J-Boat quality and performance come through in this 33-foot daysailer
Following the race, the bulk of the fleet streamed along the garish edge of Key West headed for their slips while crews coiled lines and savored their final few moments on the aquamarine waters off Southern Florida. It was at this point, in the early hours of Friday afternoon, that I met Kai Bjorn on a dirty, sandy public beach in the heart of Old Town Key West.
Kai is a former big-time football player, a Starboat sailor who represented Canada in the 2000 Sydney Olympic regatta, and a representative for Performance Sailcraft-builders of the 29er, Byte and Megabyte sailboats. He had rigged a "sea-foam green" Megabyte, and the boat was waiting in the shallow waters just off the beach. I had been told that the Megabyte is a large singlehanded dinghy aimed squarely at the 225-pound sailor who has outgrown the Laser. Unfortunately, I check in about 55 pounds short of that mark. And this was only the beginning of my worry list.
"It's real puffy out there," Kai said by way of introduction. "Somewhere between 2 and 18 knots." He eyed my pale frame with a friendly bit of what seemed like concern. Photographer Walter Cooper was lurking offshore in his center-console powerboat-circling and waiting like a salvage wrecker straight from a Key West history book. Did I mention that I am, at best, an average Laser sailor? I've won a Tuesday night beer can race or two. But my modest goal in weekend regattas has always been to finish in the top half of the fleet. And I reach that goal about half the time.
I could just feel a disaster coming on: the eyes of the record-size Key West fleet upon me as the boats streamed through the testing area; the gusty southwesterly; the thought of getting pushed around by a bulky sea-foam green boat; an Olympic sailor on the beach telling me to play it conservatively; and, of course, a photographer to record my antics for all posterity.
But as luck would have it the chaos and destruction never arrived.
In fact, the contrast between the anticipated disaster and what actually happened couldn't have been more different. Ah, the Megabyte-I handled it, managed it, blasted around on it, even jibed in it-and brought it home in one piece.
Okay, when I got back to the beach, Kai grabbed at least three different control lines and pulled good lengths out of each saying, "You needed this much tighter. You needed this much tighter. You needed this much tighter."
But sail trim be damned, I could not stop smiling. I was in control of the boat and not the other way around.
The Megabyte is what happens when designer Bruce Farr and small-boat impresario Ian Bruce team up with the goal of updating both the Laser and the Finn. And it's what happens when big and talented sailors such as Kai are looking over their shoulders.
A good friend of mine sails a Finn at the top level of the class and upon hearing of my Megabyte adventure said matter-of-factly, "The Megabyte is for big guys who don't want to hike anymore. They call it 'The Gentleman's Finn.'"
The Megabyte hull weighs as much as a Laser, but is about 5 inches longer and carries 20 additional square feet of mainsail. The Megabyte's beam is a generous 5-foot, 2-inches-a full 8 inches wider than the Laser. It was this beam, and the accompanying added stability, that smoothed out my ride-and my jibes-in the big puffs off Key West.
There are other improvements beyond sheer size. The bigger hull allows for a real cockpit, which is more than a foot deep in most areas. The mast is carbon, and the sail is Mylar. The traveler is mounted in the middle of the boat, which allows for a greater throw arc. Together the combination allows for a much better looking and more tweakable sail than one typically finds on a Laser.
Upwind, I was working hard, feathering and dumping the southwesterly from my sail in the big puffs. I'm certain that if I had not been in my "deer in the headlights" posture, I would have taken a moment to "bone" the outhaul, cunningham and vang to smooth out the ride.
Off the wind, I felt surprisingly in control, even when planing on a broad reach. The heavy-air jibes were far less traumatic than aboard a Laser. I will admit that, while tempted, I did not try any extended by-the-lee runs or jibes.
Although I sailed singlehanded, the Megabyte appears well suited for two adults or even an adult and a kid or two. There is an extra set of hiking straps forward as well as plenty of cockpit room. The hull certainly carries enough stability and volume to support two adults without the ice rink feel often provided by a Laser in a similar configuration.
After a healthy session blasting around the harbor, I logged some additional upwind time and headed back for the beach and the big boats. On the way back to shore I realized that I had not capsized. Weathered sports adages pushed through my mind. "You're not skiing hard enough if you don't fall at least once a day. You're not playing defense hard enough if you don't pick up a couple of fouls."
I hadn't capsized.
It crossed my mind for a moment: maybe I needed to go back out, ease the mainsheet out to the knot and try a little by-the-lee dead downwind planning a la Mendelblatt, Torgerson, Myrdal and Hardesty.
I'm over 30 now, and the gym seems more and more distant from my home and office. Teeth-shaking capsizes with the boat coming off a plane 15 yards down the track from where you lost control are no longer highlights of the small boat experience. If I can go out on a big, fast dinghy, blast around the harbor and NOT go swimming-well maybe that's not such a bad thing.
The horsepower necessary for full-bore adventure was there. I just chose not to tap into it.
This latent potential is my favorite thing about the Megabyte. But my Finn sailor friend likes the Megabyte for different reasons. And other Megabyte aspects attract a family up the river who load father, daughter, and snacks aboard their Megabyte on warm summer evenings. It is a versatile, fast and simple boat. It is everything the Laser is, and more.
I do find it ironic that a boat spec'd and designed specifically for a narrow segment of the dinghy market delivers much more than its intent. The Megabyte is appealing to a much broader market than first impressions belie.