“The Open Boat” opens with four men crammed into a bathtub-sized lifeboat on the violent, steel-grey sea off of the coast of Florida. The four shipwreck survivors are the captain of the now-sunken Commodore, the cook, the correspondent, and the oiler. As the cook bails out the boat, the injured captain gives orders, and the correspondent and the oiler, named Billie, take turns rowing. The tiny lifeboat struggles to climb the massive waves, and each crest feels like it will be the one to capsize the boat.
As the sun rises (visible only in the sea’s changing colors, not in the grey skies), the correspondent and the cook argue. The cook asserts that they are nearing the Mosquito Inlet lighthouse, which also has a house of refuge, so the men will surely be seen and saved quickly. The correspondent corrects him, noting that houses of refuge don’t have crews—just emergency supplies. Life-saving stations, however, have both. After arguing back-and-forth, the cook supposes that it could be a life-saving station after all, but regardless, there is a crew who will see and save them. The oiler grumbles that they aren’t there yet, so it’s not worth arguing about.
The men are glad for the onshore wind that pushes them closer to shore. They are hesitant to voice their optimism, but most of them feel hopeful that they will be rescued soon. However, it’s uncomfortable being packed into such a small lifeboat. When a sea gull lands on the captain’s head, the captain can’t even swat it away for fear of tipping the boat. Likewise, when the correspondent and the oiler take turns rowing, they must take care not to rock the boat as they switch places.
The captain notices the Mosquito Inlet lighthouse in the distance. The correspondent, busy at the oars, longs to turn his head to search the horizon for the lighthouse but can’t take his eyes off of the approaching waves. When he finally sees the lighthouse, it’s no bigger than a needle’s point. The captain says the men are bound to make it to shore as long as the wind stays in their favor and the boat doesn’t collect too much water.
The four men are like brothers, bound together by the extraordinary experience of being lost at sea. All the men feel unwavering respect for the captain, whose orders they obey without question. Even the correspondent, who is skeptical of others, feels deeply connected to these men.
On the captain’s orders, the cook and the correspondent fasten the captain’s coat to the mast as a makeshift sail, and the boat picks up speed. The lighthouse in the distance gradually gets larger, and eventually the men can see a small sliver of land.
As the wind calms and the makeshift sail deflates, the exhausted oiler and correspondent are forced to continue their laborious rowing. The narrator notes that for the two days prior to the Commodore’s sinking, all the men had been too excited to eat or sleep, making them feel extra drained now. The oiler is even more exhausted than the others, having worked back-to-back shifts in the ship’s engine room right before the ship sank. The captain grimly warns the men to preserve their strength in case they need to swim to shore.
The small sliver of land comes into clearer view and the captain recognizes a house of refuge. With the lighthouse towering above them, the captain says someone is bound to see them and send help. The oiler softly says that none of the other lifeboats must have made it to shore, or else there would be a search team scouring the waters for other survivors already. Despite this, the men feel hopeful for a speedy rescue. The correspondent finds eight long-forgotten cigars in his coat pocket. Four are soaked, but the other four are entirely dry. Someone finds three dry matches among their supplies, so the men relax by smoking and drinking from their water supply as they wait to be rescued.
After a while, the captain notices that the house of refuge looks empty. The cook finds it strange that the life-saving people haven’t yet noticed them. The narrator interjects, explaining that there is in fact no life-saving station anywhere nearby. However, the four men are oblivious to this fact and instead take to criticizing the life-saving people’s poor eyesight and lack of courage. In the midst of the men’s grumbling, the captain tells them that they will have to save themselves while they still have the energy. He recommends that the men exchange addresses of loved ones in case they don’t all make it to shore.
The men feel angry at the possibility of drowning, wondering why the “seven mad gods who rule the sea” would let them come so close to shore only to drown. The waves near the shore grow too large for the lifeboat to linger safely, so the oiler rows the boat out to sea. One of the men assures the others that they’re bound to have been seen by now. Someone else ventures the idea that the life-saving people already saw the men but assumed they’re just fishermen.
That afternoon, the lifeboat is pushed one way by the tides and another by the wind and waves. The oiler and the correspondent continue to take turns rowing. As one of the men takes the oars, the other lies in the bottom of the boat, soaked by the thin layer of seawater by grateful for a break from rowing. The correspondent thinks drowning sounds peaceful, like going to sleep on a large bed.
Excitedly, someone notices a person on the shore who is waving at them, and the men rejoice that they’re finally going to be saved. They happen to find a bath towel in the lifeboat and a large stick floating in the water beside them, so they craft a flag to wave back to the man. A large vehicle also appears on the shore, which they realize is an omnibus. They notice the waving man has produced a black flag but then realize the flag is just his coat that he’s leisurely waving above his head. They argue as to whether the waving man is trying to signal them to go a certain direction—perhaps to where the nearest life-saving station is—but ultimately decide the man is just waving a friendly hello at what he thinks is a group of fishermen.
In the evening, the shore can no longer be seen. The men periodically get soaked by sea spray, but they still sleep soundly. The correspondent rows through the darkness as everyone sleeps. Having spotted a giant shark swimming alongside the boat, he soon aches for the other men’s company.
The narrator interjects that when a man realizes that he is entirely insignificant in the face of the massive universe, that man is likely to be overcome by anger, followed by a sense of helplessness. The men on the lifeboat have not discussed nature’s indifference, but they all have contemplated it privately.
The correspondent remembers a poem he read during his childhood about a dying soldier who, crying out that he would never again see his homeland, tried to keep from bleeding to death by clutching his chest with his left hand. When the correspondent was a boy, he felt no compassion for the soldier, but now the correspondent is filled with sympathy.
In the morning, the correspondent sees a giant wind tower perched on the beach and wonders if anyone climbs it and looks out at the sea. He thinks the wind tower is an illustration of nature’s indifference to humankind. The captain cuts off the correspondent’s thoughts, confirming that their boat is bound to sink soon. The men jump out into the sea. Before he leaps, the correspondent grabs a lifebelt with his left hand and clutches it to his chest.
The correspondent is startled by how cold the water is and wants to cry. Looking around for his friends, he sees the oiler far ahead of the others, swimming quickly to shore. Swept up by a current, the correspondent’s own progress toward shore ceases. He wonders if it’s possible that he really is going to drown but is soon pulled out from the current’s grasp by a large wave.
The correspondent notices what looks to be a life-saving man, running across the beach and undressing quickly. As the captain yells for the correspondent to swim to the boat, the correspondent thinks of how drowning sounds like a peaceful end. Suddenly, a large wave catches the correspondent and hoists him over the boat and drops him into waist-high waters. In his exhaustion, he can’t manage to stand, so he lets himself be trampled by the waves.
The life-saving man, now completely naked, pulls the cook to shore and hurries to the captain, who insists the correspondent be saved first. As the man begins to drag the correspondent out from the water, he is shocked to see the motionless oiler lying face down in the shallow waters. When the correspondent finally reaches the shore, the beach swarms with people providing blankets, coffee, and clothing. The oiler is dead.
That night, the winds pick up, carrying the sound of the ocean to shore. The three men—the captain, the cook, and the correspondent—feel that they can now be “interpreters” of the sea’s voice.