Watch the tide! - David Kennedy and Sarah Sheehan

Watch the tide!

Crossing the Passage du Gois

The Isle de Noirmoutiers is an island just off the coast of the Vendée in France.

Connected by a bridge to the mainland in the 1970s, it maintains a very distinct identity. The best evidence of this may be the roadsigns back towards France which direct you to ‘Le Continent’, not simply towards the nearest large town, Challans.

Before the bridge was built, the island was connected by the Passage du Gois on the road from Beauvoir-sur-Mer to Barbatre. ‘Gois’ is appropriately derived from a local word for waders, as the roadway gets covered over by the sea at high tide. However, it is still possible to travel across the Passage at low tide so we decided to take Brian and try it out.

The advance information was clear: it is safe to cross between 1hr 30mn before low tide (basse mer) and 1hr 30mn after. Big automated warning signs tell you the low tide time and the current time, though there is no barrier to control access.

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Every year a number of people get stuck and have to be rescued – but people are rescued, not the vehicle.

You can find a picture on the internet of a large modern mobile home upended in the sea at the Passage, with the driver and passenger stranded at one of the very useful towers (often little more than poles with climbing brackets) placed to stop people drowning.

The message is very clear: you have access 90 minutes either side of low tide, then get off!

The reason for caution is that people do not know the sea. Either side of the Passage is a slowly shelving sandbank, quickly covered by the incoming tide. I imagine that with larger tidal margins between low and high tide, the speed the sea comes even in faster than we saw.

We left our camping at Notre-Dame de Riez in good time to get to the Passage within 90 minutes of low tide, and arrived with 24 minutes to spare.

At first sight the 4km long Passage is a big wide open space with dozens of cars parked on the sands – you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve arrived at a beach festival. I half expected U2 to appear!

Officialdom tells you not to drive on to the sands and to stay on the causeway, made of stone blocks for most of the way. With the normal Gallic shrug, the French clearly ignore this advice and, indeed, nearly everything else that the Town Hall says about the Passage.

We drove to somewhere near the middle and pulled off onto the solid sand alongside lots of other vehicles. Into the far far distance you could see people hunting for the fruits of the sea; some were cockling, some looking for rock oysters, some harvesting seaweed.

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There was a local with a van paying hunters by weight for their cockles, after which they were of course also offered a wee dram of something to celebrate a happy sunny morning of gathering this thoroughly natural harvest.

We didn’t see anyone collecting razorfish but wouldn’t be at all surprised if they were there too.

Further out, you can see mussels being farmed naturally and saw a couple of tractors returning with sacks of that day’s mussels for market. Everyone was having good hearty fun and I was able to get some lovely photographs.

However we were conscious of time, so when we saw the first cars beginning to head home we thought it best to follow as it was already past the 90 minute limit.

Arriving at the other end of the Passage we parked up to watch the tide come in, joining dozens of people there to see the sport that was to follow.

This involved a gradual clearing of the sands, mostly with time to spare, though some left it a bit late for comfort.

The best spectacle was a car with the sea reaching halfway up its wheels, whose driver came running, reversed into the water, but managed to get out and up onto the causeway. The crowd gasped, secretly disappointed that she hadn’t stalled.

There were also the hardy characters who decided to cross as the tide came in. Everyone enjoyed the theatre as people shouted to drivers and waved their arms furiously to tell them not to be so stupid, but still they came.

We could sort of understand the 4x4s and pickups like Brian, but when we saw a Mini make the journey successfully we were full of admiration. If you got stuck halfway in your car there's nowhere to turn round and you could lose the vehicle.

Fortunately everyone did in fact make it across that day, apart from two cyclists who turned back fairly smartly. The crowd went home amused if secretly a little disappointed.

And how long after low tide was it…? Well a lot more than 90 minutes, but if you ever do this yourself you’ll need to watch out and make your own judgement. Watch the locals is the best advice.

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