The Open Boat by Stephen CranePart One
Our story today is called “The Open Boat.” It was written by Stephen Crane and is based on what really happened to him in eighteen ninety-six.
Crane was traveling from the United States to Cuba as a newspaper reporter. One night, his ship hit a sandbar. It sank in the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Florida. Most of the people on board got into lifeboats. Crane was among the last to leave. There were three others with him: the ship’s captain, the cook, and a sailor.
These four men climbed into the only remaining lifeboat. The boat was so small that no one believed it could stay afloat for very long. None of the four men thought he would ever reach the shore. But the men fought the seas bravely, with all their strength. Would they finally reach land? Here is Shep O’Neal with the first part of the story.
The small lifeboat bounced from wave to wave in the rough seas of the Atlantic. The four men in the boat could not see the sky. The waves rose too high.
The waves with their white tops pushed at the open boat with angry violence. Every man thought each wave would be his last. Surely, the boat would sink and he would drown. The men thought that most adults would need a bathtub larger than the boat they were sailing. The waves were huge, and each created a problem in guiding the direction of the boat.
For two days, since the ship sank, the four men had been struggling to reach land. But there was no land to be seen. All the men saw were violent waves which rose and came fiercely down on them.
The men sat in the boat, wondering if there was any hope for them. The ship’s cook sat in the bottom of the boat. He kept looking at the fifteen centimeters which separated him from the ocean.
The boat had only two wooden oars. They were so thin – it seemed as if they would break against the waves. The sailor, named Billie, directed the boat’s movement with one of the oars. The newspaper reporter pulled the second oar. He wondered why he was there in the boat.
The fourth man was the captain of the ship that had sunk. He lay in the front of the small boat. His arm and leg were hurt when the ship sank. The captain’s face was sad. He had lost his ship and many of his sailors. But he looked carefully ahead, and he told Billie when to turn the boat.
“Keep her a little more south, Billie,” he said.
“A little more south, sir,” the sailor repeated.
Sitting in the boat was like sitting on a wild horse. As each wave came, the boat rose and fell, like a horse starting toward a fence too high to jump. The problem was that after successfully floating over one wave you find that there is another one behind it just as strong and ready to flood your boat.
As each wall of water came in, it hid everything else that the men could see. The waves came in silence; only their white tops made threatening noises.
In the weak light, the faces of the men must have looked gray. Their eyes must have shone in strange ways as they looked out at the sea. The sun rose slowly into the sky. The men knew it was the middle of the day because the color of the sea changed from slate gray to emerald green, with gold lights. And the white foam on the waves looked like falling snow.
As the lifeboat bounced from the top of each wave, the wind tore through the hair of the men. As the boat dropped down again the water fell just past them. The top of each wave was a hill, from which the men could see, for a brief period, a wide area of shining sea.
The cook said the men were lucky because the wind was blowing toward the shore. If it started blowing the other way, they would never reach land. The reporter and the sailor agreed. But the captain laughed in a way that expressed humor and tragedy all in one. He asked: “Do you think we’ve got much of a chance now, boys?”
This made the others stop talking. To express any hope at this time they felt to be childish and stupid. But they also did not want to suggest there was no hope. So they were silent.
“Oh, well,” said the captain, “We’ll get ashore all right.”
But there was something in his voice that made them think, as the sailor said: “Yes, if this wind holds!”
Seagulls flew near and far. Sometimes the birds sat down on the sea in groups, near brown seaweed that rolled on the waves. The anger of the sea was no more to them than it was to a group of chickens a thousand miles away on land. Often the seagulls came very close and stared at the men with black bead-like eyes. The men shouted angrily at them, telling them to be gone.
The sailor and the reporter kept rowing with the thin wooden oars. Sometimes they sat together, each using an oar. Sometimes one would pull on both oars while the other rested. Brown pieces of seaweed appeared from time to time. They were like islands, bits of earth that did not move. They showed the men in the boat that it was slowly making progress toward land.
Hours passed. Then, as the boat was carried to the top of a great wave, the captain looked across the water.
He said that he saw the lighthouse at Mosquito Inlet. The cook also said he saw it. The reporter searched the western sky.
“See it?” said the captain.
“No,” said the reporter slowly, “I don’t see anything.”
“Look again,” said the captain. He pointed. “It’s exactly in that direction.”
This time the reporter saw a small thing on the edge of the moving horizon. It was exactly like the point of a pin.
“Think we’ll make it, captain?” he asked.
“If this wind holds and the boat doesn’t flood, we can’t do much else,” said the captain.
It would be difficult to describe the brotherhood of men that was here established on the sea. Each man felt it warmed him. They were a captain, a sailor, a cook and a reporter. And they were friends. The reporter knew even at the time that this friendship was the best experience of his life.
All obeyed the captain. He was a good leader. He always spoke in a low voice and calmly.
“I wish we had a sail,” he said, “to give you two boys a chance to rest.” So they used his coat and one of the oars to make a sail and the boat moved much more quickly.
The lighthouse had been slowly growing larger. At last, from the top of each wave the men in the boat could see land. Slowly, the land seemed to rise from the sea. Soon, the men could see two lines, one black and one white.
They knew that the black line was formed by trees, and the white line was the sand. At last, the captain saw a house on the shore. And the lighthouse became even larger.
“The keeper of the lighthouse should be able to see us now,” said the captain. “He’ll notify the life-saving people.”
Slowly and beautifully, the land rose from the sea. The wind came again. Finally, the men heard a new sound – the sound of waves breaking and crashing on the shore.
“We’ll never be able to make the lighthouse now,” said the captain. “Swing her head a little more north, Billie.”
“A little more north, sir,” said the sailor.
The men watched the shore grow larger. They became hopeful. In an hour, perhaps, they would be on land. The men struggled to keep the boat from turning over.
They were used to balancing in the boat. Now they rode this wild horse of a boat like circus men. The water poured over them.
The reporter thought he was now wet to the skin. But he felt in the top pocket of his coat and found eight cigars. Four were wet, but four were still dry. One of the men found some dry matches. Each man lit a cigar. The four men sailed in their boat with the belief of a rescue shining in their eyes. They smoked their big cigars and took a drink of water.
Please come back next week for the second and final part of this story.
lifeboat - n. a small boat that is carried on a ship and that is used for saving the lives of the passengers and crew if the ship sinks
seaweed - n. a type of plant that grows in the sea
oar - n. a long pole that is flat and wide at one end and that is used for rowing and steering a boat
ashore - adv. on or to the shore of an ocean, sea, lake, or river
brotherhood - n. feelings of friendship, support, and understanding between people
Now it's your turn. Have you ever been in a dangerous situation like this one? Write to us in the comments section.
We continue the story of “The Open Boat” by Stephen Crane. As we told you last week, the story is based on true events. In eighteen ninety-six, Crane was traveling to Cuba as a news reporter. On his way there, his ship sank in the Atlantic Ocean. Crane climbed into the last remaining lifeboat.
Three men got into the boat with him. They were the ship’s captain, the cook and a sailor named Billie. For three days, the men steered the small boat through high waves along the coast of Florida. At last, they saw land. Here is Shep O’Neal with the final part of the story.
A long stretch of coast lay before the eyes of the men. Slowly, the land rose up out of the mountainous sea. The men could see a small house against the sky. To the south, they could see a lighthouse. Tide, wind and waves were pushing the lifeboat northward. The men thought someone on land would have seen the boat by now.
“Well,” said the captain, “I suppose we’ll have to attempt to reach the shore ourselves. If we stay out here too long, none of us will have the strength left to swim after the boat sinks.”
So Billie the sailor turned the boat straight for the shore.
“If we don’t all get ashore,” said the captain, “I suppose you fellows know where to send news of my death?”
The men then exchanged some information. There was a great deal of anger in them. They thought: “If I am going to be drowned, why, in the name of the seven mad gods who rule the sea, was I permitted to come this far and think about sand and trees?”
The waves grew stronger. They seemed always just about to break and roll over the little boat. The coast was still far away. The sailor said: “Boys, the boat won’t live three minutes more, and we’re too far out to swim. Shall I take her to sea again, captain?”
“Yes! Go ahead!” said the captain. The sailor turned the boat and took her safely out to sea again.
“It’s funny those life-saving people haven’t seen us,” one of the men said.
“Maybe they think we’re out here for sport! Maybe they think we’re fishing. Maybe they think we’re fools.”
Once more, the sailor rowed the boat and then the reporter rowed. Suddenly, they saw a man walking along the shore.
The man stopped walking. He moved his hand in the air to wave at them. He saw them! Now he was running to the house.
The captain tied a cloth to a stick and waved it. Now there was another man on the shore. The two men waved their hands in the air, as if they were saying hello to the men in the boat.
Now, what was that moving on the shore? It was a bus – a hotel bus. A man stood on the steps of the bus and waved his coat over his head. The men in the boat wondered what he wanted to say. Was he attempting to tell them something? Should they wait for help? Should they go north? Should they go south?
The men waited and waited but nothing happened. The sun began to go down. It got dark and cold. They could no longer see anyone on the beach.
The sailor rowed, and then the reporter rowed, and then the sailor rowed again. They rowed and rowed through the long night. The land had disappeared but they could hear the low sound of the waves hitting the shore. This was surely a quiet night.
The cook finally spoke: “Billie, what kind of pie do you like best?”
“Pie,” said the sailor and the reporter angrily. “Don’t talk about those things!”
“Well,” said the cook, “I was just thinking about ham sandwiches, and …”
A night on the sea in an open boat is a long night. The sailor continued to row until his head fell forward and sleep overpowered him. Then he asked the reporter to row for a while. They exchanged places so the sailor could sleep in the bottom of the boat with the cook and the captain.
The reporter thought that he was the one man afloat on all the oceans in the world. The wind had a sad voice as it came over the waves.
Suddenly, there was a long, loud swishing sound behind the boat and a shining trail of silvery blue. It might have been made by a huge knife. Then there was another swish and another long flash of bluish light, this time alongside the boat. The reporter saw a huge fin speed like a shadow through the water, leaving a long glowing trail. The thing kept swimming near the boat. He noted its speed and power. The reporter wished the men would wake up. He did not want to be alone with theshark.
The reporter thought as he rowed. He was angry that they had come so close to land and yet might still die at sea. Then he remembered a poem that he had learned as a child. It was a poem about a soldier of the French Foreign Legion. The soldier lay dying in Algiers. Just before he died, he cried out: “I shall never see my own, my native land.” And now, many years after he had learned this poem, the reporter for the first time understood the sadness of the dying soldier.
Hours passed. The reporter asked the sailor to take the oars so that he could rest. It seemed like only a brief period, but it was more than an hour later, when the sailor returned the oars to the reporter. They both knew that only they could keep the boat from sinking. And so they rowed, hour after hour, through the night.
When day came, the four men saw land again. But there were no people on the shore. A conference was held on the boat.
“Well,” said the captain, “if no help is coming, we might better try to reach the shore right away. If we stay out here much longer, we will be too weak to do anything for ourselves at all.”
The others agreed. They began to turn the boat toward the beach. The captain told them to be careful – that when the boat came near the beach, the waves would sink it. Then everyone should jump out of the boat and swim to the shore.
As the boat came closer to land, the waves got bigger and more violent. At last, a large wave climbed into the air and fell on the small boat with great force.
The boat turned over as the men jumped into the sea. The water was like ice. The reporter was tired. But he swam toward the beach. He looked for his friends.
He saw Billie, the sailor, in front of him, swimming strongly and quickly. The cook was near him. Behind, the captain held on to the overturned boat with his one good hand. Soon, the reporter could swim no longer. A current was carrying him back out to sea. He thought: “Am I going to drown? Can it be possible?”
But the current suddenly changed and he was able to swim toward the shore. The captain called to him to swim to the boat and hold on. The reporter started to swim toward the boat. Then he saw a man running along the shore. He was quickly taking off his shoes and clothes.
As the reporter got close to the boat, a large wave hit him and threw him into the air over the boat and far from it. When he tried to get up, he found that the water was not over his head, only half way up his body. But he was so tired that he could not stand up. Each wave threw him down, and the current kept pulling him back to sea.
Then he saw the man again, jumping into the water. The man pulled the cook to the shore. Then he ran back into the water for the captain. But the captain waved him away and sent him to the reporter. The man seized the reporter’s hand and pulled him to the beach. Then the man pointed to the water and cried: “What’s that?”
In the shallow water, face down, lay Billie, the sailor.
The reporter did not know all that happened after that. He fell on the sand as if dropped from a housetop. It seems that immediately the beach was filled with men with blankets, clothes and whiskey. Women brought hot coffee. The people welcomed the men from the sea to the land.
But a still and dripping shape was carried slowly up the beach. And the land’s welcome for the sailor’s body could only be its final resting place. When night came, the white waves moved in the moonlight. The wind brought the sound of the great sea’s voice to the men on the shore.
afloat - adj. floating on water
shark - n. a large and often dangerous sea fish with very sharp teeth
row - v. to move a boat through water using oars