A Sailor’s Life

By Anne Morrissy | Photo by Michael Moore

It is a sunny and very cool March day when I meet sailing legend and Fontana resident Harry C. “Buddy” Melges Jr. at the Lake Geneva Yacht Club. The ice has just recently gone out, signaling the beginning of the seasonal transition from Melges’ lifelong winter hobby — iceboating — to his primary passion: sailing. I arrive a little early and find myself wandering through the first floor of the building, which houses the world-class sailing school that now bears his name: the Buddy Melges Sailing Center, rebuilt and renamed in 2015 in honor of its most famous and accomplished graduate.

Pictures of Melges are everywhere — framed magazine covers; shots of sailboats in motion with Melges at the helm; photos of Melges posing with trophies, posing with Olympic medals, posing with the prestigious America’s Cup trophy itself. Melges has been sailing for more than eight decades now, and in that time, he has amassed an incredible record of accomplishments at the national and international levels. But he is quick to point out that his lifelong love of sailing started right here in Walworth County.

AN EDUCATION ON THE WATER

“We lived on Delavan Lake when I was growing up,” Buddy remembers wistfully. “I started sailing there when I was 6 years old, in a little dinghy. Pretty quickly, I got good enough in it that for 10 cents, I’d take you for a ride,” he laughs. Melges’ father, Harry Melges Sr., worked for the Palmer Boat Company in Fontana at the time and was an accomplished sailor and iceboater himself. Melges says he took to sailing from a young age because of his father’s passion for the sport and his eagerness to pass that love on to his children.

Around 1940, Harry Melges Sr. took a job working for local Fontana businessman Bill Grunow Jr. at his Val-o-Will Chicken Farm (later Majestic Ski Hill), and moved the family to a former golf clubhouse on the Grunows’ property. On Geneva Lake, Grunow and his wife Val sailed a competitive racing boat called a “C scow,” and around the age of 11 (he guesses), Buddy Melges began crewing for them.

He also enrolled in the Geneva Lake Sailing School, which was then under the direction of a man named Herb Taylor, a former Olympic swimmer and water polo player. “The [school] had a 24-foot boat and there were eight or nine kids on that one boat,” Melges remembers. “That was the whole basis of how instruction was put forth. As we sailed, Herb would be talking and instructing and commenting about what goes on, what a ‘luff’ is and what a ‘jib’ is and what a ‘main’ is, and the attitudes of the wind. That’s how we learned.”

A RACING PHENOM

Following World War II, Harry C. Melges Sr. decided to invest in his love for sailing. He had developed a new design for a C Scow that he felt improved on the old models and went on to make three boats as prototypes, giving one to his son Buddy to sail. Those first three boats proved to be a huge success that helped to establish Harry Melges’ name as a premier boatbuilder, giving lift to Melges Boatworks, his newly established boat-building company headquartered in Zenda. (Today it is Melges Performance Sailboats.)

Around the same time, the Geneva Lake Sailing School hired Buddy Melges as the new sailing instructor for the summer, filling Herb Taylor’s old position. He was only 16 years old, but he was already on his way to greatness.

Through the late 1940s and into the 1950s, Melges dominated the club racing at the Lake Geneva Yacht Club and the regional Inland Lake Yachting Association, while traveling around the U.S. with his Melges Boatworks C Scow, competing in (and often winning) races and regattas. The purpose of those trips was multifold: in addition to honing his skills and racking up trophies, Melges also worked as a salesman and brand ambassador for his father’s company.

“When my dad got into the boatbuilding business, sailing fast became even more important,” Melges explains. His numerous wins provided a personal satisfaction, but they also helped elevate the name of Melges Boatworks around the country, as competitors clamored to get their hands on the same kind of boat they saw Melges sailing.

It was one such trip to the Columbia Yacht Club in Chicago in the early 1950s that would change his life forever. Docking his boat after a race on Lake Michigan, he spotted another returning boat with a beautiful sailor on board.

He watched, entranced, as she deftly balanced on the rails of the moving boat and then tied up near him. He was smitten. “She captured my heart,” he remembers. Not long after that, he asked her on a date, and in 1954, he and his wife Gloria were married. “I was fortunate to meet a gal who was sailing before we met,” he says. Over the next several years, they had three children: two sons and a daughter.

GOING FOR THE GOLD

Around the time his children were young, Melges says he was approached at the Lake Geneva Yacht Club by Bill Bentsen, a friend and expert sailor. Bentsen had been researching the trials for the 1964 Olympic sailing events and discovered that the International Olympic Committee had selected a type of boat called a Flying Dutchman for that year’s competition. Bentsen realized that the Flying Dutchman was not unlike the scow boats sailing on Geneva Lake, so he and Melges decided to team up and try out.

“In our very first regatta in the Flying Dutchman, we ended up placing third against some really experienced sailors,” Melges explains. “So that gave us the confidence to keep going.” The pair ended up not only qualifying for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, but winning a bronze medal. “That was pretty neat, getting to stand up on the podium and see your flag above you like that,” he remembers.

In 1972, Melges and Bentsen decided to try out for the Olympics again, this time in a three-person boat called a Soling. They added sailor Bill Allen from Minnesota’s Lake Minnetonka to their team and found a recipe for success. “The trials were a little easier the second time around, and we had built up a lot of respect from the other sailors,” Melges says.

At that year’s Munich Olympics, Melges’ team was so dominant that they were assured of winning the gold medal even before the final race was sailed. Melges describes the memory of the 1972 medal ceremony as “a thrill.” He followed up his Olympic successes with back-to-back world-championship wins in 1978 and 1979 in the Star Boat class.

AMERICA’S CUP CHAMPION

Over the next decade, Melges assumed leadership of Melges Performance Sailboats, building on his father’s successes to position the company as one of the top boatbuilders of racing sailboats in the country. His expertise and knowledge earned him the nickname “The Wizard of Zenda” in the sailing world.

Thanks in part to this well-earned reputation, Melges was approached in the early 1990s by billionaire Bill Koch, an avid sailor who was looking to organize a new team to compete for the prestigious America’s Cup, the oldest and most respected sailing competition in the world, held every three years. Knowing Melges’ abilities and past accomplishments, Koch asked him to join the team as the co-skipper of his boat, the America3. Under Melges’ experienced hand, the team successfully defended the title and won the 1992 America’s Cup Trophy.

Since 1961, U.S. Sailing, the national organizing body for the sport of sailing, has bestowed the U.S. Sailor of the Year award on the person determined to have that year’s most outstanding on-the-water achievements. By the time of the America’s Cup win, Melges had already won the award several times (in fact, he was the very first recipient of the award in 1961).

He was inducted into the America’s Cup Hall of Fame in 2001 and the Inland Lake Yachting Association Hall of Fame in 2002. In 2011, Melges was honored with induction into the National Sailing Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island.

Reflecting on all of the awards and accolades he has received during a truly exceptional sailing career, Melges is characteristically understated. “I think it’s quite an honor,” he says. He credits his experience on Geneva Lake with setting him up for a lifetime of success, adding, “We’re so fortunate to live on such a beautiful sailing lake.”

Despite his many impressive accomplishments, Melges isn’t one to dwell on his past successes. As he talks, he scans the newly open water of the lake spread out in front of us. He is still eagle-eyed; spotting the wake of a speedboat across the lake, he calls me over to his side of the table to marvel at the early-season ride. It’s a skill that has served him well in his long and storied sailing career. “In sailing, you always want to be looking a quarter-mile ahead of you to spot where the wind is going to be,” he explains.

A New Generation Sails On

Following in his grandfather’s footsteps, Melges’ grandson, Harry C. Melges IV, (“Harry 4”) and his sailing partner, Finn Rowe, are currently training at an elite, world-class level as members of the U.S. Sailing team. At just 19 and 20 years old, respectively, they are two of the youngest members of the team, but they have already achieved successes that motivate them to keep training at the highest level, including a top-25 finish at the World Championships in Auckland, New Zealand, in February 2020.

Despite the global COVID-19 health crisis, Melges and Rowe have continued to train (when possible) with their U.S. Sailing squad over the past year, spending several weeks with the team in Miami last winter and relocating to Spain’s Canary Islands for nearly two months this spring, where they lived and trained together with the other members of the squad and their U.K.-based coach.

Due to the ever-changing situation surrounding the pandemic, the regatta schedule for the rest of the year remains uncertain, but Melges and Rowe are carefully monitoring the opportunities. They hope to be able to compete in the Junior World Championships in Poland in July and the World Championships in Oman in November.

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