Buddy Melges, American Sailing Champion, Dies at 93
Buddy Melges, a Wisconsin native who became the first sailor to win both an Olympic gold medal and the sport’s top prize, the America’s Cup, died on Thursday at his home in Fontana Wis., on the western shore of Lake Geneva. He was 93.
His daughter, Laura Melges, said his health had been declining over the last year. He had quintuple bypass surgery in the 1990s and had contracted Lyme disease, probably while hunting, she said.
The shores of Lake Geneva in the 1940s and ’50s were not considered a breeding ground for the world’s top sailors when Melges (pronounced with a hard “g”) learned to sail there under his father’s tutelage. But the skills and techniques he developed on the lakes of the Midwest carried him to dozens of national and world titles.
His 1983 book, “Sailing Smart,” filled with anecdotes from decades of competition and written in uncomplicated language, became a popular textbook for American racers. And his company, Melges Boatworks, produced the revolutionary Melges 24, the first of a genre of sport-sailboats that could double the speeds of its predecessors and which has become a favorite of top sailors.
The book, his boats, his red cheeks, Ray-Ban Aviator sunglasses and signature faded flat-paneled navy blue cap with a simple gold crest made Melges one of the most recognized sailors in the country, and his humility and generosity as a mentor to young sailors made him one of the most beloved.
Melges, who grew up in the tiny lakeside town of Zenda in southern Wisconsin, became known as “The Wizard of Zenda,” a title that once appeared on the town’s city limits sign.
In a dominating victory in the three-person Soling keelboat at the 1972 Olympics, Melges unseated the sport’s greatest sailor, Paul Elvström, who had won four Olympic gold medals.
“In my opinion, he was the Leonardo da Vinci of American sailing,” said John Bertrand, the Australian who won the America’s Cup in 1983. “He did everything in isolation. Before winning his gold in 1972, he developed his own sails, a new mast system and revolutionized the Soling class. He destroyed the competition at the Games.
Despite the 1972 gold and an earlier Olympic bronze medal, it was his 1992 America’s Cup win with Bill Koch, the billionaire investor and world champion sailor, aboard the America Cubed that placed Melges in the pantheon of the world’s best sailors.
Melges, a surprise choice for a Cup helmsman at 62, split the driving duties with Koch and the young racing champion David Dellenbaugh to dispatch Italy’s Ill Moro di Venezia four races to one, defending the silver America’s Cup trophy for the United States.
“Buddy was a giant in our sport,” said Gary Jobson, a 1977 America’s Cup winner and an advisor to Melges’s 1992 team. “What set him apart was his ability to overcome adversity. So many times his first foray into things didn’t go well. He never got bummed and had incredible preparation.”
Harry Clemons Melges Jr. was born on Jan. 26, 1930, in Elkhorn, in the southern Wisconsin lake region, and grew up on Lake Delavan, where his father managed a chicken farm during the Depression. His mother, Louise (Richter) Melges, was a homemaker. After the family moved to Zenda, near Lake Geneva, not far from the Illinois border, Melges senior began a business there building wooden canoes and rowboats.
In Zenda—which Melges often said was “not the end of the world, but you could see it from there”—he was indoctrinated into the world of duck hunting, sailing and ice boating, disciplines that shaped his approach to sport and business.
He worked and sailed with his father and was a talented basketball and football player for Badger High School in Lake Geneva. His studies at the University of Wisconsin, however, were cut short when he was drafted into the Korean War.
After his return from the war, carrying a Bronze Star for meritorious service, he began to apply what he had learned in the woods of Wisconsin and Canada to sailboat racing.
“He was fascinated with the flight of birds,” said Bertrand, who spent a year in Wisconsin studying with Melges in the late 1970s. “He used this. He always talked of ‘applying our boats to nature.’ It helped him with wind shifts. He was as at one with nature as a human could be.”
Melges credited his Wisconsin training with giving him an edge. “Preparing all of my ventures on Lake Geneva was something that helped me more than anything,” he said in a 2011 interview with Bill Goggins, the chief executive of Harken, a marine supply company. “We brought our mind way in front of the boat.”
Melges made his first run at the America’s Cup in 1987, in Perth, Australia, with the Heart of America syndicate. His team lost, but he became a fan favorite for his theatrical appearances and jokes at news conferences.
It was a call from Koch that gave him a shot at the 1992 Cup. The average age of a Cup skipper then was 38. Melges was 62.
“It took a little work convincing both,” said Jobson. “The combo of Buddy’s brilliance with Koch’s scientific research. They were both from the farmlands of the country competing on the oceans of the world. The two of them were really good.”
His victory against the renowned America’s Cup winner Dennis Conner in the 1992 defender trials catapulted Melges to the pinnacle of the sport, making him and Conner the top two sailors in the United States.
“Buddy was one of the best sailors the world has ever seen,” Conner said by phone on Friday from his home in San Diego. “He will not be matched.”
Melges received the Rolex Yachtsman of the Year award three times and was in the inaugural class of the National Sailing Hall of Fame in 2011. A documentary about his life, “Melges: The Wizard of Zenda,” was released in March.
Melges often went out of his way to mentor American sailors. After his Cup win, Koch recruited him to coach the first all women’s America’s Cup team, Mighty Mary, in 1995.
“In 1992, Buddy fought for me to be on the America Cubed team,” said Dawn Riley, the only female member of that year’s winning Cup team and captain of the 1995 women’s team. “He took the time to show me how the Cup boats work. He said, ‘Darling, let me show you how to steer one of these.'”
Melges is survived by his wife, Gloria Melges; three children, Laura, Hans and Harry Melges III; and seven grandchildren.
Today, the family name is synonymous with competitive sailing. Harry III runs Melges Performance Sailboats, the successor to Buddy Melges’s Wisconsin boatbuilding company, and his grandson Harry IV is on the US Olympic Sailing Team.
Melges won his last championship, the Inland Lake Yachting Association A Scow Championship, at 80.
His humble personality endeared him to the sailing community.
“He was respectful and interested in other people,” said Dellenbaugh, his team member in the ’92 Cup race. “Not like the other top sailors of the day, who felt like they had to have all the answers. He was very much at everyone’s level, though he was a level above.”