Wellingborough Redburn, a young American who leaves his widowed mother and his brothers at home on the Hudson River in New York to go to sea. He learns, during a voyage from New York to Liverpool and return, that a sailor’s life is a good but rugged one, that each generation makes its own world, and that true joy and sorrow are components of the human condition.
Harry Bolton, a young English prodigal son of good family who becomes Redburn’s friend during the voyage from Liverpool to New York. Bolton is a misfit aboard ship, thus belying the stories he tells of his voyages as a crew member on other vessels. His pride is so injured when the captain pays him a dollar and a half as wages at the voyage’s end that he throws the money back on the captain’s desk.
Captain Riga, the tough, shrewd master of the Highlander, Redburn’s first ship. He pays Redburn three dollars a month for his work on the voyage, but when the ship returns to New York, he dismisses Redburn without a penny because he says Redburn had left the ship for a day at Liverpool and, furthermore, had lost tools overboard.