In February 1942 the Germans attack an oil refinery on Aruba, neighboring island of Curacao, Dutch island off the Venezuelan coast. Young Phillip is living in Willemstad, Curacao, with his parents, but after the attack his mother wants to return to America. Phillip and Father are against the plan, but eventually Mother gets her way.
Just days out to sea, the Germans torpedo the Dutch freighter Phillip and his mother have boarded to flee Curacao. The ship breaks up and sinks;
motherand sonare separated. Mrs. Enright's fate is unknown, but Phillip is hauled onto a lifeboat by a very old black West Indian who'd been a crewmember on board the "Hato." The only other occupant of the lifeboat is an old cat named Stew Cat; the three are adrift on the open sea for days with only a keg of water, some matches and a few crackers.
Phillip was struck on the head when the "Hato" was sunk, and he has a splitting headache and concussion. After two days on the raft with Timothy and Stew Cat, he goes completely blind. On the third day at sea a plane flies overhead and Timothy signals for help with a torch, but they are not seen.
Timothy, Phillip and the cat make it to a small island that the old Negro, an old sea-hand, figures must be in the Devil's Mouth. Phillips initial reaction to Timothy is one of revulsion; he finds the big black man ugly and frightening. His mother's prejudice against blacks is a factor in his attitude, but Phillip eventually overcomes it and they truly become friends.
When they first land on the island, Phillip feigns helplessness, refusing all labor. Timothy encourages the boy and teaches him to make things they'll need. When the boy gathers the courage to climb a coconut palm, he stops feeling sorry for himself and decides to do as much as he can. He is no longer a helpless blind boy. Timothy begins teaching Phillip survival skills--without telling the boy that he is preparing him for survival on the island after the old man dies.
In July with a terrible hurricane brewing, Timothy makes preparations for it, including lashing their water tank, matches and knife high on the trunk of a palm tree. They survive the first part of the storm and rest while the hurricane's eye is over them. Then they again lash themselves to the tree again to wait out the storm. After the hurricane, Phillip finds that Timothy has borne the brunt of the storm to protect him; the big West Indian's back is flayed open by sand and things driven by the high winds, and Phillip can't stop Timothy's bleeding. The old man dies. Stew Cat, who was missing after the fierce storm, reappears.
Initially the boy feels anger in response to the man's death, but gradually realizes how much Timothy did to prepare him for life alone. In addition to teaching Phillip to get around the cay without assistance, Timothy left a dozen fishing poles lashed to another palm trunk and had taught Phillip as much as he himself knew about survival.
Phillip has to bury Timothy, construct a new hut, prepare another signal fire on the beach and a "HELP" message of stones, build a new rainwater catchment, clean the camp of debris, restart his campfire, and search for anything useful the hurricane might have deposited on the cay. At first the amount of work to be done seems overwhelming, but Phillip approaches the situation calmly, rationally, and with intensity.
Phillip's first signal fire goes unnoticed, so he determines something oily will make a black smoke visible from a distance. On August 20, 1942 what he thinks is thunder is really a destroyer, so he throws oily sea grape leaves on the signal fire, which emits black smoke visible to rescuers.
The deeply-suntanned boy could've been mistaken for a native fisherman, but the captain of an American destroyer hunting German submarines has the boy and Stew Cat picked up. The captain can't believe Phillip could've drifted so far from where the "Hato" was sunk, and he's most astonished to have found a naked blind boy and a cat on a deserted island in the Caribbean.
Phillip's put ashore in Panama for medical treatment and his parents are flown in from Curacao. They can't absorb all that their son has to tell them of his time on the cay. Four months after his rescue Phillip has three surgeries to restore his eyesight. The following April, a year after the shipwreck, he returns to Willemstad with his parents.