Bar Bulletin

October, 2004

Blow, Ye Winds
By Patrick Tandy

Blow, Ye Winds [Photo © 2004 by Wayne Gillman]

(Click image to enlarge)
Attorney Terrence McAndrews (center) and his wife Angeline Nanni (right) take a break from "the zone" with fellow kayaker Ebet Chee on the island of Barra in Scotland's Outer Hebrides.
[Photo © 2004 by Wayne Gillman]

Ask Terrence McAndrews what he best remembers of his cold, rain-drenched paddle into Baghatuath on the east side of Barra, a small island at the southern end of Scotland’s windswept Outer Hebrides, and he will sing you a song of the sea.

“[It was] just as we came in the last mile,” the litigation attorney explains from the high-and-dry vantage of his Columbia, Maryland, office – thousands of miles from the chain of islands off the western coast of Scotland where he and his wife, Angeline Nanni, tried their hand at sea kayaking this past summer. “The rain was on us at that point, and there were tons of seals on the island. And they started singing. They kind of sound like soprano dogs…”

To illustrate this point, the solo practitioner belts out a high-pitched noise – a mournful cross between a wail and a moan – that undulates something like the sea itself: Woooooooo!

“When you’re out in this cold, windy rain on the sea, you’re thinking, ‘Well, this is what sailors heard – clearly, this is why there are ‘sirens’ out there,’” adds McAndrews. “It was a very unique sound. One of the women with us – for some reason, the seals kept coming to her boat, and she would talk back to [them] and sing to [them]. And then all of these seals started singing. And they sang that last mile we came in there.”

Indeed, it’s not hard to see why, like for so many who passed before, the haunting soundtrack is one of McAndrews’s more indelible memories of the waters surrounding those weather-beaten islands.

That, and going swimming…

♦♦♦

“The brochure tells you ‘Don’t worry about capsizing because nobody falls in,’” explains McAndrews, for whom the wind and weather conspired to cut his planned five-day water tour in half. “I was the first one to go over, [on the] first day, out in Castlebay Harbor. It’s a sea kayak, so it’s a little tippier than mine. There were some seabirds – I turned to look at the seabirds and [a] wave [from the opposite] side caught me and I went over.

“Everyone else was quite surprised to see me go in because ‘nobody goes in,’ but that’s what the conditions were like. And then on the way back from that paddle another guy went in. So we both went in the same day, which made everybody a little bit jumpy.”

“The first thing you realize is [that] it’s cold water,” McAndrews laughs with a humor dried by room temperature and a 4,000-mile buffer. “It was always 50 degrees: 53 in the water, 53 in the air, 53 at night.”

Despite the cool temperatures, however, McAndrews wore neither a wet- nor dry-suit beneath his quick-drying clothing. “Some of the paddlers thought that [wearing one] would have been appropriate, but we were relatively close to land most of the time,” he explains. “They got me back in the boat pretty quickly – we paddled 10 minutes to an island, and luckily the air was mild. But if you were by yourself in that water or out further, yeah, you’d need a wetsuit or a dry-suit, because in 50-degree water hypothermia will set in in what, 20 minutes?”

Conditions during a ferry glide (paddling across a current) from Barra to the adjacent Isle of Vatersay offered little variation.

“The sea was probably three to four feet, which in a kayak is as big as you are because you’re sitting,” says McAndrews. “We all debated how high the waves were – two weeks and a couple of beers later they were 10 feet.”

Either way, the weather proved formidable even to those with decades of experience on that which McAndrews himself has gleaned in the three years since he first took up the sport. Indeed, the thousand words offered by each picture he brought back merely hint at the 2,000 of those he didn’t.

“We had three cameras: two on the boats and one at the campsite,” he notes. “For the three days and nine people with cameras, we have three pictures on the boats – nobody would take their hands off the paddles. Only on dry land did we take the cameras out.”

The nine-member kayaking/camping package-tour party included two guides who handled everything from leading the aforementioned ferry glide to keeping their seven guests well-fed.

“We brought all of our gear, except for the tent,” says McAndrews. “They supplied the food and stuff – it was catered in that sense. And the food was great. We had rice and peppers and sausage and a stew, and we stopped and had smoked salmon sandwiches for lunch.”

But while the wind and weather may have cut the group’s time on the water short, it did nothing to chill the local culture.

“There’s not a lot on Barra, and we were there for a couple more days,” McAndrews notes of the island, many of whose roughly 1,200 residents still speak Gaelic and earn their living from the sea. McAndrews and Nanni kept out of the weather for the balance of their trip by staying at a local hostel.

“They were having a Gaelic festival,” he adds. “The Gaelic teachers from up and down the Hebrides came to Barra for that week to teach Gaelic arts to the students, kids and everything. When we came back, they had all these people in town for the festival.

“Each night they would have a ceilidh, which is a song and dance. The first night was the ceilidh up at the hall, with maybe 70 people there. It was very nice because it was mostly homegrown talent. They had women singing a ‘working the cloth’ song, which is apparently a work song, and then they had dancers [and] fiddle players. The next night we went to the castle in the harbor, and they had bagpipers all night.”

Naturally, no such trip would be complete without paying homage to that most-hallowed of local institutions: the pub.

“It’s a very nice, casual atmosphere,” McAndrews says of the local gathering place. “They’re always playing music in the pub, and it’s a very low-key thing. It’s not a touristy thing because there are no tourists. The only tourists actually come from the other islands, usually [for] hiking or biking holidays.”

Rounding out the experience were the Vatersay Boys, a popular local ceilidh band. “They are the Beatles of the Hebrides,” says McAndrews. “They play every wedding in the Hebrides – people say that they book their wedding dates by when the Vatersay Boys are available. But they’ll play in the pub in Castlebay – you go in there at 4:30 in the afternoon and they’ve been there since the night before and they’re still squeezing the accordion with their heads in a beer. And they’re going to play again that night.”

Of course, the pub is also a social proving ground for tales of exploits large and small, offering daily chances to set the record straight on everything from monster waves to the one that got away.

“We expected something interesting and it was,” says McAndrews. “While you were [on the water], it was a little heart-pounding, but when you’re out of it and you’re back in the pub, it’s great telling everybody what you’re doing.”

♦♦♦

Nearly 4,000 miles from the unforgiving winds of the Outer Hebrides, McAndrews and Nanni take in the comparative placidity of local waters.

“We’re gray-haired, flat-water kayakers,” says McAndrews, who notes that one need not be at the peak of physical conditioning to enjoy the sport. “You have to be able to sit in the boat and you have to be in reasonable physical condition, but you don’t have to have strong upper body strength. You don’t need a flat stomach – God knows I don’t have it. You don’t need big biceps. I’m not a gym rat…stretching and keeping in motion is probably the best thing.”

And as a body in motion, McAndrews would make Newton proud.

“We’re out about once a week,” he says. “There are a couple of us over 50. We go out to the [Triadelphia] Reservoir. We’ve gone down to the harbor, we’ve been to the Susquehanna, the Patuxent, the Patapsco – various places that aren’t particularly adventurous, but they’re nice. It’s very enjoyable.”

But as the saying goes, while a ship in the harbor is safe, it’s not what ships are built for. “I have an investment in the equipment and we try to use it,” says McAndrews, who learned of the Barra excursion from a friend. “She told us about this Scotland trip this year and we said, ‘Well, life is short, we’re going to die – let’s do this.’”

However, McAndrews and Nanni also find adventure on more familiar shores. “A couple of times a year we will go [camping],” says McAndrews – a practice which, in his view, embodies one of the greatest inhibiting factors for many people.

“A lot of people’s objection to camping or this kind of activity is comfort,” he says. “Camping gear has gotten better over the years. It’s not like when I was a Boy Scout and you had an open tent and a sleeping bag, which is great when you’re 12. The questions I get about going out – you know, they ask you, ‘Well, how do you sleep? What’s that like? Do you have to carry your stuff?’ And they all get to the same question: ‘You’re on an island with nothing – where do you go to the bathroom?’ And you go, ‘On the island with nothing.’ And that’s off-putting to so many people. But with the gear that’s out there now, this kind of activity – the camping and the kayaking – it can be very comfortable. It’s not painful like some people think. Like anything else, the toughest part is just doing it – taking that first step and doing it and not worrying about what it’s going to be like.”

Only then, McAndrews suggests, will one find the “pleasant solitude” of which he speaks so fondly.

“That’s when you fall in love,” he says. “You’re at water-level, and if you’re [in] these local waters – and even over in Scotland – when you’re in the shallow waters you see things that you can’t see from shore. The fish, the turtles – the snapping turtle population in the Triadelphia Reservoir is enormous, and you wouldn’t know it because you’d never see it, except when you’re out there. There are fishermen out there, but the fish are jumping. The herons are out there. There are bald eagles, hawks, osprey. And because you’re traveling kind of…silent-running, you move up on [all of] it.

“It’s a wonderful stress-reliever because you’re looking at the world from a completely different perspective. You know, I’ve golfed for years, and golf was always nice – you’re in the fairways, it’s beautiful, it’s a nice walk – but now golf has gotten very crowded. There are people in front of you, people behind you. There’s a lot of pressure on the game. But when you’re out kayaking on uncrowded waters, it’s a different view from the water to the shore. It’s very calming. My wife says she gets into ‘the zone’ – you’re just paddling and you get into ‘the zone,’ without a lot of stress.”

“Of course, if you’re in Scotland you’re not in ‘the zone,’” he concedes with just a splash of humor. “You’re [busy] keeping that grip on [the paddle].”

♦♦♦

Perhaps the only thing more difficult than moving from the familiar flat waters of an inland pond to the rolling Scottish seas is the return voyage.

“When we came back and went back to the Reservoir to go paddling, it was like we were napping,” McAndrews notes. “You know, the excitement was gone. I’m hooked now – I need to go back out and get into some moving water again.”

But while McAndrews admits he “would go back to Scotland in a heartbeat,” the thirst for adventure pushes his sights to new, untapped horizons stretching from Canada to Croatia.

“We’re looking [at] Nova Scotia, which is a little calmer,” he notes, “but not much. Mexico’s nice, but it’s stinkin’ hot. For some reason, we like it cool.”

And be it warm or cool, the reason behind McAndrews’s drive for adventure, that eagerness to paddle strange waters, is always swimming just below the surface, affording the landlubber the occasional glimpse from shore.

“I’m glad I capsized,” admits McAndrews, “because now I know what it’s like.”

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: October, 2004

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