DANIEL HAYS: My Old Man and the Sea and What Came After

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April 12/2024:  First things first. A short profile I wrote on Daniel Hays and his semi-famous boat Sparrow appears in the most recent (May 2024) print issue of SAIL. It ends with a postscript (complete with Dan’s e-mail address) that he is looking to sell the boat. But if you think you might be interested… sorry, you’re too late.

No, Dan has not sold the boat. Instead he has given it away.

I quote from our most recent e-mail exchange:

 OK, get this: a young guy and his wife, Canadians, came down to look at the boat. This guy gave her an inspection better than any surveyor I have ever seen. He crawled everywhere. I liked the two of them. They had just built a cabin on the coast of Nova Scotia. After discussing price, which crept far below what I had spent on Sparrow in the past two years, they left, and we were all disappointed. A week later I e-mailed him: “How about free?”

 Obviously they were thrilled.

 Honestly, I didn’t want to pollute Sparrow with a financial transaction. I’ve never been good with money, but this was just the right thing to do. It’s just the perfect match, and that was most important for me. They will take care of her the way she should be and will not consider her some sort of financial asset.

 I haven’t told my dad yet. He will grumble a little and then agree that I did the right thing.

This, in itself, tells you a bit about what sort of person Daniel Hays is. He noted he was pleased my response to this missive did not include the word “idiot.” Instead I assured him he had indeed done the right thing.

Dan and Sparrow as they appeared on the November 1995 cover of SAIL Magazine (Photo by Benjamin Mendlowitz)

 

Dan below on Sparrow, doing some navigating, during his jaunt around the Horn

 

Dan below on Sparrow, excavating memories, during my visit with him last summer

 

Sparrow after the fancy paint job Dan bought for her, at great expense, in preparation for her sale. He listed her in a classified ad in SAIL (which is how I found him) for an asking price of $40K. When I met him, he said he’d let her go for $20K. Ultimately, her new owners got her for nothing

 

I say this boat is “semi-famous,” because once upon a time she featured prominently in a best-selling book Dan and his dad David wrote together—My Old Man and the Sea.

Hoary old sailors of my vintage, and more than a few lay readers I reckon, are likely to remember it. Younger sailors need to discover and read it carefully, if they haven’t already. It tells the story of how Dan and his dad sailed round Cape Horn together on Sparrow, a 25-foot engineless Laurent Giles-designed Vertue cutter, back in the 1980s and how their relationship evolved during the voyage (see the story in SAIL for details). They spent several years pitching their tale to publishers, and when the book did finally appear (in 1995… I still own the first edition I bought at the time), it exploded. Thanks primarily to a glowing review written by William F. Buckley, Jr., that ran on the front page of the New York Times Sunday book review section. Dan and his dad quickly cleared almost $1 million in royalties.

I was about halfway through reading the book in 1995, as I was preparing to set out on my Alberg 35 Crazy Horse on an extended North Atlantic circle cruise, when I realized something.

Wait… I’d heard of this guy before!!!

And I remembered. Nearly 20 years earlier, in 1977, while in college, I was intimately involved with a young woman who had attended the Putney School, a (very) progressive boarding school in Vermont. I heard from her, and from other former Putney students I met through her, various tales of wild prep-school antics and misadventures, several of which featured a notorious and much celebrated character… Daniel Hays.

As I learned reading the book, Dan was in fact kicked out of Putney. No mean feat this, considering how very liberal the school is. I mentioned this to Dan when I first met him in person last summer, and he immediately responded, a bit emphatically: “But I got back in!”

As explained in the book, this was entirely because of his dad, who pleaded Dan’s case to the head of the school, who demurred (referring to Dan): “It’s the way he can blow fire, five feet of flame, and the matches zipping in through windows of the wooden buildings—he really will burn us down.”

To salvage the situation, dad Dave moved to Vermont himself so Dan could be readmitted to the school as a more closely supervised day student. Dan, understandably, felt his dad was cramping his style a bit.

“If I were gay,” Dan reportedly told Dave, “you’d become president of ‘International Dads of Gays’ and wreck even that for me.”

It was (and still is) that kind of relationship.

Dan and Dave, back in the day

 

For Dave is still alive, in his 90s now, and father and son are still sparring with each other. As Dan noted in his last e-mail to me:

Checks from My Old Man and the Sea have been between two and three dollars for the last 25 years. We argue about who gets it. I don’t know why, but this year we got $69! I told him I’d take him out to dinner. And, as usual, when the check comes I will say, “Damn, I must’ve left my wallet at home.” Whereupon he will hand me his credit card and let me sign for the check, as I can do his signature better than he can. Since I was 10.

Dan and me last summer… two old guys in search of a razor

 

I had a great time visiting Dan at his home in Brooklin, Maine, and immediately understood how he came to be such a celebrated figure at Putney. He is at once entertaining, provocative, unpredictable, with an edge always, but also wise, kind, and very human. One very interesting thing I learned during my visit is that Dan wrote and published a second book after the first, On Whale Island, which describes a year he spent living on a remote island in Nova Scotia with his wife and stepson.

As in the first book, there are alternating narratives, with different sections written by Dan, his wife Wendy, and stepson Stephan. These capture the joys and inevitable tensions of a proto-family living in primitive, isolated conditions over a long period of time. Plus there are lots of chuckles along the way, because mostly it’s Dan doing the talking. I highly recommend it.

Dan bought the island, literally in the middle of nowhere, which he describes as “the only place I know where I could stay forever,” in 1989 with money his grandmother gave him. There was an old fishing shack on it, which he and his father restored, and then they built a house together, just as they had previously finished Sparrow from a bare hull and also built a house on a tiny island in Connecticut.

You can get a good sense of the place watching this video made by a pair of vlogging kayakers who camped and spent time there with Dan’s permission:

You’ll likely note the house and island feature various “creative touches.” Dan, I submit, really is an artist at heart, for nearly everything he touches gets modified and personalized in some unlikely and interesting way.

Custom climate controls in Dan’s funky old Toyota FJ Cruiser

 

A rotting bit of root he found

 

The house he and his dad built on Whale Island

 

His younger studly self, on Easter Island, during the voyage around the Horn

 

Dan is divorced now, recently retired, and no, he did not manage to parlay the small fortune he made writing My Old Man and the Sea into a much greater fortune. He’s much too impulsive for that.

Though Sparrow is no longer for sale, he does note he has enjoyed getting “fan mail” via the e-mail address that appears in my story in SAIL. He’s also thinking he might like to get married again, though this time he’d like to start with the divorce first, rather than the other way around.

If interested, or if you just want to send him fan mail, you can reach him at sparrow7865@earthlink.net

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