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It is just before dawn, and not far off the coast of Florida, between the open sea and the surf, are four men in a dinghy. The ship on which they were sailing sank overnight, and they are the only survivors, left to bob up and down in the waves until their bathtub-sized boat capsizes and they too drown. They do not have a moment’s peace. The ocean is so rough that one indelicate move will upset the dinghy and send them into the winter waters. Each man, despite not having slept for two days, works tirelessly to keep the boat afloat. The correspondent and the oiler share the work of rowing, while the cook huddles on the floor of the dinghy, bailing water. These men take their direction from the captain, who was injured during the shipwreck and sits grimly in the bow, the memory still fresh of his ship engulfed in the sea and the crew’s dead faces in the water.
As day breaks and the cook and correspondent bicker about being rescued, the men begin to make progress toward the shore. Fighting hopelessness, they row silently. Gulls fly overhead and perch on the water. The gulls are at ease on the ocean, so much so that one lands on the captain’s head. The men see this as a sinister, insulting gesture, but the captain cannot swat the bird off because the sudden movement would likely topple the boat.
Eventually, the captain shoos the bird away, and they go on rowing until the captain sees a lighthouse in the distance. Although the cook expresses reservation that the nearby lifesaving station has been abandoned for more than a year, the crew heartens at approaching land, almost taking pleasure in the brotherhood that they have formed and in attending to the business of the sea. The correspondent even finds four dry cigars in a pocket, which he shares with the others.
The men’s optimism evaporates when, approaching land yet unable to master the turbulent surf, they realize that help isn’t coming. They again make for the open sea, exhausted and bitter. Another sign of hope comes when the captain sees a man on shore. Each crew member looks for signs of hope in the man’s gestures. They think the man sees them. Then they think they see two men, then a crowd and perhaps a boat being rolled down to the shore. They stubbornly think that help is on the way as the shadows lengthen and the sea and sky turn black.
During the night, the men forget about being saved and attend to the business of the boat. The correspondent and oiler, exhausted from rowing, plan to alternate throughout the night. But they get tired in the early hours of the morning, and the cook helps out. For the most part, the correspondent rows alone, wondering how he can have come so far if he is only going to drown. Rowing through phosphorescence and alongside a monstrous shark, the correspondent thinks of a poem he learned in childhood about a soldier dying in a distant land, never to return home.
When morning comes, the captain suggests that they try to run the surf while they still have enough energy. They take the boat shoreward until it capsizes, and then they all make a break for it in the icy water. The oiler leads the group, while the cook and correspondent swim more slowly and the captain holds onto the keel of the overturned dinghy. With the help of a life preserver, the correspondent makes good progress, until he is caught in a current that forces him to back to the boat. Before he can reach the dinghy, a wave hurls him to shallower water, where he is saved by a man who has appeared on shore and plunged into the sea to save the crew. On land, the correspondent drifts in and out of consciousness, but as he regains his senses, he sees a large number of people on the shore with rescue gear. He learns that the captain and cook have been saved but the oiler has died.