What happens in The Open Boat?

In "The Open Boat," four men are stranded in the open ocean. One of them knows of a lifesaving station on Mosquito Island Inlet. After days of rowing, they finally reach the island, but only three of them make it to shore safely.

  • Four men (a cook, a captain, an oiler, and a correspondent) are forced to flee in the open boat when their ship sinks. The captain is injured, and the three others must row to safety.

  • The cook tells them of a safe haven on Mosquito Island Inlet. They spend days rowing to the island, guided by the lighthouse on its shore, but when they reach it, the inhabitants immediately understand that they need rescuing.

  • During a harrowing journey to shore, the oiler dies in the rough waters. All the other men live and feel that they've learned a lesson about survival.

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Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 2,720 words.)