Everyone said he was special.

Daivd Schwimmer wrote to his parents in October, 1977, when he was a freshman at Duke University. "I feel like I have so much going on inside of me that I should write a little bit, and out of that feeling comes this letter.

"Beginning with this summer I felt that I was starting to learn an awful lot, if only the pieces would fall in place, learning about what I'd like to do after I get out of school, what I want from school, what my friends are for, what it's like to love someone and not be possessive.

"[A friend] asked me the other night what I wanted out of life, and I said, I want to be happy. I want to live in a place that has lots and lots of space around it, like the moors or the mountains or by the sea, and get married and have lots of children and cats, and grow a lot of my own food, and work at a job that I feel is necessary and good. Which leaves me with the point of how do I get there from here, and where is there?"

At 18, David Schwimmer was an achiever. In high school he had a grade-point average of 95; he won the top Latin prize in his home state of North Carolina; he was named Most Valuable Player in the cross-country track team. He tutored inner-city kids; he wrote poetry; he liked to stay up late talking; he could sing songs for hours on a hike in the woods.

He carried around a tattered Bible he'd won in grade school, and was studying classical Hebrew so that he could understand what he read better.

He hadn't figured out what he wanted to do with his talents: be a veterinarian? Go to med school? Be a writer?

He decided to take a semester off and go on an ocean-kayaking course given by Outward Bound, the famous wilderness school offering physical challenge, adventure and a chance for introspection.

"Don't worry about the risks and danger involved in O.B. and hitch-hiking," he wrote that December. "Especially you, Momma. You see, I know them, I'm not trying to hide them from myself, but they're part of what I have to do. Don't ask my why, But if I can't follow my own heart, what can I follow? . . . I'll be home soon."

David never came home. He and two other young Outward Bound students, Tim Breidegam and Brenda Herman, drowned in the wind-whipped waters off the desolate coast of the Baja peninsula. David's body has never been found.

His parents, and Breidegam's parents, have filed a $2 million lawsuit against the school, charging negligence and failure to provide "adequate supervision, leadership, basic skills, training, weather information, safety precedures, equipment or rescue aid."

Outward Bounds is a "wilderness school," an idea imported from Britain in 1962. Its goals -- building self-confidence and skills through stressful physical challenges -- have been warmly embraced by thousands who have taken the standard 23-day course, particularly on the prep-school circuit in which it got its start. A national organization with seven schools, its influence permeates the rapidly growing outdoor movement.

Fifteen people have died in Outward Bound courses in this country since 1964, according to the school's records, and one died this summer on an Outward Bound course in Canada. One other lawsuit, charging negligence in the death of Sonya Ross in 1977, is also pending, and at least four other suits have been settled out of court, one after a jury finding in favor of Outward Bound was overturned by the Oregon Supreme Court.

Outward Bound denies negligence. Its spokesmen will not discuss incidents involved in litigation, on the advice of their lawyers and their insurance company. But with every death -- with, in the careful language of their safety reports, every "program related problem" or "near miss" -- the same dilemma is presented: How much safety must an "adventure" program guarantee?

Does a school that students understand to teach "survival training" have to guarantee survival? In a society lulled by Disneyesque visions of a benign wilderness, how much protection should inexperienced people have in order to deal with the Mother Nature , From E1 which can turn into a ruthless destroyer?

Like the chorus of a Greek tragedy, the questions are asked -- by Outward Bound officials, by the families and by the others who survived a grueling 15-hour nightmare clinging to one kayak in the Gulf of California.

"This is a tale of a terrible tribe

A tribe so rough and tough

That they went to sea in plastic boats

And didn't even stop to take any votes."

The "terrible tribe," as one of them -- Keith Trider -- described the group in an exuberant and occasionally profane piece of doggerel, consisted of 11 people -- nine students and two instructors. They all met in Outward Bound's camp in Loreto, Mexico and were driven in trucks to the first place they camped, about 60 miles away, along with another group of nine students who formed a separate kayak team.

They moved camp every two to four days, spending the days learning to snorkel, fish and kayak. For the course's standard three-day "solos" (in which each student remains alone in the wild), they were encourged to fast. They all did, and David Schwimmer, for one, decided to spend the time naked, presumably to get as close to nature as possible.

The two groups set out the morning of Jan. 24, 1978 for the final expedition, the most rigorous section of the course. They were to kayak in the ocean for about 20 miles in five days, gradually working their way back to Lareto, without instructors. As required by Outward Bound procedures, the instructors were to check their progress at predetermined points at least once every 24 hours.

The two groups of nine operated separately. The weather that morning seemed fine. "The water was like glass, "Trider said. It was about 8 a.m. when they set out; they weren't allowed to wear watches, and guessed the time by the position of the sun or moon.

One group turned back after about 20 minutes when one member decided on her own that the waves were getting too rough. Operating under group rule, her colleagues had to return with her.

But the group David Schwimmer was in, for which Keith Trider was the student leader, forged ahead. There were six kayaks: Brenda Herman and David shared one; Tim Breidegam and Catherine Mouseley, a 32-year-old graphics designer from New York, shared another. David Reed, a 20-year-old student from Dallas, shared a kayak with BeeBee Foster, now a student at Skidmore College. Trider was in a single, as was DelRene Davis, now DelRene Wallenberg, a nurse in Olympia, Wash, and Jana Ankrum, now in the Peace Corps. From their individual recollections and a letter from Ankrum, the following description of the accident emerges:

After they had been out for about 45 minutes, the wind picked up. Trider called for the members of the group to gather together. They decided to try to get around the next point, Punta Pulpito -- figuring that once past it, they would find a more protected bay and sandy beaches on which to land.

By the time the other group had returned to shore; some made camp and two went to find the instructors. They had no idea, one of them said, that David's group was in trouble or that a storm was blowing up. Upon reaching the instructors, they were told either to portage (carry) the kayaks across the rough terrain of Punta Pulpito, or to try the ocean again. Then the instructors apparently sailed in a motorized sailboat through the same waters in which David's group was starting to have trouble, but according to David's parents, later interviews with the members of the other group, the instructors did not look for their son's group. No effort to summon help was made until later.

Meanwhile the sea was getting choppier, and even as David's group was trying to get together, Tim and Catherine's kayak capsized. The group struggled to "raft up," the safety procedure they had practiced. The idea was to hold all the kayaks together while some people tried to bail out the capsized vessel and upright it.

The wind was blowing stronger, kicking up waves. Then a wave that rebounded off the rocky coast, gathering force, swamped them all.

The "raft" broke apart. David and Brenda's kayak shot off in one direction; Jana's in another. Keith capsized. They struggled to regroup. The others yelled at Jana and at David and Brenda to continue toward shore and find the instructors and get them to sail their motorized boat out to rescue them, Jana, who eventually reached the shore alone, and the others thought David and Brenda had done just that.

The others ditched all but one of the remaining kayaks. According to some of the survivors, they sank; others said they were swept away. David Reed and BeeBee Foster managed to stay in theirs and the four remaining students clung to it.

Catherine and DelRene hung onto the front, attempting to paddle and kick in the direction of the shore. Keith and Tim were in back, Keith trying to kick and hold onto Tim, who seemed to be having trouble.

"It was hard to hang on," Keith Trider recalled. "When the water was just swells it wasn't to hard, but the waves rebounding off the rock would put you under the water. You'd have a chance to spit out the water and go a little further before the next one hit you . .

"You lost all sence of time, you were just constantly kicking. Within an hour I thought I wasn't going to make it."

There was some discussion -- shouted in between waves -- of ditching the kayak and trying to swim to shore; Trider said they should hang onto the kayak that was afloat.

Tim was getting weak. He had been shaking. He didn't seem to see right. He was cold and only occasionally lucid.

Hours passed. About 12 hours passed largely in silence, each person kicking and paddling and spitting out water and wondering if they would make it.

At one point, DelRene remembers, Tim said "maybe they'll dedicate the yearbook to me at school." She was getting baddly chafted by the life jacket and thinking about sharks. BeeBee was crying. The waves were as high as 15 feet; the winds 25 to 30 miles an hour.

Keith kept having to shake Tim to make him spit out the water. It got dark. For the first time Catherine began to wonder if she was going to make it. David Reed, in the kayak, felt cold and cramped, "kind of like you're tearing your insides up."

Daivd Reed tried to give the top of his wet suit to Tim, but "he didn't even know what it was."

The moon came up, appearing suddenly from behind a huge wave. "It was a scary sight, all of a sudden. His [Tim's] eyes opened up real big. He panicked all of a sudden."

A new wave hit and Tim swallowed a lot of water. "By the time we tried to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, he seemed to be just filled with water," Keith said. "He wasn't spitting it out anymore."

David Reed and Keith hauled Tim up onto the kayak, and tried to press water out of him and give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. They knew he was dead. DelRene heard Keith yell, "Tim's gone," but she thought he meant Tim had lost consciiousness, and yelled back that Keith should try to keep Tim's face out of the water, to hang on, because they would be safe soon.

They could see the shore at this point. It was clear that if they didn't get there soon, they'd be swept back into the main channel and it would be all over. Keith and David held onto Tim's body for about an hour. The girls said they should hang onto the body, it was important.

Both Keith and David Reed remember distinctly making the decision -- independently -- to let Tim's body go.Each says, "I let him go."

David Reed got out of the kayak to help paddle and kick.

His body was numb from the waist down. "It's kind of a blur after that . . . I was starting to accept the fact I was going to die . . . i was kind of proud of myself that I had been able to think about it rationally without yelling and screaming and everything. I knew when I was going to die I would just fall asleep from exhaustion, so it probably wouldn't be that bad."

Keith, on the other hand, had decided he was going to live. "I would have hung on to that SOB for three days if I'd had to."

In an hour (two hours?), the remaining five survivors reached a rocky shore, the waves pulling and pushing them against the rocks, each one eventually able to grab on and collapse..

They could barely stand. The rest of the night they spent huddled together under the one soggy sleeping bag that had been retrieved from the shattered kayaks. The only food was a single orange salvaged from the same boat.

They woke up at dawn -- "the most beautiful sunrise" -- and for the first time got a good look at what lay ahead: a high cliff, which they estimated at about 200 feet. Aching, hungry, barely dry, they scaled the rocks and started to walk. They walked all day, across terrain described by the school director in his letter to the Schwimers as "sonoran Desert region, semi-arid, with cactus, brush, and occasional small trees. Water is very scarce and occurs only at a few settled or frequented points.""

The first night they all lay down in a small depression and covered themselves with the one sleeping bag, "like five bones," Trider said. The next day they set out again, "walking like 90-year-olds," their mouths swollen from the salt water, their tongues sticking to the roofs of their mouths.

They still had not seen Jana, who made her way back to camp alone.

Later that day they sighted a Mexican fishing boat off the coast, and hailed it with the sleeping bag. The fishermen took them to another fishermen's camp in their boat full of dead sharks. From there they were driven back to the base camp and then to Loreto.

According to the Coast Guard log which David's father, George Schwimmer, obtained through a Freedom of Information request (after the intervention of North Carolina's Sen. Robert Morgan), the Southwest Outward Bound School in Santa Fe, N.M., was first notified that there had been an accident through a message left with its answering service at about 9 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 26. The message apparently came from one of their men in Loreto. Still unknown are the actions of the group's instructors, Larry Campbell and Elmo Crow, between the time the two groups left before 8 a.m. Tuesday and about 11 a.m. Thursday, when the harbor master in Loreto was notified. SWOB refused to say where the men are now.

Since the only phone in Loreto was in a tire store that was closed at night, communication with the outside world was hampered.

Firday morning, Daivd and Brenda's kayak was found at the north end of Coronados Island. On Saturday Brenda and Tim's bodies were found on Carmen Island. The Coast Guard summary continues the story:

". . .missing male remains unlocated. Bodies in custody of Mex authorities in La Paz . . . 290645u hh 3f cgnr 1482 completed above searches with neg results. . . SD AERO SQDRN located a life jacket off the northern portion of ISLA CARMEN, intact with no damage, zipper closed and waist cord tied. Mr. Frishman (coordinator for SWOB) . . . is firmly convinced this life jacket belongs to the missing student. . ."

Civilian searches were suspended over the weekend, according to the report. The Coast Guard called off its search on Feb. 1, 1978, according to its files. According to the log, the search was discontinued the afternoon of Jan. 30.

But for George and Veronica Schwimmer of Raleigh, N.C., the search was just beginning. In the days and months that followed, they got caught up in a detective quest that has produced few answers but many questions.