George and Veronica Schwimmer live in an older residential neighborhood in Raleigh, N.C., where he sells insurance. In January, 1978, their middle child, David, went off to California to take a kayak course run by Outward Bound. He loved the outdoors and, on the eve of his 18th birthday, he wanted to "think things through," and maybe decide what he wanted to do with his life.

But on Jan. 27, 1978, at "three minutes after midnight," George Schwimmer recalls, "I was going into the kitchen to get something to eat when the phone rang."

"I was watching 'Perry Mason'," his wife added.

In that phone call they were told that David was "lost at sea" in a kayaking accident. Later they learned that two other students, Tim Breidegam, 21, and Brenda Herman, 19, had also perished when strong winds churned the Gulf of California into 15-foot waves and the kayaks were tossed about like ping-pong balls in a clothes washer.

The Schwimmers, both dark-haired and intense, assumed that everything possible was being done to find their child, even as the days passed and their vigil by the telephone brought no news. After five days, the Coast Guard called off its search. Rufus Dalton, chairman of Outward Bound's board of trustees, came with his wife to pay a condolence call, and the school offered to pay the Schwimmers' tlephone bill.

At the time, they were more grief-stricken than angry. The school official they had talked to most often, John Rhoades, had been considerate and as helpful as he could.

"Rhoades said he'd let us know everything," Schwimmer said in a recent interview. "'The [surviving] students have made statements, the instructors made statements, we'll send you all the statements.' I said 'fine.' Then a week later [then Southwest Outward Bound School Director] Lee Maynard called. I asked for the reports. He said he'd get them to me. A week later he said, 'I can't give them to you. Our insurance company says we can't give them to you.'"

That's when George Schwimmer started to get mad. "I said to myself, 'That's fishy. My kid dies and I can't find out what happened. It stinks. I'm going to find out what's going on.'"

They soon learned that Brenda Herman had kept a journal, which was recovered after her body was found; in it she had recorded the names and addresses of the other students on the trip. The Schwimmers began to call them, one by one. Initially they just wanted to find out what their son's last days were like, whether he had been happy, what he'd done. But, they said, "with each new fact we became more upset."

The first disturbing fact they learned was that contrary to what they and the newspapers had been told, Tim Breidegam was alive in the water for about 12 hours, held up by his fellow students as they clung to one kayak and tried to get to shore.

They were upset to find out that on the standard three-day "solo," which the students spend alone in a predetermined place on land, they were encouraged by the instructors to fast. Outward Bound officials have since said that fasting is encouraged in order to remove as many distractions as possible so that the student can have a spiritual experience. The Schwimmers felt that the fast, coming as it does before the "final expedition," the most demanding part of the course, weakened the students and left them less prepared to deal with the emergency.

George Schwimmer then went to the North Carolina State University Library and looked up stories about the Outward Bound. Comparing notes with another bereaved parent, Luise Ross of Tonawanda, N.Y., whose daughter died on an Outward Bound course in 1977, they found that at least 15 deaths had occurred since 1964.

Schwimmer sent away for kayak and canoe catalogues to find out what kind of safety equipment is considered routine and learned that flotation devices are basic equipment in kayaks. The kayaks on the Baja trip did not have them, according to the other students. (Charles Walbridge, safety chairman of the American Canoe Association, said the kit bags stored in the kayaks could possibly have performed the same function as flotation devices, however. Walbridge has worked as a consultant for Outward Bound and claims no expertise in ocean kayaking.)

More questions began to surface in the Schwimmers' minds. Why did David's group of kayakers go on when another group on the course decided the water was too choppy and turned back? Why weren't there any flares or walkie-talkies on the boats with which to signal for help? Why didn't the instructors check the students after the wind blew up?

Many of their questions led back to an overall confusion: Where do you cross the line between giving inexperienced people a meaningful challenge and placing them in a situation in which, if something goes wrong, they may not be able to save themselves?

And why didn't Outward Bound officials ever write to say they were sorry David died? Where was the compassion they claim is so essential to their philosophy?

"Losing a child, it's not like losing a wife or a parent," George Schwimmer said quietly. "Somehow you could accept that. You say, 'Oh well, they lived 30 or 40 years.' But you lose a child and you say goddamn. Why couldn't it be me. Particularly for the mother, because it's part of her flesh."

They did get one letter from Outward Bound. Dated 15 days after the accident, it contained a description of the terrain, a summary of search efforts, and a description of why Southwest Outward Bound School officials believed that David died "in the water during the first 24 hours following the accident."

"Since David had little excess body fat, the process which heavier, fatter persons undergo (immediate sinking, chemical decomposition, and later rising again due to the production of gases) may not have occurred and his body may have never rose to the surface," director Lee Maynard wrote to the Schwimmers.

"His body may have risen after a few days, but because the warm water hastens further decomposition, may have remained only a short time as an integral unit," he continued. "With the passage of time, the possibility of predatory sea-creatures becomes more and more of a certainty."

This graphic description "upset my wife a lot," said George Schwimmer in a rare moment of understatement.

Every so often the Schwimmers broke the narrative of their search to talk again about their dead child. How funny he was, and how smart; a student of the Bible who wrote a paper in high school on "images of light in the Bible"; how he learned to ride horses during the two years the family lived in Ireland.

"For the first three months your mind is like it's been injected with Novocain -- numb, really numb," said Veronica Schwimmer. "For almost a year afterwards I'd just sort of walk around and pick up something and start doing it, and just couldn't seem to finish things . . . I loved having conversation with David; we'd sit here until 3 or 4 in the morning and talk. I miss that so much . . ."

Recently the Schwimmers joined Tim Bredegam's parents in filing a $2 million lawsuit against Outward Bound, charging negligence. It is, in their view, perhaps the only way they will ever see the reports and statements the school says the insurance company won't let them release.

Schwimmer is aware of the fine line between exercising grief and becoming obsessed, and he tries to keep his goals clear: "to win the lawsuit and get the facts; national publicity for reform; and to write a book of David's work."

His son kept a journal from the age of 12, had written a novel called "Wilderness," and a lot of poetry. "I feel an obligation to publish the things he wrote," Schwimmer said. "He's not here to get them published. I am required to do this for him. And the same thing about the outdoors. He'd be very angry if I said we should do away with outdoor programs; he loved them. He'd say let's fix them up so everyone can find themselves and get back to nature."

If the lawsuit is won, whatever money the Schwimmers get after the 40-percent lawyer's fees will be spent on scholarships and further efforts for reform, supporting camp safety legislation (there is no federal law licensing outdoor schools or summer camps). "I don't expect there will never be any deaths," Schwimmer said. "There always are. But they are not doing everything they could [to prevent them] based on prior experience."

It's the lack of an ending that nags at them; no body, no burial, no certainty. The lawsuit may drag on for years, and their son's body will probably never be found.

"It's strange; coming out of this I have such sympathy for the families of the MIAs," Veronica Schwimmer said. "I know logically and rationally that David is gone -- but there's always this thing. He was never found. I'll see someone running, or the doorbell will ring . . . there's always this glimmer of hope. I know it's not reasonable. But that's how they must feel, too."

Outward Bound is the Tiffany's of the outdoor movement. Its influence permeates this rapidly growing field, a passion for thousands of latter-day frontiersmen.

Since the first U.S. school started in 1962, more than 60,000 people have taken a course at one of its seven schools, including many scions of the prep-school circuit, such as John Kennedy, Jr. Corporate donations from organizations like Allied Chemical Corp., the American Broadcasting Co., The Reader's Digest, Philip Morris Inc. and Exxon help pay the cost of scholarships and loans awarded to about 30 percent of the students.

Outward Bound was founded by a middle-class German-Jewish educator named Kurt Hahn, whose school attempting to combine physical and academic expertise was closed by the Nazis.

Hahn fled to England and became a founder of Gordounstoun, the boarding school in Scotland known for being the alma mater of Prince Charles.He designed a 26-day program for British seamen to sharpen their skills and self-confidence as preparation for duty that included the possibility of being torpedoed by German U-boats in the North Atlantic.

Internationally, there are 42 schools and affiliates in Africa, Asia, Europe and Australia, as well as the U.S. The purpose of the courses is to fuse lofty humanitarian ideals with group experience and outdoor adventure and to instill lasting self-confidence by creating situations in which students do things they thought impossible. Hahn's words of direction are often cited by Outward Bound instructors:

"To ensure the survival of these qualities in individuals: an enterprising curiosity; an undefeatable spirit; tenacity in pursuit; readiness for sensible self-denial; and above all, compassion."

In 1970, Outward Bound opened courses to women and girls, and since then has expanded to include special courses for, among others, the physically handicapped, executives, juvenile delinquents and adult offenders. Over 500 schools, colleges and other organizations have started programs similar to Outward Bound courses.

The "Outward Bound experience" has received enthusiastic reviews from its graduates, often couched in terms like "I hated it but I wouldn't have missed it for the world." Even those who complain about various aspects of the course generally add that, overall, their experience was good.

Risk is a key element of the "experience." "In anyone's life, the safest thing to do is to do nothing," said national safety director Bob Box. "But if you carry that philosophy out, it's to take no personal risks . . . as a climber once put it, that doesn't mean we deliberately do things we can't do, but do things we're not sure we can do."

Part of the risk entails being as much as 12 hours away from any form of communication with the outside world. On the "final expedition," instructors check in with the students, often through a note left on a tree, only once every 24 hours.

"It's fundamental to what we're doing because we're trying to show people to be responsible for themselves," said Outward Bound president Henry Taft, a tall, broad-shouldered graduate of Yale and Harvard who took the $45,000-a-year job seven years ago, after stints as an executive at Bristol-Myers and Doubleday.

"The public is gradually, and frighteningly, coming to believe that it is owed to them to be safe," said John Rhoades, currently director of development at Southwest Outward Bound, the school that ran the ill-fated kayak trip. (That course has since been canceled.)

"[They believe] that they go on that mountain and the weather turns on them or something, it is their inalienable right as an American to be rescued, and it's somebody's fault if they aren't."

In the view of its critics, Outward Bound takes crews of inexperienced people and after 10 or 15 days of conditioning and training places them in potentially life-threatening situations. Instructors, the critics say, are often too young to have sound judgment, and too arrogant to guide a motley collection of personalities with varying strengths and problems through the often hostile wilderness.

It's not quite that simple, counter Outward Bound officials. The risk is more perceived than actual, they say, because there is an elaborate system of backup mechanisms to ensure safety. For example, when students rappel off rocks, they are secured with a second rope around their waists, which makes the experience no less frightening but safer than normal mountaineering.

For Americans coddled by a society that provides telephones to dial 911 for help, the benefits of paying up to $950 to Outward Bound to experience extraordinary stress are clear, they say.

"It [stress] does a number of things," said Taft. "It channels people's attention. You concentrate on what you're doing. Secondly, it's a melting process. A lot of your inhibitions, a lot or pre-set feelings, are melted in times of great stress and you're able to learn and you're able to change . . . . You can't do that by giving people things that are easy; if they know it's tough and if they're scared and under real stress . . . then people learn."

Tough is arriving at Hurricane Island for a sailing course and getting into a boat with 10 other people and sailing until 2 a.m. your first day, bedding down on the oars for two hours and then starting again, and repeating that pattern for three days. Tough is being left on your own for three days with a pack of matches and a sleeping bag.

It's climbing mountains in the dark, or in rain or snow, and starting each day with a "run and dip" into ice-cold water. It's living for weeks in the same clothes.

Outward Bound accepts anyone over the age of 16 1/2, regardless of previous experience in the outdoors. Aside from those with medical problems such as epilepsy or asthma, few people are weeded out from those who apply.

And, according to various school directors, most students complete the course.

Outward Bound officials say they are extremely concerned with safety and have the overall goal, stated in their National Safety Policy, of no deaths and no accidents. Statistics are hard to come by, however, because until recently each school kept records differently. For example, Taft provided The Washington Post with a summary of nonfatal injuries that occurred in all schools between 1973 and 1977 in which the definitions of injuries do not correspond with information acquired separately from individual schools.

Specifically, in 1977, the Minnesota Outward Bound School (MOBS) reported a total of 704 accidents and incidents of varying degrees of seriousness, while Taft said that, systemwide, all seven schools reported a total of 557.

Both totals include such things as hypothermia, frostbite, head injuries, abrasions, sunburn, dehydration, contusions, burns and allergic reactions. MOBS director Derek Pritchard's total also includes 51 reports of what they call "problems that are not program-related," such as lice or menstrual cramps, and 15 "near misses," potentially disastrous situations that were avoided but from which staff can learn. Taft's statistics did not include "near misses."

Pritchard's report included two cases of a psychological condition called "conversion hysteria," which he described as what happens when a student is so afraid of what he or she has to do that the fear is manifested physically in a faint or a fall. Taft said he had never heard of "conversion hysteria."

Outward Bound has changed its accident reporting so that statistics can be compared to accident rates in other fields. According to this computation, taking an Outward Bound course is safer than playing college football or driving a car, but is less safe than underground coal mining, working in the construction industry, or taking a high-school physical education class.

Requests to read Outward Bound accident reports were denied because school officials felt public scrutiny would inhibit frankness in writing what they describe as highly self-critical reports. However, no requests to individual school directors for accident statistics were denied.

Taft and other school officials say the accident rate they now have is acceptable, which is not to say they excuse the deaths. However, they have come increasingly to believe the school has a "moral obligation" to make the risks more public and clear to the parents and students involved.

To that end, in the last year and a half -- after the three died in Baja -- they have rewritten their advertising brochures and added a risk-disclosure form to be signed by the student and, for those under 18, his or her parent or guardian. Taft, for one, favors adding to the brochures the fact that there have been deaths on the program, information that is not now included.

"We are doing something that we think is useful to people, and good," he said. "And we think we're a moral organization. I mean we're not in it for the money . . . The other side of the coin is that we have a moral obligation to explain risks . . . my trustees would criticize me for this statement [but] I think we should disclose as much as we responsibly can and if we're not able to do that maybe we shouldn't be in business."

Disclosure means not only informing prospective students of potential risk, but fully informing survivors and relatives of the facts surrounding an accident, something that is now apparently precluded by the dictums of insurance companies and lawyers.

"It's an unfortunate situation," said Gilbert Jibaja of American International Underwriters, the firm that insured Southwest Outward Bound for the Baja trip. He said that releasing any information other than basic facts makes the company vulnerable to revealing all information during the legal proceedings (an assertion questioned by other legal experts). The clause in the policy that Outward Bound officials refer to requires them to "cooperate" with the insurance company. "It was really an act of God," Jibaja said. "There's no way you can prevent a storm coming up."

Outward Bound, as an organization that places compassion above all other values, finds this paradox painful to live with. Taft and his staff are trying to work out an agreement with their insurance company to be able to give out information to parents. In the case of David Schwimmer, Brenda Herman and Tim Breidegam, they had to renege on their promise to provide complete details after the insurance company told them that if they did anything to compromise the case in any way, the company would not pay any penalty that might subsequently be imposed.

They cannot explain the difference in safety records among the schools Hurricane Island and the North Carolina School, for example, have had no fatalities, nor has the school affiliated with Dartmouth College, while each of the other four schools has had several.

Nor can they explain why the instructors who promised information, from Taft on down, did not know of this insurance company policy in view of the 12 previous deaths that had occurred.

"Like it or not, we have forced, by our actions, we have forced Mr. Schwimmer to go to court to find out how his son died," said Rhoades. "And I think that's reprehensible . . . . The best of all possible worlds would have been to have sat down in a quiet place after two or three days, after a decent interval, and said, all right, families, here's what we know . . . in a human way, instead of having to go through lawyers."

Taft feels the same way, and says he never wrote a condolence letter to any of the parents because he thought the personal visits by himself and another trustee to the Hermans in Cincinnati and the Breidegams in Pennsylvania, and that by board chairman Rufus Dalton and his wife to the Schwimmers, said it all.

"I don't blame them [for being angry]," Taft said sadly. "It did not occur to me that a letter after a visit added anything. It just did not occur to me."

When he and another trustee went to visit Mrs. Herman, according to her son-in-law Barry Ross, she became very distraught and finally told them to leave because she hated them so much.

When Rufus Dalton and his wife went to call on the Schwimmers, he recalled, he could hear Veronica Schwimmer upstairs moaning and sobbing in grief. They stayed only a short time; George Schwimmer said later he didn't understand why the school sent someone to call on him who didn't know his boy nor much about the accident.

As he talked about his visits to the families, Taft began to blink rapidly, and suddenly there were tears. "I did not expect this," he said softly.