When we first meet the old man, he is already down on his luck. The old man (who goes by that name throughout much of the novel, but whose real name is Santiago) is a fisherman who has gone eighty-four days without a single catch. He fishes on a small skiff in the Gulf Stream, and for the first forty days a boy named Manolin accompanies him. But after forty days without a single fish, the boy's parents determine that Santiago must be salao - the worst form of unlucky. The parents order the boy to work on another boat that is more successful. But the boy is saddened by Santiago's daily misfortunes and thus still helps him carry the coiled lines, the harpoon, or the sail after the skiff returns empty.
Everything about Santiago is old except his eyes, which remained cheerful and undefeated despite his lack of success. He was gaunt and wrinkly, with brown blotches running all over his body and scars on his hands from handling large fish. But, unfortunately, none of these scars were fresh.
The old man had taught the boy how to fish, and thus the boy felt strong loyalty and gratitude towards the old man. The boy wishes to fish with Santiago again but must obey his parents, who believe the old man's fishing days are over. The boy buys Santiago a beer, and they relax on the Terrace, where some of the younger fishermen make fun of Santiago and some of the older ones pity him. But the old man is not sad or angry but has faith that a good catch will come one day. This is not the first time that he has had such a long dry spell - the boy recounts a time when they went eighty-seven days without a fish, and then caught big ones every day for three weeks. He still wants to help Santiago despite his parents' wishes, and thus insists on obtaining bait for the old fisherman. Their relationship is strongly knit together, both caring very deeply about one another - the joy they both express when telling past fishing stories is evidence to that.
Santiago tells the boy that he plans to search far out in the ocean tomorrow and will return when the wind shifts. The boy plots to convince the man he currently fishes with also to go out far so that he might help if Santiago snags a big fish. But Santiago declines this offer, as he believes he can still handle even the largest catch. The two walk back to the old man's shack with the sailing equipment. In his shack, possessions and reminders of Santiago's deceased wife lie all around, except for a photograph of her that he took down from the wall because it made him too lonely.
When they arrive, the old man and boy go through their daily fictional exchange, where the old man says he will eat yellow rice and fish that evening even though no such food was in the house, and the boy takes the cast net even though they sold it months before. With no food to cook, Santiago takes yesterdays paper from under the bed and reads the sports section. He is a big Yankees fan and champions the great DiMaggio's skills against any threat from the Tigers or the Indians. He has almost as much faith in the Yankees as he does in his ability to catch a giant fish soon.
When the boy returns after retrieving the sardines, the old man is asleep. The boy covers his strong, weathered body with a blanket and leaves to find Santiago some food.
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