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The narrator opens with the story of a ship called the Lady Vain.
As the story goes, not only does the LadyVain manage to stumble upon an abandoned ship somewhere in the vast emptiness of the Pacific Ocean, she also manages to collide with it and sink as a result. Oops.
But contrary to the official story of seven survivors, there was actually an eighth, whose story is "as horrible and far stranger" (1.1). This survivor is—wait for it—our narrator himself.
When the ship goes down, the narrator, a fellow passenger named Helmar, and a "short, sturdy" seaman "with a stammer" (1.3) manage to escape aboard a dinghy—that's ship speak for a small boat used as a lifeboat.
Another man, Constans, almost makes it on the dinghy, but his head strikes a block, and he drowns in the ocean. The narrator says it is lucky for them (and Constans) that he died. Yikes, you know you're having a bad day when that's your lucky streak.
The dinghy moves away from the other survivor boats. It also doesn't have enough water or sea biscuits aboard. The pleasure cruise has officially ended, people.
The dinghy drifts for eight days on the glassy sea. Finally, Helmar gives "voice to the thing we all had in mind" (1.4). The narrator isn't specific about what the thing is, but the ambiguity kind of gives the scene a more haunting vibe, doesn't it?
Initially, the narrator refuses to draw lots for "the thing." Then he sees the seaman and Helmar talking one night, so he agrees to go along with it before they can form an alliance Survivor-style.
The sailor draws the short straw. Naturally, he doesn't seem fond of the outcome and decides he won't go down without a fight. During the scuffle, he and Helmar tumble into the sea and drown. The narrator laughs.
The narrator drifts alone and considers suicide by drinking sea water.
Science Snack: Sea water contains salt in the form of sodium—hold on, we're getting to the interesting part. People consume salt every day, so why would drinking sea water kill our narrator? Well, the problem is the amount of salt present in sea water, roughly 35 grams of salt per kilogram of water. The average human body can easily get by on as little as 2,300 milligrams per day. So, when you drink sea water, your kidneys have to process way, way more salt than usual. The result? Your kidneys have to create extra urine to process all that sodium, meaning a person who drinks seawater actually pees away more water than they take in from drinking the sea water. Of course, when you're super thirsty, all that water starts to look mighty tasty.
Back to the story, where a schooner—ship-speak for masted sailing vessel—finds and saves our narrator. He is delirious while being pulled aboard, but he remembers being given something to drink by "a dark face [man] with extraordinary eyes" (1.8).