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The Secret Sharer is narrated by a sea captain many years after the event has happened, which reveals its significance. The story takes place during his first command of a merchant ship. His new ship is anchored at the head of the Gulf of Siam, "at the starting point of a long journey." There is no suggestion that it is a journey involving special hazards. The young man leans on his "ship's rail as if on a shoulder of his trusted friend." He feels that he is a stranger to the ship. He is something of a stranger to himself. He is the youngest man on board except the second mate. He is inexperienced, considering his position, which involves the fullest responsibility.
The Captain's "strangeness" makes him sleepless and he decides to set anchor-watch. He sets himself to remain to remain on deck during the earlier part of the night. One result is that he goes to pull a rope ladder, which is on the side of the ship. He sees a naked man clinging to it. As soon as the stranger knows he is speaking to the Captain, he introduces himself as one Leggatt. He is obviously a good swimmer for he has been in the water practically since nine o'clock. The question for the swimmer now is whether he should let go of this ladder and go on swimming till he sinks from exhaustion or to come on board.
The Captain of the ship feels this is no mere formula of desperate speech, but a real alternative in the view of a strong soul. He gathers from this that he is young. In fact, it is only the young who are confronted by such clear issues. But at that time, it is pure intuition on his part. A mysterious communication is established between the two in the face of the silent, darkened tropical sea. The Captain too is young enough to make no comment. The man in the water begins suddenly to climb up the ladder. The Captain hastens away from the rail to fetch some clothes. In a moment, the stranger conceals his damp body in a sleeping-suit of the same gray-stripe pattern as the one which the Captain wears, like his double. It is thus that the secret sharing begins. The "mysterious communication" between the two is established before the Captain learns anything of Leggatt's circumstances.
Leggatt remains self-possessed. "Whenever was being driven distracted, it was not he." But the Captain knows what he must do. He must steer sufficiently near the land to give the fugitive a fair chance to swim to safety. In this shore beneath "the black mass of Koh-ring." Consequently, his ship is in terrible danger. All those on board the ship are amazed and shocked. Finally, Leggatt departs and it is all over. The ship is saved by a hat, which the Captain has given him for protection against the sun. In fact, it serves at a crucial moment to show when the vessel has gathered stern way. Already the ship is drawing ahead. The Captain is alone with her. No one in the world should stand now between them, throwing a shadow on the way of silent knowledge and mute affection. It is the perfect communion with the season with his first communion with the seamen with his first command. The Captain is in time to catch a glimpse of his white hat, which is left floating on the water. It marks the spot where the secret sharer of his cabin as though he were his second self, had lowered himself into the water to take his punishment. He is now "a free man, a proud swimmer striking out for a new destiny."