The story is prefaced by a note that states that the following story is based on the real-life sinking of a steamer called the Commodore.
On January 2, 1897, the Commodore sank, just off the coast of Florida and only one day after its departure. One of the shipwreck survivors was the author, a journalist named Stephen Crane, who was forced to fight for his survival for thirty hours on a ten-foot lifeboat with three others.
The story opens with a group of people crammed together on a bathtub-sized lifeboat on the open sea. The passengers can’t tell what color the sky is, but the violent, frothy sea is grey and white.
The story begins in medias res (that is, in the middle of the action) which makes the reader immediately unsure as to what is happening. The abrupt opening paired with the characters’ uncertainty about the color of the sky shows that uncertainty is a key theme in the story.
The first passenger is the cook, who is in charge of bailing water out of the lifeboat. The oiler (that is, a person who oils machinery in a ship’s engine room) steers the boat with a single, thin oar. The correspondent, who wonders why he’s in this situation in the first place, uses the other oar to propel them forward. The fourth and final passenger is the injured captain who gives the other men orders. He is in “mourning” over his now-sunken ship since he was responsible for its passengers and was emotionally attached to his vessel.
The four-person group of the cook, oiler, correspondent, and captain mirrors the group that survived the real-life Commodore shipwreck: the captain, Edward Murphy; the cook, Charles Montgomery; the oiler, Billy Higgins; and the correspondent, Stephen Crane. This suggests that the correspondent is based on Crane himself. This passage also reveals that the narrator has special insight into the correspondent’s thoughts and feelings but no one else’s—establishing that the narrator is third-person limited.
The captain tells Billie, the oiler, to keep the lifeboat headed south. The lifeboat is compared to a “bucking bronco” for its size and the way the boat rears on the waves like an agitated, wild horse.
Crane slightly alters the spelling of the real-life oiler’s name, changing Billy to Billie, and makes him the only named character in the story, suggesting that he is somehow differentiated from the other characters. This is perhaps because, as it is later revealed, Billie is the only character not to survive the voyage. The comparison of the lifeboat to a “bucking bronco,” one of many comparisons between the sea and the land, emphasizes the wildness of the waves.
The narrator says that one of the downsides of the sea is the way the waves seem endless. After the boat manages to ride one giant wave and come out unscathed, another giant wave approaches. Each “snarling” wave feels like it will be the one to capsize the boat.
The description of the waves as “snarling” extends the comparison between wild animals and the waves, reminding readers that nature is not just powerful but is also dangerous, like an animal preparing to fight.
The narrator notes that in the dim light the men’s faces “must have been grey,” and “their eyes must have glinted.” If someone watched this scene from above, as if from a balcony, the whole thing would look strangely beautiful. The waves change color from grey to green, signaling the sunrise, but the men are too focused on the approaching waves to notice.
Even the narrator is uncertain as to what is going on, underscoring the limitations of the narrator’s perspective. The narrator’s comment about someone watching the scene from above seems like a vague reference to God. Considering Crane’s own anti-religious views, however, this comment probably points to the way the narrator and the reader hover over the story, looking down into it.
The cook says that there is a “house of refuge” close by, near Mosquito Inlet, so the men are likely to be seen and saved soon. The correspondent tells the cook that a “house of refuge” doesn’t have a crew, just emergency supplies. As the cook and correspondent argue, the oiler says it doesn’t matter, considering that they aren’t even there yet. The cook says maybe it’s not a “house of refuge” but a “life-saving station”—regardless, something is there and someone will see them. The oiler repeats that they aren’t there yet.
The arguments about these two places—"houses of refuge” and “life-saving stations”—linger throughout the entire story. This moment also serves to develop the cook’s character. He is self-assured and quick to voice his optimism. The correspondent is quick to question and point out facts, perhaps pointing to his background as a journalist. Meanwhile, the oiler is quiet yet firm, intent on diffusing conflict.