After accidentally shooting an army recruiter, Walter Beaumont is forced to flee England and finds himself on the HMS Resolution, Captain James Cook's ship of exploration to the South Seas. On board he befriends Omai, a Tahitian navigator who takes Walter under his wing.
A fish out of water, Walter Beaumont struggles with the Spartan conditions of seafaring, eventually falling ill with consumption. James Cook, knowing that Walter would never survive the rigors of the Northern Pacific and the Bearing Straights, is forced to leave the young man and Omai behind in the newly discovered Hawaiian Islands. Recovering his health, his hopes of returning to England are shattered by the news that Captain Cook has been killed and the Resolution has returned to England without him.
Determined to make the most of his fate and intrigued by the Hawaiian culture and their close relationship with the ocean, Walter tries to adapt as best as he can.
In a rite of passage that sees him transverse the globe and face the uncertainties of being a stranger in a strange land, Walter Beaumont well and truly rises to the challenge.
It is quite literally a watershed of epic proportions, where faces the many moods of an ocean culture that is the center of the Hawaiian world. Together with his Tahitian friend, Omai, his teacher Kanoa, and his newly found love, Lani, he comes face to face with political intrigue, war, and the most enigmatic experience for an English aristocrat, that of riding the giant swells of Hawai'i.