Legends of American Sailing
Harry "Buddy" Clemens Melges II
There are many great sailors around America, and some of them have extraordinary skills and achieved great performances on the water over many years. When I made the list of legendary sailors for this book there was one name that stood out above the others, Buddy Melges. Ask any top sailor who is America’s best, and Buddy will always be mentioned. His Gold Medal championship in the 1972 Olympics Games and winning the 1992 America’s Cup as a helmsman is just part of the long story of this gifted, gracious, helpful and productive American sailing hero. Buddy started out working for his father building Scows in Zenda, Wisconsin. He always joked, “Zenda is not the end of the world, but you could see it from there.” Zenda is an unincorporated village in the Town of Linn and the home of Melges Boat Works. Buddy and his wife, Gloria live a few miles north in Fontana on a hill overlooking Lake Geneva. One has to wonder, how does someone become as skilled in their sport as Buddy Melges?
Lucky me, I have both raced with and against Buddy and been able to observe his remarkable talent. He is a clever tactician that is always thinking several moves ahead, and has the ability to make a boat sail fast. And, the best part is Buddy Melges is always willing to share his knowledge with his competitors. I first met Buddy when I was 15 and serving as a crew at the E Scow National Championship. The summer before, in 1964, Buddy had won a Bronze Medal at the Tokyo Olympic Games in the Flying Dutchman Class.
Buddy’s scow won the race and aftwards, I was a little nervous to ask the skipper if he had any suggestions on how I should trim the jib? He was the 35 and I was 15. The skipper said, “Well son if you want to know how to trim the jib, let’s set one up and take a look. I asked him, “Why are you willing to help me since we are racing against you. He answered, “The better my competitors sail, the better I sail.” It was a good lesson from Buddy Melges. He has been my hero ever since.
Buddy got his start at the age of five on Delavan Lake near a boat company his father worked for in Williams Bay, Wisconsin. In his book Sailing Smart, co-authored with Charles Mason, (Henry Holt and Company, 1983) Buddy wrote, “My father instilled in a me a solid desire for competition and a commitment to diligent practice. He was a hard taskmaster: he was never impressed by second-place finishes. He impressed upon me the importance of caring for my equipment and having everything ready to go well before the start of the race.” It is clear that Buddy gained a great deal of knowledge from his persistent, but patient father. By the age of twenty Buddy Melges was one of the best sailors in the Midwest.
Buddy gives his experience racing in the Men’s North American Championship, The Mallory Cup, considerable credit for learning how to race on a big stage. His first Mallory featured competing against some big names including Ted Hood, Bus Mosbacher, Bill Ficker and Gilbert Gray. Buddy wrote in his book, “When I was ashore I kept my eyes and ears open and I listened very carefully to everything that was being said. And I learned a lot.” Buddy did not win but continued to qualify for the Mallory for another 4 years, and won his last three.
A sailing friend from Lake Geneva, Bill Bentsen had a Ph.D. in economics and was spending a lot of time on the water. Bentsen recognized that Buddy had considerable talent and suggested that they try to go to the Olympic Games. He recognized Melges was a gifted natural sailor who could make any boat go fast. They decided on the Flying Dutchman Class. They spent the next winter working on their boat and practicing. The pair easily won the USA Olympic Trials and headed to Japan for the Games and won a Bronze Medal.
In the summer of 1972 I got to race in the Finn Olympic Trials. I was new to this kind of long course racing but I followed the Trials with great interest. Between 1966 and 1971 I raced with Sam Merrick on his E Scow. We often got to race against Buddy, who was usually crewing for a customer on one of his new boats. In June Sam, Buddy and other skippers including Tom Blackaller, Dennis Conner, Lowell North, and Stuart Walker were among the crowed all-star field in the Soling Class Olympic Trials. Buddy and his crew Bill Bentsen and Bill Allen opened with a 5th and then broke a mast in the the second race. The Trials were sailed on the windy Berkeley Circle off San Francisco. After that set back Melges went on to finish first 3 times, and second 2 times to easily clinch the Olympic berth. The Games were raced in Kiel, Germany. All eyes were on the match up in the Soling Class between Melges, and four time Olympic Gold Medalist Paul Elvstrom. Only 6 races were sailed in unusually light breezes. Melges had a 1-2-3-4-1-1 series to easily take the Gold. It was an extraordinary result for the American crew. Elvstrom had a tough series and ended 13th out of the 26 countries that competed.
In 1977 Buddy, at 47 years of age, crewed for Ding Schoonmaker, in a Star regatta to learn about the class. Racing with a previous (1975) World Champion seemed like a good idea. Buddy recruited Canadian Olympic sailor Andreas Josenhans as crew and they traveled to San Francisco for the 1978 Worlds. The 1977 World Champion, Dennis Conner commented that he did not expect Buddy to be too tough because he would be racing with his own sails. Melges won the first 3 races and Conner was second each time against the 99 boats in the fleet. Buddy placed 3 and 4 in the next two races and became the winner without having to sail the final race. One year later Melges and Josenhans defended their World title in Marstrand, Sweden.
By this point in his career Buddy Melges had won 60 major championships including (as mentioned) the North American Men’s Sailing Championship (Mallory Cup) three times in a row, the E Scow Nationals many times, the Ice Boat Championship seven times, and the A Scow Nationals to name just a few on the long list. But there was one regatta on his bucket list that was fading away as he got older – the America’s Cup.
Buddy had been asked several times to participate in the America’s Cup but he always turned it down. When the New York Yacht Club lost the Cup in 1983 the doors opened for other American clubs to challenge for the Cup. Gene Kinney, a long time Chicago sailor and businessman, was inspired and decided to challenge on behalf of his Chicago Yacht Club. The first hurtle was to get clearance from the New York Courts that Lake Michigan was an “arm of the sea” as required in the Cup’s Deed of Gift. The court agreed and Kinney proceeded with his effort. His next step was to find a worthy skipper, so he took a drive up to Lake Geneva to try to recruit Buddy Melges to skipper the Chicago challenger. The pair spoke for a few hours and Buddy accepted the offer. Interest in the Cup around the USA was strong. Within a few months Kinney had recruited the giant advertising firm, Leo Burnett, and public relations agency Hill & Knowlton to help raise the challenge’s visibility and secure funding. Their goal was to build a new 12 Meter, find a strong American crew and head to Australia. The odds of success were daunting. There were 13 challengers from 7 countries working on campaigns plus four defending syndicates from Australia. Heart of America seemed to be a long shot, at best.
By 1983 I had sailed in three Cup campaigns. It seemed that it might be best for me to develop some kind of career other than racing sailboats. And, then I read that Buddy Melges was putting together a challenge. After a brief phone call with Buddy I was invited to join the team. For the next year the syndicate worked hard to raise $7 million dollars to design and build a boat for the campaign in Fremantle, Australia. I was the tactician and helped recruit the crew. It was great fun. The syndicate acquired a 1980 contender, Clipper, and used it for training against Tom Blackaller’s team in San Francisco, and a Canadian team in Victoria, British Columbia. We scheduled a two week practice session around Thanksgiving week in 1985. A few weeks before, a new all-sports cable network called the Entertainment and Sports Program Network (ESPN) decided to travel to Victoria to film our training session for a series of preview shows on the Cup. One morning we woke to a blizzard. There was two feet of snow on the two 12 Meters in the marina. Our squad had a crew meeting after an indoor morning workout. One of the crew reported to Buddy in front of the whole crew, “Because we aren’t able to sail today I have arranged the use of a gym for some basketball.” Without missing a beat Buddy answered, “Well there’s one who doesn’t want to sail. Who else wants to stay ashore?” Obviously, no hands went up.
So, we shoveled the snow off the boat and we went sailing. It was mighty cold. On the way back in after five frigid hours I had to smile and thought, “Buddy is going to surprise some of these America’s Cup veterans.” Several months later ESPN asked me to join their commentary team, and I left Heart of America to try my hand in media. When the Challenger Trials started a year later Heart of America struggled. The boat was slow and the crew was still learning. At one crew meeting Buddy showed up and barked like a dog indicating that the boat was a “dog.” He assigned everyone a specific task to help improve the boat’s speed. As the racing days passed, Heart of America improved. Toward the end of the marathon set of trials several of the 13 challengers faced elimination. One of the most prominent teams on the bubble was the New York Yacht Club entry, America II. The NYYC challenge was considered one of the early favorites and started the trials in good position, but they did not improve. On that day an improved Heart of America defeated America II and the New York Yacht Club was eliminated from the competition. It was the first time in 135 years that NYYC would not be racing in the Cup final.
Heart of America was eliminated a week later. Dennis Conner and his Stars & Stripes team ended up winning the Challenger Trials, and defeated the defending Australian team 4-0. For Buddy Melges, even at the age of 56, the America’s Cup had captured his imagination. Heart of America was a worthy effort, but for Buddy it wasn’t a victory.
In 1990 the San Diego was organizing it’s defense effort for the 1992 match. Bill Koch who had just won the Maxi Class World Championship was inspired to try to defend the Cup on behalf of the San Diego Yacht Club. In order to get to the America’s Cup final Koch would have to defeat Dennis Conner on his home waters. Koch was intrigued by the technology in the Cup. He was a Ph.D in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I was once again involved, since I had been racing with Koch on his Maxi’s since 1984. I suggested that Bill hire Buddy Melges. It took awhile for Bill to make a decision but eventually Buddy was signed on. True to Bill’s background he was able to come up with a fast boat. The America3 syndicate used 5 hulls during the two year campaign. Buddy was now 62 years old and became the primary helmsman for the team. They defeated Conner in the Trials and went on to successfully defend the America’s Cup 5-1 against Italy. The victory was a capstone for Buddy Melges and his amazing racing career.
The postscript to Buddy Melges America’s Cup victory could fill a whole book. Buddy’s son Harry built up the Melges Boat Works with a series of small, but hot racing boats including the Melges 20, 24, 32 and 37. At the age of 80 in 2010 Buddy won the A Scow Inland Championship. At the 50th Anniversary of the E Scow Blue Chip Regatta, Buddy watched the 23 competitors compete. In between races he held court on the lawn of the Pewaukee Yacht Club. I listened in to his sage advice. When asked how do you win in these boats, he suggested, “You need to present the boat to mother nature, then you need to sail the boat more ‘quick-lier’ than the other boats, and have fun doing it.” I smiled and thought to myself, “Good advice.” Buddy and Gloria have two sons, Harry and Hans, and a daughter, Laura. One of Buddy’s grandsons, Harry IV already won an E Scow championship at the age of 14. Good genes maybe? Perhaps, but good coaching at a young age, meticulous preparation, carefully listening to others and thriving on competition are the skill sets that define one of the greatest sailors of our era.