the ocean, but the cook is cheerful as he bails water. The men begin to feel an intense sense of fellowship. Even the cynical correspondent knows that this is the best experience of his life.
On the captain’s suggestion, the men rig up a mast and sail. The lighthouse has been growing in size, indicating they are getting closer to it. The cook mentions, as if in passing, that he believes the life-saving station on shore had been abandoned about a year ago. The wind dies, and the men take the oars. The men had hardly slept for two days and nights before getting on the dingy, and had eaten little as well. Their efforts are so great that the correspondent wonders desperately how anyone could row a boat for pleasure.
As the land comes closer, the captain is able to make out a house on the shore; the cook and the captain anticipate men coming out to rescue them. The oiler notes that none of the other lifeboats can have made it to land, given that no rescuers have been looking for survivors. As the men approach shore, their mood lightens. The correspondent finds four dry cigars, and everyone smokes and takes a drink of water.
The house of refuge shows no signs of life. The men are puzzled; they do not realize that there are no life-saving stations for miles. The men’s spirits fade. The captain says that they will have to try to get in to shore themselves, before they are too tired to make the swim. The men are filled with anger, wondering why they should endure so much if they might be drowned before they reach shore.
The waves grow so large that the boat is sure to be swamped before the men can get close enough to swim, so they take the boat farther out. They then see a man on shore, and their spirits soar. He begins to wave a coat at them. The man is joined by a second man and by something on wheels, which the shipwrecked men excitedly hope is a boat being readied for launch. Eventually, in despair, they identify the thing on wheels as only a bus (an omnibus). The man waves the coat until the sunset obscures him, while the men finally lose hope that someone on shore understands their dilemma and will launch a boat to save them. Once again, they begin to wonder why they might have been brought so close to shore if they are going to drown before reaching it.
Darkness settles in. The correspondent rows as the others sleep and sees a flash of phosphorescence like a blue flame on the sea—the fin of a shark. The correspondent repeats a lament: Why should he and the other men endure so much if they are to drown within sight of land? The thought dawns on him that nature does not feel the men are important; he responds by affirming that he thinks he is important, that he loves himself. A cold star seems to be the answer.
The correspondent remembers a verse about a dying soldier in Algiers, which never before struck him as important. Now he imagines the dying soldier in detail and is deeply moved by the scene. Exhausted, the correspondent and the oiler, now awake, take turns rowing.
At dawn, the men see deserted cottages and a windmill on shore. The captain suggests they try a run for shore, before they are too tired to make it. They position the boat in the rough surf, and the men are swept into the icy sea. The correspondent sees the oiler, who is swimming strongly; he sees the cook from behind and the captain hanging on to the overturned dingy. The correspondent reaches a difficult current. The captain tells the cook to turn on his back and paddle with the oar, and the boat sweeps past with the captain still clinging. A wave pushes the correspondent out of the current, and the captain calls him to the boat. The effort to get to the boat is so great that the correspondent realizes that drowning would be easy and comfortable. He sees a man running along the shore, tearing off his clothes. A wave hurls the correspondent over the boat. The man on shore plunges in the water and grabs the cook, and then heads toward the captain, who directs him to the correspondent. The correspondent, from excessive casualness, says, “Thanks, old man,” but the man exclaims at something: In the shallow water floats the oiler, face down.
The correspondent reaches land as if falling from a roof. A swarm of people provide blankets, clothes, and drinks. The welcome for the survivors contrasts strongly with the sinister welcome of the grave for the dead man, the oiler. At night, the survivors feel as if they can interpret the great voice of the sea.