Legendary cruising boats come in all forms. Wandering the docks at a boat show in La Rochelle, France, I came across an unassuming, boxy little boat that has achieved iconic status among the French. Excelling as an ocean racer, bluewater cruiser and as a family coastal cruiser, Philippe Harle’s 24ft Muscadet truly was a boat for all reasons.
Conceived as a cheap ocean racer and constructed in plywood to a hard-chine design that was strong and cheap to build, the Muscadet was an instant hit upon its launch in 1963. Not only was it affordable, it was amazingly seaworthy for its size and quickly proved capable of giant-killing performances.
Soon this tough little boat could be seen not only in anchorages all around the French coast, but as far afield as the Baltic, Ireland and the north of England, often sailed there by intrepid young French singlehanders—forerunners of the current crop of Gallic sailing stars.
In the 1970s, Muscadets formed a significant part of the inaugural Mini Transat race from Penzance, Cornwall to Antigua; five finished, two in the top 10. Muscadets were sailed in every edition of the race until 1991. But it’s the Muscadet’s influence on cruising that lingers; I recall seeing these little boats in various anchorages around the Caribbean, and they are still much in demand in France. More than 1,000 of them were built, and many of those are still afloat, well maintained and much loved.
The Muscadet was one of many small plywood cruisers of the 1950s and 60s that helped bring sailing to the masses, most of them lost to the reefs of time. On this side of the Pond, the 26ft Thunderbird was perhaps the closest equivalent; like the Muscadet, it inspired a devoted following and endures to this day as an inexpensive, undemanding boat whose appeal is undimmed by the passage of time.