The title story, "The Open Boat," is based on Crane's real-life experience while serving as a journalist corresponding from the Cuban War of Independence. The steamship on which he was traveling, the SS Commodore, hit a sandbar and sank. Crane was one of the last to escape, using a dinghy which overturned as he and others attempted to reach shore. The young journalist's report of the disaster made the front page of the newspaper three days after rescue.
Though "The Open Boat" was inspired by the true event, the story is fictional. It follows four characters as they try to find their way back to land after their disaster at sea. Only one character is named, the oiler Billie. Billie is the strongest of the group and the one Crane wrote most sympathetically. He is also the only of the main characters who does not survive. He was based on a real person who also did not survive the real incident. That real person, William Higgins, was the subject of Crane's dedication, along with the other men involved.
Crane is known for his pioneering psychological realism, often while rejecting sentimentality. His work is often compared to impressionistic art, resulting in a sort of ambiguity. I see more of a jumpy, quirky, real-life snapshot with realistic stream-of-consciousness. From part III:
It would be difficult to describe the subtle brotherhood of men that was here established on the seas. No one said that it was so. No one mentioned it. But it dwelt in the boat, and each man felt it warm him. They were a captain, an oiler, a cook, and a correspondent, and they were friends, friends in a more curiously iron-bound degree than may be common. The hurt captain, lying against the water-jar in the bow, spoke always in a low voice and calmly, but he could never command a more ready and swiftly obedient crew than the motley three of the dingey. It was more than a mere recognition of what was best for the common safety. There was surely in it a quality that was personal and heartfelt. And after this devotion to the commander of the boat there was this comradeship that the correspondent, for instance, who had been taught to be cynical of men, knew even at the time was the best experience of his life. But no one said that it was so. No one mentioned it.