Ketch builder Amel has launched its first sloop for 20 years, a sloop with modern twin rudders at that. Pip Hare travels to La Rochelle to test her
Amel 50. French ketch builder has launched its first sloop in two decades. Pip Hare goes for a sail and finds rugged luxury that will take you round the world in comfort
French builder Amel has, for 50 years, been selling a dream, and the Amel 50 is no exception; with this boat you could head off anywhere. Imagine cruising through the Chilean channels with a panoramic view from your warm and cosy doghouse, shortening sail at the touch of a button. Amel’s philosophy is everything on board should be designed in such a way to make the owner’s life easier and the onboard experience more pleasurable – making long distance cruising achievable for anyone who can afford one.
Although Amel’s current smallest, this boat is still 50ft and made for the open ocean, but don’t expect to tack through narrow channels, even though she’s the first sloop the company has produced in two decades. The decision to make her a sloop was chosen to keep costs down, while still having a rig that can be easily handled.
Cocooned under a hardtop, surrounded by glass on three sides I was surprisingly engaged by sailing Amel 50. I didn’t expect to feel connected to the sailing experience without feeling the wind, but in a full range of conditions I really enjoyed it. I did, however, prefer to open the windscreen windows and get a bit of breeze in my face when the weather allowed.
Upwind in reasonable seas and 20 knots of true wind our close-hauled angle was not great but acceptable for offshore passage making and our boat speed a good 8.4 knots. More impressive was our light airs upwind performance; managing to hold 4.4 knots of boat speed in only 5 knots of true wind.
The steering system uses push-pull cables, rather like those on an engine control, to move the quadrant. Combined with the well-balanced twin rudders this results in a helm that gives little feedback, but has a good level of response when the wheel is turned. It takes good concentration to hand steer but the autopilot coped well in all situations.
We tried additional offwind sails during our test, boosting our light airs performance and increasing downwind boat speed from 7.8 to 9.2 knots in the heavy breeze. If haring downwind with a spinnaker is not your cup of tea, the poledout headsail gave us reasonable performance in all but the lightest airs. However, I feel the boat really benefitted from the extra sail area and would recommend a code zero on a furler as an easy-to-manage compromise that will keep you sailing for longer.
There is no hiding the size of the Amel 50. It looms over an alongside pontoon requiring a fender step to get up the high topsides – the alternative is to drop the bathing platform and come over the stern. Despite the size I found the steering position high enough to have good vision of all the ‘corners’ while manoeuvring in the marina, and I was comfortably able to reverse into a finger berth using the joystick bow thruster control and minimal wheel steering. Turning tightly without the bow thruster is almost impossible as the position of the rudders relative to propeller gives very little turning moment from prop wash.
The Amel has a centre cockpit covered by a full doghouse with three-quarter-length solid windows and a roof that slides out to full length. The back of the doghouse can be enclosed by fabric panels to further protect occupants from the elements.
There is a deep sail locker forward with access to the retractable bow thruster and anchor chain. Aft, the full beam lazarette is cavernous and houses the gas locker and provides access to the rudder stocks. The transom opens up to create a bathing platform with flip down stainless-steel ladder.
Though the huge aft deck would be great for sunbathing I felt vulnerable traversing this area while heeled over and Amel have already indicated that later builds of the 50 have included additional handholds on the coachroof and foot chocks on the cabin top.
AT THE HELM
Helming the Amel 50 was a new experience for me; I’ve never steered a yacht from inside a doghouse before and I wondered whether I would enjoy being separated from the elements. As we slogged upwind in the rain and the first wave crashed over the doghouse, however, I accepted there could be another way.
The small wheel is offset to port, with standing room directly behind it and a helmsman’s chair set abaft. I preferred standing to helm, even with maximum heel. The view from the helm is good; the lower tell tales and the horizon can be seen through the panoramic windscreen while the mast top and mainsail are viewed through roof hatches. The offset wheel is positioned directly behind the slot giving a great view of the jib on starboard tack but on port tack only some of the headsail luff can be seen. This was more pronounced when using the gennaker, as the whole sail becomes obscured by the main when reaching on port.
The helmsman’s chair is comfortable and can be height adjusted then swivelled to lock in any position, but the chair cannot be moved closer to the wheel and I found reaching out to the wheel uncomfortable over time. I am not sure there is
ALL WINCHES AND FURLERS CAN BE CONTROLLED FROM THE SHELTERED HELM
any easy solution to this problem without a significant engineering modification and my own solution would be to stand when hand steering and use the chair as a look out position while the autopilot was engaged. In reality, I wonder how many owners of the Amel 50 will actually choose to hand steer when sailing any distance.
The instrument and control panel sit in front of the wheel, housing navigation screens and all operational controls. All winches and furlers can be controlled from the wheel as well as the windlass and engine. Furling controls are on joysticks rather than buttons, which I found very user friendly.
DESIGN & CONSTRUCTION
Not only has this new sloop broken a 20-year run of ketches by Amel, but it is the first model to be made using vacuum infusion and also the first to sport twin rudders. Despite these substantial changes the Amel trademarks are still evident: all bulkheads and furniture are laminated in place; there are four watertight bulkheads, the deck is made from ‘Amel Teak’ – a no-maintenance gelcoat finish moulded to look like a teak deck – and there is a solid, hip-height stainless steel handrail surrounding the entire deck.
The 50 has a angular, modern look with a blunt stem head and stainless-steel bowsprit and anchor housing, a full volume bow, and little sheer along the length. Under the water the hull has a fair amount of rocker and a cast iron L-shaped keel.
Everything about the Amel 50 seems well engineered with foresight to avoid failure or breakages. The result is solid, but surprisingly has not brought a huge weight penalty – with a displacement of 18.75 tonnes the Amel 50 is comparable to other boats of this genre.
RIG & SAILPLAN
Previous Amel ketches have made sail handling easier by splitting the aft sail area between two masts. This 50 footer, with a mainsail of 64m2 has been considered small enough to handle on a single mast and I agree. Building the 50 as a sloop has kept costs down, and created more space both on deck and down below; no need for mizzen reinforcement.
The standard boat comes with an in-mast furling mainsail and electric roller furling genoa. Our test boat had the optional self-tacking staysail, also on an electric furler. For me the addition of a staysail is a ‘no brainer’; on our test we tried sailing upwind both with genoa only and as a cutter. Using the
staysail, even in 20 knots of true wind speed added boat speed while maintaining balance. With a sail area of 24m2 the staysail offers a great self-tacking heavy weather sail.
The mast has a twin spreader rig; the backstay is not adjustable but there are checkstays stowed at the shroud base, which need to be clipped into position on the aft deck when reefed and under staysail alone. The chunky jib pole is anchored to a single point at the base of the mast and stored vertically. In a rolling sea it was cumbersome to lower, but once down there were plenty of points to attach braces and it provided a strong support to the sail.
Below decks the Amel 50 is nothing short of luxurious. The only layout option has three cabins, consisting of: a huge aft master cabin with island bed, desk, sofa and en-suite, a big double in the bow and smaller Pullman cabin on the starboard side. All bunks and berths are fitted with substantial leeboards or cloths. The forward heads can be accessed from the double cabin or the saloon.
The finish is light oak with handholds and structures in stainless steel. This gives a contemporary look, which appealed to my taste. In particular I loved the stainless steel backbone to the companionway steps.
High deckheads accentuate the size of the saloon flooding it with natural light through windows and hatches. A table on the port side folds out to comfortably seat eight people. On the starboard side, there is an L-shaped sofa and two small stools which can be used when the table is extended. The saloon is a wonderful open area, but would be a big space to fall across while at sea. The only support going forward is a grab handle on the table edge, which runs down the centreline of the saloon. Amel tell me they are adding some hand grabs, extending and repositioning others to address this problem.
The two double cabins were serviced well with stowage, but
BELOW DECKS IS NOTHING SHORT OF LUXURIOUS
in the Pullman this was limited to under the bed and behind the headboards. In most areas, raised cabin soles also gave large bilge areas, which provide a lot of extra space. There are useful size head-height lockers wherever space allows around the boat.
The chart table is a comfy forward-facing area just at the base of the companionway steps. The table itself is big enough to work on and the seat shaped well for bracing on either tack. The table is flanked by well laid out control panels for 220V and 24V as well as a plotter screen, instrument repeaters and a second VHF. Access to wiring is from behind the panels and under the seat. This is cramped but neat, well labelled and has spare fuses where required.
The corridor galley has a decent length of work surface and is narrow enough to offer security at sea. There is a huge butler style sink and pull-out fridge/freezer drawers.
Head-height cupboards in the galley have a two-stage opening system with doors that hinge up and draws that slide out. This clever detail retains the cupboards’ contents when the boat is heeled but will still allow access to contents at the back.
The heavy crockery drawer, which is on a traditional push-button closure, has a rod that will slip in through the worktop locking the draw in position at sea.
Access to the watertight engine room is under the cockpit sole, down a small ladder. The space is big enough to house the 110HP Volvo engine, a generator, inverters, water maker, a salt water inlet manifold and still room to swing a cat. There would be plenty of room to work comfortably in this engine room and because of the top opening system, unusually there is natural light and good ventilation.
Through-hull openings are reduced to a minimum using a seawater manifold which services all areas of the boat via one single inlet and strainer. All grey water drains to a separate sump tank in the bilge, which automatically empties; keeping the rest of the bilge dry and clean.
The mainsail furler and outhaul feature current-sensitive automatic cut-outs. The motors will stop if too much current is drawn – minimising potential damage to sails and furlers should a snag occur. Amel extrude its own mast sections which are made with separate compartments to allow the housing of mainsail furler, halyards and the wiring loom entirely separately so they cannot get tangled, cause chafe and would be easy to remove or replace.
Mullion-free windows help give a panoramic view from the helm
The light oak finish helps to accentuate a spacious interior
Clockwise from left: The rig is viewed through hatches above the helm; a comfortable chart table; access to an impressively sized engine room under the cockpit sole; hoisting the extra offwind sail area was well worth the effort in light wind