Each wave that the lifeboat must cross is like a hill. The narrator supposes that the view from the top of the wave must have been glorious: “a broad and tumultuous expanse; shining and wind-riven.”
The narrator is clearly uncertain about the finer details in the story, noting that the view from the top of the waves was “probably glorious.” This reinforces uncertainty as a theme in the story.
The cook expresses relief that there is an on-shore wind, stating that without it, the men wouldn’t have chance. The correspondent and oiler agree, but the captain laughs and says with “humor, contempt, and tragedy,” “Do you think we’ve got much of a [chance] now, boys?”
The “humor, contempt, and tragedy” with which the captain speaks seem reflective of the tone of “The Open Boat” as a whole, as well as the literary movement it belongs to, American naturalism, which focuses on cynicism, suffering, survival, and nature’s indifference to humans.
The oiler, the cook, and the correspondent feel optimistic but don’t voice it, because they feel that voicing their optimism would sound “childish and stupid.” The captain, as if “soothing his children,” says that they will make it to shore all right. The captain’s tone of voice makes the other three men think. The oiler adds that they will get to shore if the wind stays in their favor. The cook adds that they will get to shore if they “don’t catch hell in the surf.”
In this passage, the captain speaks with uncharacteristic optimism for the sake of teaching the other men, likened to “his children,” that their optimism is impractical. The other men quickly amend their previous optimistic statements to make them more realistic.
A group of seagulls fly in a line like rugs flapping in the wind on a clothesline. The gulls are as unbothered by the violent ocean as “a covey of prairie chickens a thousand miles inland.” A bird lands on the captain’s head, but the captain can’t wave it away for fear of capsizing the boat in the process. The oiler tells the bird that it looks like it was carved crudely by hand, and all of the men think the bird is “somehow [gruesome] and ominous.”
The comparison between seagulls, rugs, and chickens is yet another land reference, orienting the non-sea-faring reader as to what life on the open sea looks like. Although the bird is seemingly harmless, it is an example of nature’s complete control over the men—as even just swatting the bird away could capsize the boat and drown the men. The appearance of an ominous bird on a boat is perhaps an allusion to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”
The oiler and the correspondent continue taking turns rowing. Switching places on the tiny lifeboat without capsizing it is more difficult than attempting to take eggs from a hen. However, the men manage to switch places at regular intervals, sharing the burden. Thus, “the oiler and the correspondent rowed. […] They rowed and they rowed.”
The narrator’s description of the rowing is repetitive, mimicking the monotonous, repetitive motion of rowing. However, the oiler and the correspondent are able to share the burden of their suffering by switching off frequently.
The captain says that he sees the lighthouse at Mosquito Inlet, and the cook sees it too. The correspondent is too busy rowing and keeping his eyes glued on the approaching waves to turn around and look, but when he can finally steal a glance, he doesn’t see a lighthouse anywhere. After the captain tells him to look again, the correspondent finally sees it. The narrator likens the lighthouse to the point of a pin in size and notes that it would take “an anxious eye to find a lighthouse so tiny.”
The correspondent’s urge to turn around and search the horizon for the lighthouse shows the human impulse to latch onto glimmers of hope and optimism, even if that hope takes “an anxious eye” to find.
The men ask the captain if they will make it to shore, to which he replies by saying that they will be fine if the wind continues and the boat doesn’t flood. The lifeboat is “just a wee thing wallowing […] at the mercy of five oceans.” The captain orders the cook to bail the small boat.
The size comparison between the lifeboat and the ocean shows how tiny and insignificant the boat, and consequently its passengers, are in the face of nature. The men are not just up against the Atlantic Ocean but all five of the world’s oceans.