Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Ile d'Aix - an island of history, beauty and oysters.

The Gironde has a reputation for being a treacherous estuary and it gave us a small taste of how unpleasant it could be – not one to tangle with in less than good conditions. As we bounced our way down an ever narrowing channel we all started feeling ill and we were counting down the buoys marking the edges of the safe(r) water waiting for the time when the estuary would open out into clear water. It was a day of showers and impressive black clouds – at least we weren’t missing a beach day!


We left behind the main land and started to skirt around Ile d’Oleron when after a couple of splutters the port engine decided it was not going to play any more and died on us. As the day wore on we reached the furthest point marked by a cardinal on the reef which has claimed many ships over the years and is littered with ship wrecks. We headed into the Pertuis d’Antioche behind it and towards the Ile d’Aix with terns plummeting into the water all round us. A lively sea made catching the hook interesting but we were attached and admiring the views as the sun went down.


The twin light house towers on Ile d'Aix

Being moored always feels like a real adventure, you are self reliant, almost marooned on your own bit of world listening to the VHF radio for weather forecasts and showering on deck. Loading up the dinghy and heading to land is really exciting, approaching a new island, cutting the engine as you get close in and paddling then hauling it up the beach and setting off to explore whilst your boat bobs out in the bay.


Ile d’Aix (ill dex if you were wondering) is a beautiful place with a population of less than 200 people, a strong tradition of oyster farming and with hollyhocks growing in profusion all over the island. With no cars, apart from a handful of utility vehicles it is very peaceful even with the August tourists. Each morning the anchorage would fill with boats which would slowly head off through the evening leaving us alone on the mooring each night. The bay was idyllic from sunrise to sunset with stunning views of the island and Fort Boyard.


It is an island with a fascinating history (worth googling, especially if you are into Naval history, it was even British for 15 years!). Napoleon had ordered it to be heavily fortified during the Napoleonic wars and finally after his defeat at Waterloo this is where he headed for. He had hoped to escape to America but a blockade in the channel stopped that and he spent 6 days on the island in the commandants house (which is now a museum) before surrendering to the HMS Bellerephon from whose deck he saluted France as he was taken away. Seeing the ‘other side of the story’ is an interesting experience.

Hidden under the green water at high tide is a network of oyster beds

Although the days were lovely as the sun went down each evening the vent solaire would start This is a local phenomenon of increasing wind and waves causing us to buck and bounce on the end of our rope throughout the night making the boat shudder, disturbing sleep and having us spending lots of time tweaking ropes and trying to make life more comfortable, by the morning the peaceful and calm bay would sparkle at us as if the night before had never happened.


It was the Skippers birthday whilst we were on the island, a planned afternoon on the beach was called off due to the weather but we enjoyed the morning at the museum and managed to hunt down some sticky buns to put candles in from the boulangerie. A pleasant afternoon was spent watching a fishing rod before we enjoyed a hearty meal of beans – without fish!


fishing on the skippers birthday

The currents around the island are very strong we had decided it was too strong to let the children swim from the boat and the only reason I had not gone in was that it did not seem fair to go in but not let them. One afternoon we watched in increasing horror as a swimmer from another yacht was caught by the current and was unable to swim back to the boat with his family throwing lifelines and things which he was unable to reach. A passing motor boat was alerted to what was happening and managed to safely pick him up and return him to his boat and family.


Having both engines would make a big difference getting into the next marina so the engine needed to be looked at before we moved on. A change of filters seemed to solve the problem temporarily at least, it’s likely that we have got the dreaded diesel bug that we have managed to avoid so far, and of course the skipper really enjoyed spending the afternoon hanging upside down in the engine compartment being rocked violently every time a ferry went past…


Having had 4 lovely days exploring the island, we spent an entertaining Saturday night stood on a heaving deck wrestling with the heavy and slippery dinghy. The aim was to get it up onto the deck before it got stuck back under the boat again where it had been banging not very rhythmically on the boys bedroom floor. This was followed by another night trying to get some sleep despite the creaking and rocking. By the morning it was time to set off in a flat calm, sparkling sea back to the mainland, a short trip heading for La Rochelle.

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