The first act takes place in a bar, owned by Johnny the Priest and tended by Larry. Old Chris, a coal barge captain, receives a letter from his daughter, whom he has not seen since she was a 5 years old and their family lived in Sweden. They meet at the bar and she agrees to go on the coal barge with him. The rest of the play takes place on the barge. The barge crew rescues Mat Burke and four other men, who were in an open boat after a shipwreck. After not getting along at first, Mat and Anna fall in love. A confrontation between Anna, Chris and Mat. Mat wants to marry Anna, Chris does not want them to get married because he doesn't want her to marry a sailor, and Anna is upset with both of them for trying to be in charge of her. Anna tells them the truth about her life, that she was raped while living with her mother's relatives on a Minnesota farm, and then became a prostitute after her time as a nurse's aide. Mat gets very angry, and Mat and Chris both leave. Mat and Chris return. Anna forgives Chris for not being part of her childhood, and after a dramatic confrontation, Mat forgives Anna for being a prostitute after she promises never to be one again, and Chris agrees to them getting married. It turns out that Chris and Mat have both signed up for the same ship going to South Africa, and they are about to leave the next day, but promise to come home to Anna after the voyage.