Daniel Hays and Sparrow

An “old man” and the boat he took to sea.

- with Charles J. Doane

Daniel with Sparrow in her shed, above. Opposite page: The pair “back in the day” landing on the cover of SAIL magazine, with a photo by Benjamin Mendlowitz.

Daniel Hays, at age 63, is now almost 10 years older than his father David was when they sailed around Cape Horn together in a tiny 25-foot cutter named Sparrow. That was back in the mid-1980s. They co-wrote a book about their adventure and spent seven years pitching it. When finally it was published in 1995 as My Old Man and the Sea, it became an instant bestseller. A fine photograph of Daniel sailing Sparrow singlehand­ed graced the cover of the November 1995 issue of this very magazine. Inside, then-editor Patience Wales hailed the book as being “about relationsh­ips—between father and son, between people and their boat, between sailors and the sea.”

Sparrow, the compact nexus of those relationsh­ips, is a Laurent Giles-designed Vertue, the fifth hull built in fiberglass, sister to nearly 200 wooden predecesso­rs dating back to 1936. Her form is very traditiona­l, with a stout transom-hung rudder behind a long full keel. Unlike most of her sisters, she carries no engine. Daniel and his dad acquired her as a bare hull in Portsmouth, England, had her shipped to Connecticu­t, and then—with the explicit intent of prepping her to sail around Cape Horn—spent two years finishing her build.

They did an outstandin­g job. Daniel and his dad were both experience­d sailors and handy with tools, having previously built a house together when Daniel was age 16. Sparrow is, to this day, a paragon of careful craftsmans­hip—“as big a boat as we could afford to perfect,” was how dad David described her at the time. Much of the metal aboard is customcast bronze, and her interior is all fine wood joinery without an inch of fiberglass showing. Every drawer, locker, cabinet, and floorboard is cleverly organized and so carefully secured, Daniel still likes to boast, you can turn the boat upside down and nothing more than a pencil will come loose.

And he should know. Daniel sailed this boat with a friend from Connecticu­t down to Jamaica, then from Jamaica through Panama and around the Horn to Uruguay with his dad, then finally all the way home from Brazil to Connecticu­t on his own. The moment of truth came when he and his dad were about 50 miles southwest of the Horn, hand-steering through a Force 9 gale. Dan was on deck alone when Sparrow was knocked flat to starboard surfing off a wave.

“What I’d been standing on was above my shoulder level,” he wrote. “I was in the ocean! The foaming waves I’d been looking at were at my chin. My tether was yanked tight as Sparrow came up level, surfed again, and fell over to port, the starboard deck and rail shooting up over my head. I kicked my legs and paddled for a moment in free water, then Sparrow righted and I was scooped on deck.”

Later that night, a er the gale had eased, Dan was again on watch alone when he spotted the Horn, “a featureles­s lump.” He described it to his dad as the “one wave that didn’t go down.”

Much more than the drama of such moments, the book Dan and David wrote is about how their relationsh­ip evolved during their voyage. eir alternatin­g parallel narratives tug at each other—teasing, cajoling, admiring, admonishin­g, laughing at, and celebratin­g each other. It is the magic of this tension that readily draws in readers who are not sailors. For ultimately, this is the story of how the son became skipper and the dad became crew. Dan’s resentment that his father, once his hero, has been diminished, becomes palpable, as does David’s pride and joy as he nds his son has become his hero.

I spent a long a ernoon with Daniel last summer and immediatel­y recognized the character from the book. He is at once mischievou­s and kind, with a brilliant, erratic wit, a quirky, sometimes manic demeanor, intensely creative, with more than a few ashes of wisdom showing through. Our conversati­on touched on many topics, o en careening wildly o course, but its putative focal point was his boat, Sparrow, which he still owns.

He took me to meet her, stored in a shed not far from his home in Brooklin, Maine.

It’s been decades since she was in the water. Daniel always supposed he would one day sail her solo nonstop around the world, but a lifetime has intervened. His career as a wilderness guide and therapeuti­c supervisor, as a teacher and mentor to troubled kids, and now as a caregiver to patients su ering from dementia, has always been focused on helping others. He’s been married and divorced and has raised two kids.

And now, like his dad before him, Daniel is diminished, a bit too old, he believes, to indulge another dream of extreme sailing. So Sparrow is up for sale. Her topsides and deck are flawless, the product of a fresh paint job that cost much more than expected. Her interior meanwhile is untouched, a time capsule of memories Daniel and I spent some time exploring, all of it still filled with the kit that took him and his dad around the world.

Daniel can envision Sparrow’s next owner: someone to keep her alive, to sail her hard and build a relationsh­ip with her. “ at’s who I want to have buy this boat,” he told me in a grim voice… and then he smiled.

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