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Just off the coast of New Zealand, the captain of an American freighter, the S.S. Berwind , dies unexpectedly, prompting the cook and steward to desert what they consider an ill-fated ship. Meanwhile, luxury cruise ship S.S. Mariposa docks in Los Angeles where first officer Edwin B. Rumill receives a surprising call from his wife Joan, asking him to meet her immediately. Joining Joan are representatives of the ship line, who offer Ed command of the Berwind provided that he depart for New Zealand immediately. Despite Joan's protests about the strain the new position will place on their family life, Ed accepts the promotion as a career advancement after learning that the Berwind 's first officer, Mr. Moody, is too old for command. Meanwhile as the Berwind awaits its new captain, boiler room technician Henry Scott plots with partner Leroy Martin to provoke a mutiny, murder the crew and turn the ship in for the enormous salvage reward. Despite Leroy's protests, Scott then enlists seaman Mace, a former petty criminal, in their scheme. Upon arriving in New Zealand, Ed is met by officer Alex Cole who informs him that Moody and many of the crew are resentful of Ed's appointment. When Moody tells Ed that they need a cook and steward before setting sail, Ed learns of a native Maori cook, but is dismayed to learn he insists on bringing his wife. Conscious of the loss of income with each day the ship is not as sea, Ed reluctantly agrees. Soon after the cook Pete and his striking wife Mahia come aboard, Ed realizes his error in judgment as Mahia's presence causes a palpable tension among the crew. Later, Leroy blatantly accosts Mahia in front of Pete who is helpless to defend his wife's honor as the crew leers at her. Once at sea, Mace refuses to help murder the crew and Scott and Leroy threaten to throw him overboard. Scott tells Mace he intends to stir up the crew so that the log will document evidence of rising tensions and an eventual mutiny. Several days later, Moody dies in his sleep and the crew's resentment against Ed grows. Later, when a jealousy-crazed Pete attacks Leroy for his continued attentions to Mahia, Ed orders the cook locked in his quarters. Frustrated by Mace's continual resistance and hoping to incite panic among the crew, Scott follows through on his threat and he and Leroy throw Mace overboard late one night. His disappearance has the desired effect of unsettling the crew and Ed. Scott and Leroy tell Ed of rumors that crew members are considering violence in order to free Pete and thus re-instate cooked meals. Although each crew member is questioned about Mace's disappearance, Ed learns nothing, but realizes that the tensions are not as severe as Scott has maintained. Late the next night, Scott meets with several crew members in an attempt to convince them that Ed is unfit and that they should storm Pete's quarters to free him. Concerned over the gathering, Ed and his officers discuss whether to take action. Meanwhile, several seaman accuse Scott of coercion and of murdering Mace. Frustrated by their failure to rouse the crew, Scott and Leroy destroy the radio room, cutting off all communication. Believing the crew is planning to revolt, Ed and the other officers are bewildered when they discover that most of the crew have retired to their cabins. Scott tells Leroy they must proceed with their plan and unveils several pistols and ammunition that he has hidden. Returning to the engine room secretly, Scott and Leroy then murder the four engineers. Shortly after discovering the vandalized radio room and upon receiving no response from the engine room, Ed and Cole find the murdered engineers and bring the Berwind to a halt. Ed frees Pete and orders the crew to the mess area where several seamen voice their suspicion that Scott and Leroy are responsible for the murders. When the officers advise Ed to evacuate the crew in lifeboats for their safety, Ed hesitates, concerned that the armed Scott and Leroy might fire upon the defenseless men. After realizing that Mahia is missing, Ed finds her in her cabin and they successfully evade Scott. When, officers Elliott and Karl Pope go topside to search for Leroy, Pope is killed and Elliott wounded by Leroy. Distressed, Pete grabs a machete and goes topside where he is also shot by Leroy. After Elliott crawls below deck to report, Mahia becomes hysterical about Pete and pleads tobe allowed to help her husband. The crew become anxious and when many demand they leave the ship, Ed agrees, unaware that Mahia has snuck topside to search for Pete. When Ed and the men arrive on deck, Scott calls out to them that he is holding Mahia and will kill her unless everyone abandons ship immediately. Ed acquiesces, but plans to swim back to the ship and crawl aboard using a path log line hanging over the stern. While the crew evacuates, Leroy questions Scott about the wisdom of allowing the men to escape alive, and Scott assures him they will ram the lifeboat later. As dawn breaks, Ed swims back to the Berwind and although officer "Bull" Pringle insists on accompanying him, the officer drowns in the cold rough water. Ed struggles aboard alone as Scott and Leory start the engines and direct the ship at the lifeboat. Consumed by fear, Mahia nearly attacks Ed until she realizes who he is and discloses Scott and Leroy's locations. While Ed sneaks down to the engine room, Mahia distracts Leroy, then shoots him with his own pistol. When Scott receives no response from the engine room, he goes below and he is attacked by Ed. After a furious fight, Ed kills Scott and turns the Berwind away from the lifeboat in time to save the crew.