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Ahoy, maties! As the story opens, we're introduced to four men—a captain, a cook, an oiler, and a correspondent—who find themselves in a lifeboat after their ship sinks off the coast of Florida. It's a small boat, and the sea is rough. The only name we get is the oiler's—Billie. Everyone else is simply known by his profession. The captain is injured, and steers the boat. The cook bails out the water from the bottom of the boat. The oiler and the correspondent take turns rowing the boat.
The cook claims that there is either a "house of refuge" or a "life-saving station" (he's not sure which, and apparently only one of them has a crew) nearby, and if they can get close enough, they will be rescued (1.12). They make their way to a lighthouse and are sure they will be rescued. They smoke cigars and drink water. After waiting a while, they realize there's no one there, so they begrudgingly row back out to sea.
The experience of being in the boat together creates a strong sense of brotherhood between the men—a sentiment directly in contrast to the men's feelings toward nature and the universe. After feeling convinced they would be saved, they remain stranded in the boat and start to feel incredibly angry at the universe—only a cruel, merciless world would allow them to feel so much hope, only to drown them in the end.
Some people show up on a beach in the distance, and the men think they're saved again. Not so fast, sailors. It turns out the beachgoers are just some tourists at a resort, who apparently think the men in the boat are out on a leisurely fishing trip. Boy, does this make them mad.
Night falls. The other men all fall asleep, but the correspondent stays up rowing the boat. He feels incredibly lonely and abandoned. A shark swims around the boat, and he wishes he had some company.
At this point, the narrator describes a philosophical shift from the anger he felt toward the universe earlier in the story. He explains that once a man realizes the universe "does not regard him as important," he may want to punish the universe, but realizes there is no way to do so (6.3). Instead, he can only proclaim that he loves himself.
The correspondent suddenly recalls a poem he once heard about a French soldier dying in Algiers. He didn't care much for the poem or the solider, but now that he finds himself in the boat facing the possibility of his own death, he realizes he identifies with the poem, and feels like the soldier's death is really important.
Day breaks. The captain decides that no one is coming to save them, so they should try to make it to shore on their own while they still have the strength to swim. The men agree and the oiler rows them toward shore. The correspondent thinks some more about the indifference of the universe to humankind as the oiler keeps on rowing. Finally, some rude wave interrupts his thoughts and crashes over the boat, spilling the men out into the water. The oiler swims strongly toward shore, the cook floats on his back, and the captain holds onto the capsized boat. The correspondent, holding a piece of a life preserver, sees someone on the beach taking off his clothes, rushing to come rescue them. We're not sure why he needed to strip down to his birthday suit, but if that's what it takes to rescue these guys, we'll take it. The captain calls for the correspondent to swim over to the boat. As he does, a huge wave throws him over the boat and into very shallow water, where he can stand. Totally tubular.
The naked man on shore helps drag the cook, the correspondent, and the captain onto dry land. They look off to the side and see the oiler, face down in the water, drowned. Yikes. Suddenly, a number of other people arrive, carrying blankets, clothing, and food. They carry the oiler's body onto the beach. That night, the men hear the sound of the ocean, and feel they are now able to serve as interpreters.