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In 1887, Captain Bering Joy returns to New Bedford, Massachusetts after a long whaling voyage to find that Jason Briggs and Benjamin Harris, owners of his ship The Pride of Bedford , want him to retire even though he has brought back a record amount of oil. The physically disabled Bering refuses, and afterward, his young grandson Jed, whose father was also a captain and was killed at sea attempting to save one of his crew, leaves his crew in order to continue his formal education. With Bering's help, Jed studies for his fourth grade examination. At the grammar school, superintendent Andrew L. Bush and teacher Miss Hopkins administer the exam, which Jed fails. Bush, who once sailed with Bering and respects him as a great moulder of character, realizes that Bering wants to take Jed to sea again to train him to be a whaling ship master and tells them that Jed has passed. Later, Briggs and Harris introduce Bering to Dan Lunceford, whom they have hired as the new first mate with the intention of having him eventually take over command. Bering is not impressed by the fact that Dan has studied whaling and marine biology at a college instead of learning from direct experience as he has. However, Bering agrees to take Dan on, and The Pride of Bedford sets sail. Bering tells Dan that he is placing him in charge of the crew and that he is to treat Jed like any other crew member but must oversee Jed's studying. Dan tutors Jed but is quite hard on him and gives him menial work assignments. Nevertheless, Jed's studies improve and a mutual affection develops between them. When Slush Tubbs, the ship's cook, suggests to Dan that it is the captain's love for the boy that is driving him on and that he may be becoming jealous of Dan's friendship with Jed, Dan becomes more distant toward Jed. The voyage continues but the crew has no success in locating whales until one day, in South American waters, Jed spots a whale from the crow's nest. Three harpooning boats go out in pursuit, and Dan's boat harpoons the whale and is pulled along by it, but Dan has to cut the line when the harpoonist, Britton, is injured. One of the other boats brings the whale in, and the entire crew renders it. Later, Dan talks with Bering about sending Jed on the next whale capture, and Jed goes out in sailor Thatch's boat. However, by night, a heavy fog has settled in and Thatch's boat has not returned. Although Bering does not want to risk the lives of other crewmembers. Dan goes out with a search boat and finds Thatch, Jed and the crew clinging to the wreakage of their boat and brings them back. The next day, Bering tells Dan that, as a man, he is grateful for what he did but that he violated his authority. Bering then relieves Dan of his duties, telling him that he will be put ashore at the next supply port. Dan accepts Bering's decision, but Jed is dismayed and goes to talk to the captain, "man to man," and requests to be put ashore as well. Thinking he has failed to make Jed the man he hoped he would become, Bering strikes him in anger. Later, as the voyage continues, Bering realizes that he is too ill to continue command and asks Dan to take over. After crewmember Blair examines Bering, Dan decides to take him back to the last port. Dan tells Jed that Bering is a fine man who has made the correct decisions regarding his ship and crew. Later, in thick fog, the ship collides with an iceberg and suffers damage below the water line. While assisting Dan in trying to cover the hole, Britton is crushed between the ship and the ice. Dan rescues him, mangling his arm in the process, but Britton dies. Some of the crew want to abandon ship, but Bering comes on deck and successfully supervises the repairs. On Bering's death bed, Jed withdraws his request to be put ashore and makes up with his grandfather. Bering is buried at sea and Dan respectfully assumes command of the ship.