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Several families have met together to have a picnic on a pleasant local beach. To everyone's delight they are joined by Harry Merryweather, a midshipman home on leave. Harry and another youth, David Moreton, go for a wander round the rocks, but are cut off by the strong tide. The weather then turns very nasty, but the boys are able to swim to a passing boat containing an old man, Jefferies, and his young grandson, Tristram. The weather is now so bad they can't get back to the local harbour at Penmore.
There is an accident and young Tristram is lost overboard, and drowned.
They see a vessel, a brig, on her way down channel, but when they get to her they find she is an abandoned wreck. More bad weather. They are seen by a schooner about some bad business, who opens fire, probably to destroy an unwanted witness to some crime. The brig is sinking. They make a raft. Old Jefferies dies. They are picked up by a French schooner, which turns out to be a privateer. as the story continues they are wrecked in a West Indian hurricane and survive stranding on a desert key, among other trials and travails.