THE OPEN BOAT
A TALE INTENDED TO BE AFTER THE FACT. BEING THE EXPERIENCE OF FOUR
MEN SUNK FROM THE STEAMER COMMODORE
By Stephen Crane
None of them knew the color of the sky. Their eyes glanced level, and were fastened
upon the waves that swept toward them. These waves were of the hue of slate, save for the tops,
which were of foaming white, and all of the men knew the colors of the sea. The horizon
narrowed and widened, and dipped and rose, and at all times its edge was jagged with waves that
seemed thrust up in points like rocks. Many a man ought to have a bath-tub larger than the boat
which here rode upon the sea. These waves were most wrongfully and barbarously abrupt and
tall, and each froth-top was a problem in small boat navigation.
The cook squatted in the bottom and looked with both eyes at the six inches of gunwale
which separated him from the ocean. His sleeves were rolled over his fat forearms, and the two
flaps of his unbuttoned vest dangled as he bent to bail out the boat. Often he said: "Gawd! That
was a narrow clip." As he remarked it he invariably gazed eastward over the broken sea.
The oiler, steering with one of the two oars in the boat, sometimes raised himself
suddenly to keep clear of water that swirled in over the stern. It was a thin little oar and it
seemed often ready to snap.
The correspondent, pulling at the other oar, watched the waves and wondered why he was
The injured captain, lying in the bow, was at this time buried in that profound dejection
and indifference which comes, temporarily at least, to even the bravest and most enduring when,
willy nilly, the firm fails, the army loses, the ship goes down. The mind of the master of a vessel
is rooted deep in the timbers of her, though he command for a day or a decade, and this captain
had on him the stern impression of a scene in the grays of dawn of seven turned faces, and later a
stump of a top-mast with a white ball on it that slashed to and fro at the waves, went low and
lower, and down. Thereafter there was something strange in his voice. Although steady, it was
deep with mourning, and of a quality beyond oration or tears.
"Keep'er a little more south, Billie," said he.
"A little more south,' sir," said the oiler in the stern.
A seat in this boat was not unlike a seat upon a bucking broncho, and, by the same token,
a broncho is not much smaller. The craft pranced and reared, and plunged like an animal. As
each wave came, and she rose for it, she seemed like a horse making at a fence outrageously
high. The manner of her scramble over these walls of water is a mystic thing, and, moreover, at
the top of them were ordinarily these problems in white water, the foam racing down from the
summit of each wave, requiring a new leap, and a leap from the air. Then, after scornfully
bumping a crest, she would slide, and race, and splash down a long incline and arrive bobbing
and nodding in front of the next menace.
A singular disadvantage of the sea lies in the fact that after successfully surmounting one
wave you discover that there is another behind it just as important and just as nervously anxious
to do something effective in the way of swamping boats. In a ten-foot dinghy one can get an
idea of the resources of the sea in the line of waves that is not probable to the average
experience, which is never at sea in a dinghy. As each slaty wall of water approached, it shut all
else from the view of the men in the boat, and it was not difficult to imagine that this particular
wave was the final outburst of the ocean, the last effort of the grim water. There was a terrible
grace in the move of the waves, and they came in silence, save for the snarling of the crests.
In the wan light, the faces of the men must have been gray. Their eyes must have glinted
in strange ways as they gazed steadily astern. Viewed from a balcony, the whole thing would
doubtlessly have been weirdly picturesque. But the men in the boat had no time to see it, and if
they had had leisure there were other things to occupy their minds. The sun swung steadily up
the sky, and they knew it was broad day because the color of the sea changed from slate to
emerald-green, streaked with amber lights, and the foam was like tumbling snow. The process of
the breaking day was unknown to them. They were aware only of this effect upon the color of
the waves that rolled toward them. In disjointed sentences the cook and the correspondent
argued as to the difference between a life-saving station and a house of refuge. The cook had
said: "There's a house of refuge just north of the Mosquito Inlet Light, and as soon as they see us,
they'll come off in their boat and pick us up."
"As soon as who see us?" said the correspondent.
"The crew," said the cook.
"Houses of refuge don't have crews," said the correspondent. "As I understand them,
they are only places where clothes and grub are stored for the benefit of shipwrecked people.
They don't carry crews."
"Oh, yes, they do," said the cook.
"No, they don't," said the correspondent.
"Well, we're not there yet, anyhow," said the oiler, in the stern.
"Well," said the cook, "perhaps it's not a house of refuge that I'm thinking of as being
near Mosquito Inlet Light. Perhaps it's a life-saving station."
"We're not there yet," said the oiler, in the stern.
As the boat bounced from the top of each wave, the wind tore through the hair of the
hatless men, and as the craft plopped her stern down again the spray slashed past them. The crest
of each of these waves was a hill, from the top of which the men surveyed, for a moment, a
broad tumultuous expanse; shining and wind driven. It was probably splendid. It was probably
glorious, this play of the free sea, wild with lights of emerald and white and amber.
"Bully good thing it's an on-shore wind," said the cook. "If not, where would we be?
Wouldn't have a show."
"That's right," said the correspondent.
The busy oiler nodded his assent.
Then the captain, in the bow, chuckled in a way that expressed humor, contempt, tragedy,
all in one. "Do you think we've got much of a show, now, boys?" said he. Whereupon the three
were silent, save for a trifle of hemming and hawing. To express any particular optimism at this
time they felt to be childish and stupid, but they all doubtless possessed this sense of the situation
in their mind. A young man thinks doggedly at such times. On the other hand, the ethics of their
condition was decidedly against any open suggestion of hopelessness. So they were silent.
"Oh, well," said the captain, soothing his children, "we'll get ashore all right."
But there was that in his tone which made them think, so the oiler quoth: "Yes! If this
The cook was bailing: "Yes! If we don't catch hell in the surf."
Canton flannel gulls flew near and far. Sometimes they sat down on the sea, near patches
of brown sea-weed that rolled over the waves with a movement like carpets on line in a gale.
The birds sat comfortably in groups, and they were envied by some in the dinghy, for the wrath
of the sea was no more to them than it was to a covey of prairie chickens a thousand miles
inland. Often they came very close and stared at the men with black bead-like eyes. At these
times they were uncanny and sinister in their unblinking scrutiny, and the men hooted angrily at
them, telling them to be gone. One came, and evidently decided to alight on the top of the
captain's head. The bird flew parallel to the boat and did not circle, but made short sidelong
jumps in the air in chicken-fashion. His black eyes were wistfully fixed upon the captain's head.
"Ugly brute," said the oiler to the bird. "You look as if you were made with a jack-knife." The
cook and the correspondent swore darkly at the creature. The captain naturally wished to knock
it away with the end of the heavy painter, but he did not dare do it, because anything resembling
an emphatic gesture would have capsized this freighted boat, and so with his open hand, the
captain gently and carefully waved the gull away. After it had been discouraged from the pursuit
the captain breathed easier on account of his hair, and others breathed easier because the bird
struck their minds at this time as being somehow gruesome and ominous.
In the meantime the oiler and the correspondent rowed. And also they rowed. They sat
together in the same seat, and each rowed an oar. Then the oiler took both oars; then the
correspondent took both oars; then the oiler; then the correspondent. They rowed and they
rowed. The very ticklish part of the business was when the time came for the reclining one in the
stern to take his turn at the oars. By the very last star of truth, it is easier to steal eggs from under
a hen than it was to change seats in the dinghy. First the man in the stern slid his hand along the
thwart and moved with care, as if he were of Sevres. Then the man in the rowing seat slid his
hand along the other thwart. It was all done with the most extraordinary care. As the two sidled
past each other, the whole party kept watchful eyes on the coming wave, and the captain cried:
"Look out now! Steady there!"
The brown mats of sea-weed that appeared from time to time were like islands, bits of
earth. They were traveling, apparently, neither one way nor the other. They were, to all intents
stationary. They informed the men in the boat that it was making progress slowly toward the
The captain, rearing cautiously in the bow, after the dinghy soared on a great swell, said
that he had seen the lighthouse at Mosquito Inlet. Presently the cook remarked that he had seen
it. The correspondent was at the oars, then, and for some reason he too wished to look at the
lighthouse, but his back was toward the far shore and the waves were important, and for some
time he could not seize an opportunity to turn his head. But at last there came a wave more
gentle than the others, and when at the crest of it he swiftly scoured the western horizon.
"See it?" said the captain.
"No," said the correspondent, slowly, "I didn't see anything."
"Look again," said the captain. He pointed. "It's exactly in that direction."
At the top of another wave, the correspondent did as he was bid, and this time his eyes
chanced on a small still thing on the edge of the swaying horizon. It was precisely like the point
of a pin. It took an anxious eye to find a lighthouse so tiny.
"Think we'll make it, captain?"
"If this wind holds and the boat don't swamp, we can't do much else," said the captain.
The little boat, lifted by each towering sea, and splashed viciously by the crests, made
progress that in the absence of sea-weed was not apparent to those in her. She seemed just a wee
thing wallowing, miraculously, top-up, at the mercy of five oceans. Occasionally, a great spread
of water, like white flames, swarmed into her.
"Bail her, cook," said the captain, serenely.
"All right, captain," said the cheerful cook.
It would be difficult to describe the subtle brotherhood of men that was here established
on the seas. No one said that it was so. No one mentioned it. But it dwelt in the boat, and each
man felt it warm him. They were a captain, an oiler, a cook, and a correspondent, and they were
friends, friends in a more curiously iron-bound degree than may be common. The hurt captain,
lying against the water-jar in the bow, spoke always in a low voice and calmly, but he could
never command a more ready and swiftly obedient crew than the motley three of the dinghy. It
was more than a mere recognition of what was best for the common safety. There was surely in
it a quality that was personal and heartfelt. And after this devotion to the commander of the boat
there was this comradeship that the correspondent, for instance, who had been taught to be
cynical of men, knew even at the time was the best experience of his life. But no one said that it
was so. No one mentioned it.
"I wish we had a sail," remarked the captain. "We might try my overcoat on the end of
an oar and give you two boys a chance to rest." So the cook and the correspondent held the mast
and spread wide the overcoat. The oiler steered, and the little boat made good way with her new
rig. Sometimes the oiler had to scull sharply to keep a sea from breaking into the boat, but
otherwise sailing was a success.
Meanwhile the light-house had been growing slowly larger. It had now almost assumed
color, and appeared like a little gray shadow on the sky. The man at the oars could not be
prevented from turning his head rather often to try for a glimpse of this little gray shadow.
At last, from the top of each wave the men in the tossing boat could see land. Even as the
light-house was an upright shadow on the sky, this land seemed but a long black shadow on the
sea. It certainly was thinner than paper. "We must be about opposite New Smyrna," said the
cook, who had coasted this shore often in schooners. "Captain, by the way, I believe they
abandoned that life-saving station there about a year ago."
"Did they?" said the captain.
The wind slowly died away. The cook and the correspondent were not now obliged to
slave in order to hold high the oar. But the waves continued their old impetuous swooping at the
dinghy, and the little craft, no longer under way, struggled woundily over them. The oiler or the
correspondent took the oars again. Shipwrecks are apropos of nothing. If men could only train
for them and have them occur when the men had reached pink condition, there would be less
drowning at sea. Of the four in the dinghy none had slept any time worth mentioning for two
days and two nights previous to embarking in the dinghy, and in the excitement of clambering
about the deck of a foundering ship they had also forgotten to eat heartily.
For these reasons, and for others, neither the oiler nor the correspondent was fond of
rowing at this time. The correspondent wondered ingenuously how in the name of all that was
sane could there be people who thought it amusing to row a boat. It was not an amusement; it
was a diabolical punishment, and even a genius of mental aberrations could never conclude that
it was anything but a horror to the muscles and a crime against the back. He mentioned to the
boat in general how the amusement of rowing struck him, and the weary-faced oiler smiled in
full sympathy. Previously to the foundering, by the way, the oiler had worked double-watch in
the engine-room of the ship.
"Take her easy, now, boys," said the captain. "Don't spend yourselves. If we have to run
a surf you'll need all your strength, because we'll sure have to swim for it. Take your time."
Slowly the land arose from the sea. From a black line it became a line of black and a line
of white, trees, and sand. Finally, the captain said that he could make out a house on the shore.
"That's the house of refuge, sure," said the cook. "They'll see us before long, and come out after
The distant light-house reared high. "The keeper ought to be able to make us out now, if
he's looking through a glass," said the captain. "He'll notify the life-saving people."
"None of those other boats could have got ashore to give word of the wreck," said the
oiler, in a low voice. "Else the life-boat would be out hunting us."
Slowly and beautifully the land loomed out of the sea. The wind came again. It had
veered from the northeast to the southeast. Finally, a new sound struck the ears of the men in the
boat. It was the low thunder of the surf on the shore. "We'll never be able to make the lighthouse now," said the captain. "Swing her head a little more north, Billie," said the captain.
"A little more north, sir," said the oiler.
Whereupon the little boat turned her nose once more down the wind, and all but the
oarsman watched the shore grow. Under the influence of this expansion doubt and direful
apprehension was leaving the minds of the men. The management of the boat was still most
absorbing, but it could not prevent a quiet cheerfulness. In an hour, perhaps, they would be
Their back-bones had become thoroughly used to balancing in the boat and they now
rode this wild colt of a dinghy like circus men. The correspondent thought that he had been
drenched to the skin, but happening to feel in the top pocket of his coat, he found therein eight
cigars. Four of them were soaked with sea-water; four were perfectly scatheless. After a search,
somebody produced three dry matches, and thereupon the four waifs rode in their little boat, and
with an assurance of an impending rescue shining in their eyes, puffed at the big cigars and
judged well and ill of all men. Everybody took a drink of water.
"Cook," remarked the captain, "there don't seem to be any signs of life about your house
"No," replied the cook. "Funny they don't see us!"
A broad stretch of lowly coast lay before the eyes of the men. It was of low dunes topped
with dark vegetation. The roar of the surf was plain, and sometimes they could see the white lip
of a wave as it spun up the beach. A tiny house was blocked out black upon the sky. Southward,
the slim light-house lifted its little gray length.
Tide, wind, and waves were swinging the dinghy northward. "Funny they don't see us,"
said the men.
The surf's roar was here dulled, but its tone was, nevertheless, thunderous and mighty.
As the boat swam over the great rollers, the men sat listening to this roar. "We'll swamp sure,"
It is fair to say here that there was not a life-saving station within twenty miles in either
direction, but the men did not know this fact and in consequence they made dark and
opprobrious remarks concerning the eyesight of the nation's life-savers. Four scowling men sat
in the dinghy and surpassed records in the invention of epithets.
"Funny they don't see us."
The light-heartedness of a former time had completely faded. To their sharpened minds
it was easy to conjure pictures of all kinds of incompetency and blindness and indeed, cowardice.
There was the shore of the populous land, and it was bitter and bitter to them that from it came
"Well," said the captain, ultimately, "I suppose we'll have to make a try for ourselves. If
we stay out here too long, we'll none of us have strength left to swim after the boat swamps."
And so the oiler, who was at the oars, turned the boat straight for the shore. There was a
sudden tightening of muscles. There was some thinking.
"If we don't all get ashore -- " said the captain. "If we don't all get ashore, I suppose you
fellows know where to send news of my finish?"
They then briefly exchanged some addresses and admonitions. As for the reflections of
the men, there was a great deal of rage in them. Perchance they might be formulated thus: "If I
am going to be drowned -- if I am going to be drowned -- if I am going to be drowned, why, in
the name of the seven mad gods who rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far and
contemplate sand and trees? Was I brought here merely to have my nose dragged away as I was
about to nibble the sacred cheese of life? It is preposterous. If this old ninny-woman, Fate,
cannot do better than this, she should be deprived of the management of men's fortunes. She is
an old hen who knows not her intention. If she has decided to drown me, why did she not do it
in the beginning and save me all this trouble. The whole affair is absurd. . . . But, no, she cannot
mean to drown me. She dare not drown me. She cannot drown me. Not after all this work."
Afterward the man might have had an impulse to shake his fist at the clouds: "Just you drown
me, now, and then hear what I call you!"
The billows that came at this time were more formidable. They seemed always just about
to break and roll over the little boat in a turmoil of foam. There was a preparatory and long
growl in the speech of them. No mind unused to the sea would have concluded that the dinghy
could ascend these sheer heights in time. The sh ...
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