- The Washington Times - Friday, March 14, 2003

Although much is made of St. Patrick, the fourth-century saint who converted Ireland, less is known of St. Columba, who a century later helped convert Scotland to Christianity.

This June, 13 men five of them Americans and the rest Irish or Scots will follow in St. Columba's footsteps from more than 14 centuries ago by re-enacting his treacherous June 9, 563 A.D., boat ride of 25 miles from present-day Ballycastle, Ireland, across the north channel of the Irish Sea to Scotland.

The 21st-century rowers will subsist on sixth-century foods like dried fish, meat, fruits and wine. They will then take another 10 days to row 100 miles north up the Sound of Jura to the famous Iona monastery, off the coast of Mull in southwestern Scotland.

In towns along the way, the rowers hope to conduct a nightly religious service in the hopes of sparking a religious revival in Scotland, where only 2 percent of the populace attend church on Sundays.

"It's a spiritual odyssey for us, plus it focuses people on why Columba came to Scotland to bring the good news," says Donald McCallum of Silver Spring, the organizer of the expedition and a charismatic Catholic.

"For a country that had a tremendous religious revival during the time of [16th-century Protestant reformer] John Knox, things have gone down a lot."

The plan is to travel in a curragh, a type of boat common during the Dark Ages with an upturned prow reminiscent of Viking ships to come a few centuries later. For further authenticity, the boat, named the "Colmcille," after a Gaelic rendering of St. Columba's name, will be built on a thin wooden ash and oak frame, covered with three layers of canvas with pitch in between.

Such primitive construction is actually suitable for high seas, as it allows the boat to shift easily in the water and take a battering as long as water is kept out. These watercraft are more flexible than the average sailboat and were commonly used as transport among the western isles for centuries.

Born in Ireland, Columba was of royal lineage whose clan was on the losing end of a conflict with King Diarmait of Ireland. Because Diarmait had slain Columba's kinsman, the young Prince Curnan, Columba had mustered his Clan Neill to avenge the death. After 3,000 men died in the intertribal warfare, Columba placed himself in exile in Scotland as a penance.

The 42-year-old Columba first set foot on the western Scottish Kintyre Peninsula at the hamlet of Southend, where still rests a venerated rock with two footprints in it.

From there, he headed north to found several monasteries, including his most famous at Iona. Iona, which is still inhabited, housed generations of monkish scribes who produced the illuminated Book of Kells manuscript of the Gospel of St. Matthew.

It is said that St. Patrick, who was born in Scotland in 389 A.D. but ended up converting Ireland, had a vision that an apostle would come to his homeland. Columba was born in Ireland in 521 A.D. The two men led amazingly similar lives; founding monasteries, converting the heathen and being gifted with prophetic and miraculous powers.

The modern-day boaters plan to have evangelistic Christian services each evening at local churches.

"It's a way of sharing our faith," says Ernest Malcolm, 51, of Fredericksburg, Va., a retirement-home manager undergoing a program of weight training, rowing and jogging. "In Gaelic, the name 'Malcolm' means disciple of Columba. I hope to show people evangelizing can be an exciting thing."

The men will only sing hymns related to the era: "St. Patrick's Breastplate," "Of the Father's Love Begotten" (taken from a fourth-century tune), "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence" (an 18th-century tune with fourth-century lyrics). One of the rowers, an Anglican organist from the nearby island of Cumbrae, will provide the rest of the music.

"It's more of a spiritual journey along the way," Mr. McCallum says. "Scotland has become so humanistic, so this is a way of sparking a spiritual revival."

It's also quite a physical workout. The 65-year-old retired naval architect is already up to a half-hour a day on his rowing machine and he plans to be up to an hour a day by June 9, the day his expedition sets out from Ballycastle.

The pace will be about 3-4 mph through typical early summer Scottish weather, which is misty and rainy in the morning but sunny in the afternoon. Six men will row at a time; the 13th man will steer. Barring stormy weather, most trips should take about eight hours.

The first and last days across the North Channel which is part of the Irish Sea and one of the world's stormiest patches of water will be no picnic, says David Levite, 36, an Alexandria resident who is vice chancellor for the Catholic Archdiocese of Military Services, based in the District.

A rowing coach during his college days, he has been a competitive rower for 20 years. He is training at 5:30 a.m. three times a week for the journey in June.

"The water there is so bad, surfers from California and Hawaii go there," Mr. Levite says of the windy journey, made worse by the presence of treacherous underwater rocks. "I'm doing it for the adventure and the survival part." He is also setting up a Web site, stcolumbasvoyage.org, to trace the group's journey each day with digital photos taken by the crew.

Mr. McCallum has several motives for the trip.

"When I retired in 1995," he says, "I decided to give back to God all He'd given me; a good wife and four children." His mind alighted on the patron saint of his homeland and the fact that his last name means "son of a servant of Colom," a shortened version of the saint's name.

While back in his hometown of Cambeltown only 10 miles from Southend in 2001, he began looking into whether a voyage from Ireland to Iona and back had ever been attempted.

He found out that one had in 1997, but it had taken longer than expected because of bad weather. Three of the men all of them Irish on that trip have volunteered for this voyage.

Each man is expected to contribute a few hundred dollars to the trip. Mr. McCallum is trying to raise an additional $4,000 for expenses, including a support van that will follow them from port to port.

"It's a great way to rediscover your Celtic faith," says Tony Watson, a trip member who lives in Loudoun County and operates a document-imaging company. "St. Columba is one of the top three Irish-Scottish saints. A lot of these saints believed that by undertaking an hard journey like this brought you closer to your faith."

Mr. Watson, 32, who is practicing for the trip by putting in several miles a week on a rowing machine, is confident that expedition will have minimal difficulties.

"These boats are capable of the journey," he says. "That was how everyone traveled back then. The Scots and the Irish have been swapping back and forth across this body of water for the past 2,000 years."

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