We arrived in Ile d’Yeu mid afternoon on Sunday and, in the warm, calm conditions, moored up to our allocated pontoon with textbook perfect technique. I even managed that trick where you lasso a cleat with a line without having to leap off the boat. Brilliant! If I can manage that and keep hold of my cup of tea at the same time, we’re laughing. Once we were all tied up, paid up and had washed up, we went for a wander into town. We walked around the narrow side streets full of white houses and shops but empty of actual people, figuring we had to come across the main drag at some point. Never happened. So, defeated, we found a bar along the harbour front, had a couple of drinks before moving a whole 10 metres to the restaurant next door (to be fair, we weren’t exactly overwhelmed with options) and ordered some moules frites and yet more wine. It may have been the alcohol, it may have been because we’d been out sailing all day and were knackered, it may have been because the food was genuinely amazing, but we devoured those mussels like it was our last meal on earth, pausing only for the occasional appreciative grunt, before staggering home.
The next day was a Monday (for those who need these things pointed out to you) and we were delighted to discover that the town was far more lively on a weekday than it had been the evening before. The small streets were crammed with people, most of whom were either on a bike, wheeling a bike, or, probably, on their way to one of the many bicycle hire shops. We joined in the fun, happy for an excuse to bring out our Bromptons which we purchased only last month. Kaitlyn and Matt preferred a walk, so while they took in the beaches to the east of town, Nick and I pedalled west towards the tip of the island, before following the coast around to the south to check out a crumbling old castle perched on the rocky shores. We had to go off road in order to reach the castle, but out guide book assured us it was well worth it. I’ve seen more impressive castles in my time, but the surrounding scenery was lovely, and it was good exercise at least. Once we’d taken a few snaps and got our breath back, we then cut through the centre of the island to arrive back in town via the more residential areas. We were also thrilled to find a small supermarket, not least because it had been at least a few hours since Nick had had his last peanut puff fix (a local delicacy, usually found in the crisps aisle), and he was starting to get the shakes. We had limited space in our bike basket so had to make some tough decisions: wine or salad, beer or vegetables, crisps or something for dinner? The basil plant definitely did not fit, but Nick wasn’t about to sacrifice that- he perched it on top of the mound of booze and confectionary and we rode back to the marina with the basil plant leading the way.
We were quite surprised at how taken we were with Ile d’Yeu. The evening of our arrival left us underwhelmed, but having the opportunity to explore the coast and smaller villages of the island allowed us to appreciate the natural beauty of the place and the charming architecture which reminded us of Ile de Ré. The island is flat and mostly sandy, unlike Belle Ile which looks more like something out of Jurassic Park, and we were struck by the geological and architectural differences between two islands that are only 50 miles apart. It felt like a completely different part of the world.
We left on Tuesday morning, which was a day where things started well- sunny, pain au chocolats… I don’t require much else for a good beginning to a day- but it gradually went down hill. We left the marina first thing and enjoyed some downwind sailing with our favourite toy, the parasailor (see photo). A pod of dolphins also came to join in the fun which was just awesome. We’ve had dolphins swim alongside us before, but I don’t think it will ever fail to amaze me. They leaped around our bow and alongside the boat, weaving in and out, up and down, rolling and turning to show us their pale bellies. I don’t know what gratification they receive by swimming alongside us, except perhaps the pure joy of showing off their aquatic prowess- although another couple of swimming lessons, and I reckon Kaitlyn could give them a run for their money.
Anyway, that was obviously exciting and invigorating, but then the sun disappeared behind a cloud, the wind picked up steadily throughout the afternoon and the rolling waves just got bigger and bigger. At least we were sailing with the wind and waves, not against them as we were in the Channel. It turned cold and uncomfortable, and I went down below to warm up and rest late in the afternoon. That’s when things turned interesting.
Nick poked his head down the gangway and told me to put some shoes and a jacket on, I had to take the helm. There was a large, grey, scary-looking customs ship not far from us who had just done a lap around us (Nick waved politely, hoping they’d just go away), before obviously deciding that we looked sufficiently suspicious to justify an onboard search. They launched their rib which sped towards us with four tough-looking customs officials with radios, guns, and other intimidating but unidentifiable objects attached to their crisp uniforms. I took the wheel, Nick sat down next to Matt and Kaitlyn, and suddenly we had three large men looming over us in the cockpit, Nick, Matt and Kaitlyn looking for all the world like they’d been dragged into the principal’s office. One of the uniformed men made a joke in French, and we all laughed hysterically, nervous as hell and not sure what to expect. He frowned then, perhaps picking up that three quarters of his audience didn’t have a clue what he just said, and asked if we spoke French. Nick was quick to answer, “Oui! Bonjour!” and was ushered downstairs while Matt, Kaitlyn and I remained in the cockpit with the most kindly-looking of the three, who attempted to make some small talk before we all descended into awkward, nervous silence. From my helming position I couldn’t see what was happening below, but it seemed to be taking a bloody long time. Nick told me later that they went through our passports with a fine toothed comb, asking dozens of questions and filling in paperwork before they finally relaxed and started chatting about rugby, music and boats. The moment I relaxed was when Nick moved back into view, camera in hand, and started taking photos of the custom officials holding their handcuffs up in a menacing manner. After that, obviously satisfied that we weren’t smuggling refugees across their border, or drug dealers, or undesirable in any other way, they jumped back in their rib, waved goodbye, and sped back to whence they came.
We were only just outside La Rochelle marina by this time and the wind had continued to increase. We were directed to a berth which would have been no major challenge ordinarily, but we just, well, fucked up basically. The wind was pushing our boat away from the pontoon and because it was being such a pain to manoeuvre, Nick was using the bow thruster a lot, which eventually decided it just needed a little rest; a fuse blew and it simply stopped working. This is a big deal- we find close quarters manoeuvring difficult at the best of times because of the size and shape of our boat. To lose control of the bow in such high winds was nothing short of disastrous. To make things so much worse, I threw the wrong line to the marina official who was helping us moor up. I won’t go into details, mainly because it laborious and boring to most people, but it meant that instead of securely attaching the middle of the boat to the pontoon, we were pushed sideways and into the sharp edge of the finger pontoon opposite, gouging out a significant amount of gelcoat and fibreglass. Nick and I looked at each other in horror, and not an insignificant amount of guilt on my part. Eventually, thanks to the owners of the crafts nearby who rushed to our rescue, we were able to berth the boat, but everyone was feeling pretty shit about the whole thing. Now Nick has several day’s work ahead of him to repair the gash. Feeling deflated and utterly exhausted, we couldn’t even bring ourselves to go to the bar for a drink. Instead, we cooked some pasta, emptied out the snack cupboard (yes, we have such a thing) and watched The Hobbit.