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I MUST BE OFF  by George Gall

"I must be off."

"Where are you heading for today?"

"Staffa, we want to look at Fingal's Cave. The rest have gone down to the boat  already."

"Could you do me a favour? Let some sheep out of a pen in the field you have to walk past on the way down to the marina. They are yeld yowes, I shifted the other yowes and lambs earlier." "Sure, no bother."

What could a sailing person know about sheep? Quite a lot actually, ex- seafarer, ex-shepherd, currently a lecturer at an agricultural college, on holiday with wife Maud, daughter Fiona and son-in-law Dave on the island of Mull.

We were staying with a farmer and his wife who did Bed and Breakfast as a sideline. There had been several conversations about sheep and other farming matters. "Must be off" had significant meaning, tides and currents required consideration, not that it was a long sail from the Bunessan marina to Staffa, about seven miles. The boat, an open sixteen foot Shetland Model had sailed longer distances in the past , and this was a day of fine weather with an excellent sailing breeze, a quiet sea with little swell; not like the run from Loch Scresort in Rhum to Loch Moidart.

The Small Isles, Muck, Eigg, Rhum and Canna, had been our desired itinerary when, with a college colleague, we sailed from Loch Moidart, just two of us on this trip. The boat had been trailed from Fife to our starting point, my colleague provided the tent. Setting off from our first overnight stay we approached the mouth of Loch Moidart, first having reefed the sails, but the sight of seas breaking over skerries at the loch mouth caused a change of mind, turning back we camped where a large boulder provided some shelter for the tent and where we could drag the boat up a sandy beach.

We were storm stayed there for three days, but we got to know the local crofters. One of their cows had strayed on to the hill, we had seen it and noted that it was nearly ready to give birth, we offered to bring it in. Our offer was accepted once we had assured the owners that we were knowledgeable about cows. This earned us a fine tea. Came a lull in the weather, so it was off to Muck, the sea quiet now, wind very light and fitful, much rowing was required. Two nights on Muck then it was off to Eigg.

It so happened that two of our students lived on Eigg, so we were given a tour of the island, this was long before the islanders achieved a community buy-out. The problems caused by absentee landlords were explained. Two nights on Eigg then "Must be Off' to Rhum, sailing on compass courses because hardly had we started when mist came down and it started to rain. At the pier in Loch Scresort we pulled the boat up the beach and camped near by. And it rained. And the wind blew. And the tent leaked. A flitting with all our camping gear to a convenient unused farm building was required; another three days storm bound.

"We must be off' I told my companion on the fourth morning, Maud will be coming to collect us the day after to-morrow. Canna is off." There was a telephone kiosk not far from the pier, every morning I had phoned the Glasgow Weather Centre, that fourth morning with a moderating westerly wind promised we departed for Loch Moidart, with just the jib set. There was quite a swell with a following sea, just what Shetland boats with their sharp sterns have evolved to cope with - less chance of broaching. So when Maud arrived with the car the boat was ready on its trailer, everything packed to go home.

"Must be Off' figures largely when sailing a small boat around the coast, this boat, "Kirsty Anne" has on several occasions been in Tayport harbour prior to setting off for Crail. There are currents which can be utilised, but getting the timing right is important. St.Andrews which is roughly half way to Crail has a very good harbour should the weather deteriorate en route and a diversion be prudent.

From Crail a small boat can sail to the May Isle or any of the harbours on the Firth of Forth, but most of them cannot be entered when the tide is low, but one can buy local tide tables. Weather conditions and forecasts must always be in mind, weather can change very suddenly. Once, having been in Aberdour and hoping to sail to St.Monans, the light westerly wind dropped we were becalmed, then a light breeze sprang up from the South East. But haar was seen obliterating the May Isle some miles ahead, the haar was advancing into the Firth. Largo, to the north, was still in sunshine, so alter course, note the compass heading; we arrived in Largo along with the first wisps of haar.

So, Fingal's Cave, very interesting, well worth a visit. A quiet sail we had with what is sometimes called a "Soldier's Wind", a broad reach both ways, no tacking, no gybing, the kind of sail that makes one wonder why anyone uses smelly noisy motors in craft meant for leisure. But leisure sailing in small boats can be extremely active on occasion, leaping from side to side to balance the boat, especially when altering course with a sea running and handling sails and tiller the while.

So, if a sailing person says to you "I must be off' do not delay them. Local High Water is probably approaching.