By Anne Morrissy | Photography by Holly Leitner
When Harry Melges IV and Finn Rowe stepped off the plane in Melbourne, Australia, last winter to compete in a world championship sailing round, they could smell the smoke from the wildfires raging across the continent. “They were [in Australia] for six weeks,” explains Harry’s mother, Suzanne Melges, “and when they were heading down there is when the air quality was really starting to get bad.” Melges and Rowe were not about to let the air quality or the wildfires stop them, however. The recent Big Foot High School grads may be young, just 18 and 19 years old respectively, but they have already managed to establish themselves as elite, world-class competitive sailors, and they were in Geelong, Australia, to compete as U.S. Sailing team members in the World Championships for the 49er class of sailboat, one of several qualifying regattas for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo (now postponed until 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic).
Harry Melges is the grandson of Olympic gold and bronze medal-winning sailor Harry “Buddy” Melges Jr., a Fontana resident and owner of Melges Performance Sailing in nearby Zenda. Inspired by his grandfather growing up, “Harry 4,” as he is sometimes known, says that his ambition as a competitive sailor is partly due to his relationship with his Olympic medal-winning grandfather. “I’ve always had a dream since I was a kid to win a medal at the Olympics,” he explains.
SUCCESS AT AN EARLY AGE
A few years ago, the younger Melges teamed up with Rowe — a friend since childhood and a classmate at the Geneva Lake Sailing School. The Melges and Rowe families also enjoy a longtime friendship and witnessed early on how the kids worked together. “When they were about 13, Harry tried his hand at being the skipper of an E-scow,” Suzanne Melges explains, referring to a common racing boat on Geneva Lake that is designed for (and most commonly sailed by) adults. “Harry started steering that one, Finn crewed for him. They had some success in that class, and there’s some very good [adult] sailors in that class on this lake. They were just kids, and they were doing really well. They got excited about the sport.”
Following that success, the two began a journey that would eventually lead to learning to sail a relatively new type of sailboat used in the Olympic trials — the 49er. In order to master that boat, which is not sailed competitively on Geneva Lake, they started sailing 29ers, a smaller youth version of the 49er intended to serve as a feeder class. “It took them just a little time to figure that one out,” Suzanne Melges continues. “And then they jumped into the 49er class at a young age.”
LIKE RIDING A WILD ANIMAL
Rowe says that the 49er is an extremely athletic boat, both similar to and yet totally unlike any of the sailboat classes currently racing on Geneva Lake. “The [49er] is actually pretty similar [to the scows on Geneva Lake] when you sail them downwind,” he explains. “But the boat handling is a lot harder. You’re always on your feet and you’re moving all the time.”
Unlike traditional racing scows, 49ers feature a “double trapeze,” or harnesses with hooks. In order to achieve maximum speed and keep the boat upright, both the skipper and the crew stand on the deck of the boat, hook themselves into the harnesses and lean their body weight out over the water to act as counterweight. “If you don’t get your weight out in time, you can easily capsize,” Rowe explains. The 49ers are extremely fast and prone to capsizing, providing an adrenaline rush and an “extreme sports” element to sailing.
Rowe’s father, Rob, compares the act of sailing the 49er to competing in a rodeo: “It’s like riding a wild animal,” he says.
Melges says he and Rowe initially spent countless hours learning to sail these exciting boats on Geneva Lake. “When you first start out, it’s hard to even sail the boat,” he explains. “You have to get used to how tippy it is. We probably spent thousands of hours of sailing it, just getting a feel for it.”
Rob Rowe credits the culture of elite competitive sailing on Geneva Lake with pushing them to the next level. “The fact that Lake Geneva is recognized around the world as a location for high-performance sailing, because of the legacy of Buddy [Melges] and others … it’s amazing the talent that has come out of here,” he says. “That’s why Harry and Finn are so fearless. They’ve been racing around here at high speeds with some of the best sailors around. That’s why they were able to step in [to the 49er] at such a young age.”
DEDICATED TO THEIR DREAM
Training and competing in the 49er requires a serious commitment of time, energy and money. As members of the U.S. Sailing team, Melges and Rowe have spent much of the past year training in locations like Newport, Rhode Island; Long Beach, California; Miami, Florida; and even the Netherlands. Regattas and competitions take them even further around the world: Spain, Italy, England, Australia and New Zealand are just a few of the places they’ve traveled for competitions in the past.
Both sailors opted to graduate early from Big Foot High School to pursue their training full time. But this meant that during their final semester of high school, they were attending school Monday through Thursday, flying around the country and even the world to compete on weekends, and returning home late Sunday night to start the cycle over again. “We couldn’t have done it without the support of all of our teachers at Big Foot,” Rowe says. “They were very understanding. They would allow us to come in early or stay after school or work online. A lot of the time we were coming home at midnight on Sunday and getting up for school on Monday. It was definitely really hard.”
Since graduating in January 2019, Melges and Rowe have been able to focus solely on training and competing in the 49er. In preparing for the most recent World Championships, they worked with two international coaches — one provided by U.S. Sailing to work with four American teams, and Australian Ian “Bunny” Warren, a personal coach dedicated entirely to them.
Rowe says that the expertise of the coaches is extremely valuable as they set out to compete against some of the top sailors in the world. “One of Bunny’s biggest strengths is that he is an animal when it comes to understanding how to tune these boats,” Rowe explains. “They are incredibly well-tuned speed machines, with adjustments being made on the water just before the race. We go out an hour before the race starts, and Bunny checks the wave conditions and the water currents and then he meets back with us to help us adjust the boat. He’s really good at keeping us organized, making sure we’re doing the right thing before racing.”
It’s a system that seems to be working. At the World Championships in Australia in February, Melges and Rowe made the “Gold Fleet,” finishing this premier racing event in 25th place overall, the youngest team to do so. “We were really excited about making the Gold Fleet,” Rowe says. “We’ve learned how hard it is to sail at that top level, and we were proud to finish in the top 25.” Though their performance in Australia did not automatically earn them a spot in the 2020 Olympics (now to be held next year), both Melges and Rowe say they are eager to start training for 2024. “I might take a short break from the 49er and do a few competitions in other boats, like the Melges 24 Class or the Moth Class,” Melges explains. “But then we’ll be looking to start up another [49er] campaign for the 2024 Olympics.”
The costs associated with training and travel for a goal of this magnitude are significant, and both Melges and Rowe credit the incredible goodwill they’ve received from the community around Geneva Lake with helping to get them where they are today. “We couldn’t do it without the support of this area,” Rowe explains.
“The whole Lake Geneva community and surrounding areas have been a huge help to these guys,” Suzanne Melges adds. “We’ve had several [fundraising] events and people have been really supportive. We have just a huge amount of gratitude — we’re proud to live here in an area where people are so supportive of sailing.”
To expand their fundraising efforts, Suzanne Melges and Finn’s mother, Suzette Rowe, have also coordinated a merchandising effort with local stores throughout the area. “We’ve seen so many people wearing the Melges Rowe-branded T-shirts or jackets, or carrying the water bottles,” Rob Rowe says. “A lot of local businesses have stepped up to help and the Melges Rowe gear is all over the place. That support mechanism is critical.”
Since March, coronavirus precautions have forced organizers to cancel all of the previously scheduled competitions and regattas. Instead, Melges and Rowe have remained close to their support network at home, continuing to train on Geneva Lake. “Lake Geneva is really one of the better spots to train in the world — we’re really lucky to call it home,” Melges says. “We started out wearing our dry suits to stay warm, and we can continue to work on our technique here where the wind is shiftier and more challenging.”
Beginning in July, Melges and Rowe will head to California to continue training with their U.S. Sailing coaches and teammates. Although no regattas are currently scheduled, Melges says they are eager to get back to their friends and coaches. “I feel pretty confident in saying that the rest of 2020 will be just training and small racing,” Melges explains. “Our biggest goal is to stay fit and in fighting shape to race and improve.”
When asked what he loves best about sailing in the 49er class, Melges says it’s the elite level of competition. “It’s the toughest class in the world to race in and excel in,” he explains. “We’re out there sailing against a lot of Olympic sailors, world champions, America’s Cup veterans.”
As they look to the next four years, both Melges and Rowe remain committed to their goal of ultimately winning a medal at the Olympics. “It’s a long-term commitment and the maturity level of these two can’t be overstated,” Rob Rowe says.
“At a young age, they just locked in on this dream. They have this unwavering attitude that they have what it takes and are going to make it happen.”