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As an Allied freighter sails from New York to London, it is attacked by a German submarine. While the freighter's crew retaliates, the submarine shells the passengers as they struggle to board lifeboats. After the battle has ceased and both vessels have been sunk, renowned journalist and cynic Constance Porter is alone in a lifeboat when Kovac, an oiler from the freighter, pulls himself aboard. Kovac accidentally knocks Connie's 16-mm camera overboard while pulling Stanley "Sparks" Garrett, a English radio operator, into the boat, infuriating Connie. Both men then assist Army nurse Alice Mackenzie, wounded seaman Gus Smith and passenger C. J. "Ritt" Rittenhouse into their craft. Connie is glad to see Ritt, a wealthy industrialist who is an old friend. She is also pleased to hear the yell of black steward Joe Spencer, who put her in the lifeboat and is now attempting to rescue Mrs. Higley and her baby. After the others help Joe and Mrs. Higley aboard, Alice discovers that the infant is dead, and Sparks explains that Mrs. Higley is an English shell shock victim who is returning to Bristol. Mrs. Higley does not realize that her baby is dead, and the group's attention is distracted by the arrival of another survivor: a German who does not appear to speak English. Connie translates his declarations that he is an ordinary seaman and is sorry for the attack. Kovac, a Czechoslovakian-American, wants to throw the German overboard, but Gus, a German-American who changed his name from Schmidt to Smith out of shame, insists that a "guy can't help being born who he is." Ritt asserts that they cannot kill the German according to international law, and the majority votes to keep him as a prisoner. Soon after, Joe says a prayer as they bury the baby at sea, and that night, they tie Mrs. Higley to a chair to keep her from committing suicide. The next morning, however, they discover that she has jumped overboard. Ritt tries to cheer the survivors by taking stock of their small store of provisions and organizing jobs for everyone. When Ritt follows the German's advice about setting a course, Kovac accuses him of electing himself captain. Connie tricks the German into revealing his true rank when she calls him Kapitän and he reacts. Although she believes that the German is best qualified to run the lifeboat, Kovac angrily proclaims himself captain and orders them to follow Sparks's course to Bermuda, which is the opposite of the German's. As they sail, Gus's wounded leg becomes infected, and after the German states that he was a surgeon in civilian life, Alice assists as he amputates the leg. Later, having gained their trust, the German, whose name is Willi, tells the others to change direction. Kovac, hoping to save Gus's life, reluctantly accepts Willi's advice. That night, however, as Sparks is at the tiller, the stars show him that they are heading away from Bermuda, not toward it. The next morning, the group urges Joe, a reformed pickpocket, to search Willi, and Joe finds a compass that Willi had secretly been using to steer them toward a German supply ship. Kovac is about to stab the German when a huge storm strikes, and Willi, who reveals that he speaks English, brings the group safely through the storm. At the storm's end, the survivors have lost all of their food and water, and with the boat's mast gone, Willi rows them toward the German ship. Kovac laughs about their "prisoner" taking control, but Willi asserts it is the logical thing to do now that the storm has blown them off course. As time passes, all of the group grow weak except Willi. Despite their suffering, Connie and Kovac become romantically involved, as do Alice and Sparks. Gus's thirst causes him to hallucinate, but one morning, he sees Willi drinking water. Hoping to keep his water supply a secret, Willi pushes Gus overboard, but Gus's weak, drowning cries reach Sparks. After the group realizes that Willi is sweating, which requires hydration, Joe grabs a water flask from Willi's shirt. The flask is broken, and Willi admits that he has been subsisting on hoarded water and energy tables. With their nerves finally broken, Alice leads the others in an attack on Willi. All participate except Joe, who watches with horror and sadness as they beat Willi and force him overboard. Later, the survivors are bemoaning their fate when Connie, who has become less selfish and haughty, yells at them for being quitters. She gives Kovac her diamond bracelet to use as a lure, and he catches a fish with it. Just as they are pulling the fish in though, Joe spots a ship. The ship is the German vessel that Willi was trying to reach, but before it can pick them up, it is attacked by an American warship. The German ship is sunk, and as the group awaits rescue by the Americans, a young German sailor climbs aboard the lifeboat. Swayed by his youth, the women want to save him, but Ritt declares that Germans cannot be treated as human beings. The sailor brandishes a pistol at them, but Joe disarms him. When the youth asks if they are going to kill him, Kovac wonders what can be done with such people, and Connie replies that maybe Mrs. Higley and Gus could answer him.