Reaping the harvest of adventure

(MCT/Dallas Morning News/Sharon Kilday)

Earth and Spirit

In the early 1990s, a father and his son, David and Daniel Hays, along with the family cat, sailed in a small sloop from their seaside Connecticut home down through the Panama Canal and then around the tip of South America and back up to their home. They became the first Americans ever to sail around Cape Horn in a vessel under 30 feet long.

Father and son traveled down through the southern Pacific Ocean, known as the most storm-tossed and remote waters in the world, where ferocious winds can build up waves as tall as a 10-story building. They navigated through the treacherous straits of Magellan between the southern tip of the South American continent and the frigid shores of Antarctica.

The actual moment when they sited the fog-shrouded tip of Cape Horn was their moment of achievement, a real fulfillment of a dream. Daniel’s published log of their voyage is full of moments that are poignant and hilariously funny, as father and son shared both the adventure of their voyage and their shared Jewish heritage.

Daniel writes: “Day 156. Tonight’s the first night of Chanukah. The ocean is calm, too calm really. We’re sort of drifting. Dad yells at the sails then takes them down. Things clank and we roll. The menorah slides back and forth on the cabin table. We tape it down. We light two candles tonight. The cat walks across and briefly catches fire.

“ ‘Dad, do you think my descendants will someday tape the menorah, light the cat and consider it an ancient ritual, lost in history?’ ”

After they set sail from Jamaica to Panama on Yom Kippur, Daniel mused about a bout with seasickness. “Do you think we can call this our Yom Kippur fast, Dad? I mean does it count when you can’t eat anything anyway?”

Father and son forged a stronger relationship, born in the crucible of challenge and adventure. Daniel, a college student during his trip, how holds a master’s degree in environmental science and works as a therapist for troubled teens. David, founding artistic director of the National Theater for the Deaf, plays in a Connecticut klezmer band, “Heavy Shtetl.”

A year after their daring voyage, David’s wife, Leonora, happened to ask him if he had any heroes. David considered the possibilities, his own father, Abraham Lincoln, Judge Louis Brandeis, Lou Gehrig, Arturo Toscanini, he thought. Then he came to a conclusion.

“ ‘My son,’ I blurted out, and started to cry.”

The account of their voyage, published under the title My Old Man and the Sea (Harper), is a tribute to the worth of adventure in our lives, particularly in the development of the young.

In working with young people on a daily basis, Robert Ludwig, director of university ministry at DePaul University in Chicago, detects an urgent spiritual hungering. “I hear,” he told me, “a need for some personal contact with the deeper mysteries and undercurrents of life. Young folks want to know they can connect their lives with things that really mean something and also make a difference.” Ludwig identifies this spiritual hunger as motivation for much drug use and sexual experimentation.

At DePaul, on an ongoing basis, some 1,300 young people are involved in community service: tutoring children in housing projects, working with day care centers, with Habitat for Humanity, spending vacations at a rural ecology center in Kentucky. “When they graduate many of our students talk about how this was the most profound experience of their education,” said Ludwig.

The young in particular need to be offered adventures, challenges against which they can match the best that is in them. Outward Bound, the worldwide organization that has been offering such adventures to the young for more than 50 years, describes the rationale behind its programs, and lists the following qualities that are developed by contact with some kind of outdoor adventure: self-knowledge, tenacity, the ability to go beyond self-imposed limitations, acceptance of responsibility, self-reliance, craftsmanship, physical fitness and, last but not least, leadership ability.

Legendary British mountaineer George Leigh Mallory, who disappeared on the summit slopes of Everest in 1924, was also one of the world’s great philosophers of adventure. When asked why he climbed Everest, he famously responded: “Because it’s there.” But he also said: “To refuse the adventure is to run the risk of drying up like a pea in its shell.”

Adventurers should just try to avoid setting the cat on fire.

[Rich Heffern is an NCR staff writer. His e-mail address is]

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