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