In the San Francisco Bay on a foggy morning in January, the narrator is taking a ferry-steamer called The Martinez to visit a friend’s summer cottage. The narrator is an intellectual who has written about Edgar Allen Poe for the most recent issue of The Atlantic. As the narrator contemplates ideas for a new essay, a red-faced man interrupts to say that there is nasty weather ahead.
The Sea-Wolf opens on a peaceful scene in the Francisco Bay. The peacefulness of this scene reflects the narrator’s comfortable life. The red-faced man offers further evidence of Van Weyden’s leisurely life—his red face reflects his experience at sea. Van Weyden, in contrast, has softer features, since he hasn’t had to do manual labor. Already, however, there are signs of danger on the horizon; the fog, for instance, suggests an inability to see the future.
Suddenly, the noise of a horn reveals that there is another ferry-boat somewhere in the fog. The Martinez changes course to try to avoid a collision. The red-faced man tells the narrator that he hears another boat coming right for them—it can’t hear the Martinez because the wind is blowing the wrong way. Just then, the fog breaks, and the bow of another steamboat appears.
The fact that the people on the Martinez can see the other boat but can’t avoid it illustrates humanity’s inability to control fate. Another thing to note: the novel often uses wind to show how random chance advances the plot; here, the wind contributes to the collision between the two ships.
The red-faced man advises the narrator to find something to hang on to, while the pilot of the Martinez acknowledges that a collision seems inevitable. Suddenly, the vessels collide, throwing the narrator down onto the deck. The narrator’s memory becomes hazy, but he remembers the sound of women screaming.
The inevitability of the collision once again suggests how fate shapes the trajectory of human life. The screaming women suggest that polite society can break down in moments of crisis.
Eventually, all the screaming drives the narrator hysterical, and he finds himself laughing without knowing why. He collects himself and looks around on the Martinez as it sinks, then he finally jumps overboard into the cold water, joining many of the other passengers.
The narrator’s laughter suggests that his mind can’t comprehend the scene in front of him, and so it has driven him insane. When he hits the cold water, though, he comes to his senses; being forced to contended with the elements teaches the narrator, who has formerly lived a life of comfort and leisure, that he needs to think clearly if he wants to survive.
The narrator has a life preserver, but if anything happens to it, he can’t swim. He can hear screaming but, in the fog, he gets separated from the others and floats alone. He loses track of time.
The narrator’s inability to swim once again emphasizes the fact that he is an upper-class intellectual whose privilege has enabled him to avoid contending with life-or-death circumstances. As such, he is disconnected from nature and helpless at sea.
Another vessel with three triangular sails appears. The narrator tries to shout at it but can’t. Just by chance, however, a man on the vessel looks down and see the narrator. The ship disappears into the fog, but soon after, the narrator hears oars and the call of a man. The man asks why the narrator didn’t should for help, but the narrator passes out before he can answer the man.
This scene once again represents the role random chance plays in life: although the narrator was unlucky to be caught in a crash, he was lucky that a man on this approaching ship has spotted him.