The correspondent awakens to a grey sky blending in with grey water. Eventually, the water turns gold, and the sky turns blue, and “sunlight flame[s] on the tips of the waves.”
The captain says that if they linger for too much longer, they will waste all their strength. The correspondent looks at a wind tower on the shore and wonders whether anyone ever climbs it and looks out at the sea as if it were a lighthouse. He thinks the wind tower is an expression of nature’s indifference to humans. The narrator interjects, noting that once a man internalizes his insignificance, he may yearn for a second chance at life having finally understood the difference between right and wrong. Given a second chance, he would change the way he acts and speaks “and be better and brighter during an introduction or at a tea.”
The symbolism of the wind tower points to one of the core tenets of American naturalism: the idea that nature is entirely indifferent to small, insignificant humans. The narrator’s comment about how coming to terms with nature’s indifference may make a man want to redo his life and behave better “at a tea” may be sarcastic and cynical, since being “better and brighter…at a tea” feels like a poor use of a second chance at life.
The captain affirms that the boat is bound to sink, and that they need to row close to shore and swim the rest of the way. However, the waves are too violent for the men to row much nearer to shore. The correspondent knows the men aren’t afraid but can’t make sense of what they’re feeling. The correspondent himself is too tired to feel much of anything. He only feels that “if he should drown it would be a shame.”
The correspondent’s apathetic attitude toward drowning is a sharp change from his previous, passionate lamentations to the sea gods. Fighting against nature has drained the correspondent of his energy, vitality, and now, his will to live.
The men calmly and quietly prepare to abandon their lifeboat, and the captain reminds them to jump as far out from the boat as possible. The boat struggles amidst the violent waves, filling with water faster than the cook can bail it out. The oiler prepares the men to jump at the next wave. The correspondent grabs a lifebelt from the bottom of the boat, and as the next wave crashes, the men fall out into the sea. With his left hand, the correspondent holds the lifebelt across his chest. The cold water feels “tragic” to the correspondent, and he wants to cry.
By holding the lifebelt across his chest with his left hand as he jumps out into the sea, the correspondent mirrors the way the soldier from the poem clutched his chest with his left hand to (unsuccessfully) keep from bleeding to death. In doing this, the correspondent accepts that his death is just as inevitable as that of the soldier.
The correspondent looks around for the other men. Nearby, the cook bobs up and down in the water, while the captain holds onto the overturned boat with his uninjured hand. The oiler is “ahead in the race,” quickly and powerfully swimming to shore.
The correspondent gets trapped in a current, and his progress to shore ceases. In the midst of the confusion, he hears the captain yelling to the cook to turn over on his back and use an oar to row himself to shore rather than to swim. The correspondent catches sight of the captain still clinging to the boat despite its “extraordinary gymnastics” as it gets tossed around by the waves. The correspondent looks to shore, which looks like the scene in a painting. He thinks to himself, “I am going to drown? Can it be possible? Can it be possible? Can it be possible?”
The captain’s commitment to holding onto the overturned boat despite its “extraordinary gymnastics” echoes the statement from the opening of the story about how it is natural for a captain to form a close emotional bond to his ship, whether he captained the ship for a single day or for many years. In addition, the correspondent’s thrice-repeated question about the possibility of his death shows that he is internalizing the fact that his hard work and extreme suffering do not guarantee his survival.
An incoming wave yanks the correspondent out from the tide, allowing him to continue his journey toward the shore. The captain, still clutching the boat, yells for the correspondent to swim to the boat. In his exhaustion, the correspondent thinks about how drowning must be “a comfortable arrangement.”
Trapped in a current and then subsequently released from it, the correspondent is at the mercy of a force he can’t control—just like the randomness of fate and the indifference of nature. By seeing drowning as “a comfortable arrangement,” the correspondent shows his willingness to surrender to nature’s power.
The correspondent notices what looks to be a life-saving man running across the shore and stripping off his clothes. Just then, a massive wave sweeps up the correspondent and propels him over the boat and closer to shore. The correspondent is in awe of this “miracle of the sea,” since a stray boat in the ocean “is not a plaything to a swimming man.” Although the correspondent is now in waist-high waters, he doesn’t have the strength to stand, so the waves repeatedly jostle him around.
In his characteristic dark humor, the correspondent refers to the boat as “not a plaything to a swimming man,” knowing that crashing into the boat could have killed him. The fact that the wave saved him from the danger of the boat when it could have just as easily caused his death is like a “miracle of the sea” because it’s unexpected and unexplainable.
The life-saving man on the shore who had been running and undressing lugs the cook to shore and plods through the waves to the captain, who gestures for the man to save the correspondent first. The naked man, who has seems to have a halo around his head. Shining like a saint, he pulls the correspondent through the waves.
The life-saving man is likened to a saint, momentarily calling into question the text’s attitude toward religion. With Stephen Crane’s own rejection of religion in mind, however, the characterization of the life-saving man as a saint doesn’t suggest a divine savior. Since saints are upright, holy humans, not divine entities, the life-saving man is reflective of the way humans can be one another’s saviors.
The life-saving man suddenly cries out, “What’s that?” and points, and the correspondent tells him, “Go.” In the shallow water of the shore, the oiler is face down, as waves periodically crash over his body and then retreat.
The narrator does not reveal exactly how the oiler drowns. Perhaps he used up too much energy by swimming quickly to shore instead of floating on his back like the cook or hanging onto the boat like the captain. It also may be that swimming ahead of the others meant that he didn’t have their support when he began to lose energy.
The correspondent doesn’t remember how he finally reached shore, save for falling onto the sand, which felt like falling off a roof, but he is grateful for the land regardless. The shore greets the correspondent, the cook, and the captain in a “warm and generous” way, as the shore swarms with people bearing blankets, coffee, clothing, “and all the remedies sacred to their minds.” For the oiler, whose body is carried onto dry land, the shore offers nothing more than “the sinister hospitality of the grave.”
Even the shore is indifferent to the men, seen by its two opposite welcomes. For the captain, the cook, and the correspondent, the shore offers a “warm and generous” hospitality, but for the dead oiler, the shore offers only “the sinister hospitality of the grave.” In addition, even though the oiler seemed to work the hardest out of the men, he wasn’t guaranteed survival.
When night falls, the wind picks up, carrying the sound of the “sea’s voice” to the three men, who feel that after all they have been through they can now be “interpreters.”
The men now try to be “interpreters” of their experience by assigning meaning to it—something the rest of “The Open Boat” cautions against. By closing the story on this note, Stephen Crane encourages his readers to see the character’s mistakes in trying to apply meaning to the natural world. On the other hand, perhaps the narrator is suggesting that the characters have learned precisely this, and are prepared to “interpret” nature in the sense that they now understand its indifference toward them.