Amel yachts are French bluewater cruisers are like no others on the market. Elaine Bunting looks at why

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Many people who buy a long-distance bluewater cruising yacht are retiring early, perhaps after selling a company. But for French engineer and wartime Resistance fighter Henri Amel, it was the other way round.

M. Amel (pictured above), known to his employees as ‘le capitaine’, started up the eponymous boatbuilding business when he was aged 50. He’d never run a business before. In the decades until he died in 2005 (aged over 90 and involved until the last on a daily basis), the yard produced over 2,000 yachts that have cruised all over the world.

The yard outside La Rochelle gave us the Mango, the Santorin, the Maramu and the Super Maramu (pictured below).

 

To say that these yachts are distinctive would be an understatement. There’s nothing else that looks quite like an Amel.

Up to the launch of their new models, the 55 and 64, every Amel was largely designed by Henri Amel himself and sported features that were simultaneously slightly old-fashioned looking and cultishly enduring.

Amels were always well ahead of their time with features that the boss devised such as electric furling sails and the first bow thrusters to  be fitted as standard on production yachts. ‘Le capitaine’ also insisted that  ketches were easier for a cruising couple to handle and the philosophy never changed.

But the yachts were just as well known for their more obvious features such the maroon plastic rubbing strake, hard top, offset wheel and  armchair helmsman’s seat (now much imitated), solid stainless guardrails and – uniquely – their moulded-in fake teak decks.

Amels were, and are, famous for being the ultimate standard production yacht. They were the Model T Ford of yachts, available in one shade. The company never encouraged nor offered many options. You got what they made.  In Henri Amel’s era customers didn’t even get to choose a different colour of curtains or upholstery.

The recipe was all-inclusive, from big items like electric  furling and winches, watermaker, generator, washing machine and so on, right  down to towels, bathrobes, spare filters, clothes hangers, a boat safe, deck  brush and even a hairdryer.

That’s changing now, as customers want more say over specification, but only up to a point. An Amel is still a complete boat, and  I’m told the sales team do their best to encourage customers to buy into the  standard package.

One of the advantages of minimising variations, Amel argue (and I would tend to agree), is a higher degree of reliability. The relationship with regular suppliers is central to this, as is the uniformity of production.

And when a yard has built and provided after sales service for over 2,000 boats, the fact is that they have a pretty good idea what works in practice and  what doesn’t.

I’ve seen Amels all over the place, in the most far-flung  corners of the world, and have always found owners passionate about them. The  older boats have an old-fashioned look, a sort of Seventies or Eighties vibe, with quirky but sensible ways of doing things, such as the special fittings on  the main mast and the shrouds to allow twin headsails to be set up downwind.

The new model Amel 55, which Toby Hodges tested in the video below, is a style departure from the Santorins and Maramus and much more mainstream. But many of the hallmarks are there: the ketch rig, for example, the hard top and the transmission and propeller on the trailing  edge of the keel.

And there is the helmsman’s throne in the centre cockpit, the  seaworthy pilot berth and athwartships galley, push-button sail and, of course, the fake teak grain moulded and painted into the decks.

The history of  this extraordinary yard, which Henri Amel left in perpetuity to his workers, is  fantastic and very unusual, with a passion and single-minded approach that few modern yachts can mimic.