Supersailor and a soup tureen

Wisconsin's Buddy Melges achieved the seemingly impossible when he won the Mallory Cup three times, but now he is passing up a fourth chance in order to prepare himself for the 1964 Olympics
August 26, 1962

A century and a half ago, in appreciation of services rendered at the Nile, the Sultan of Egypt presented to Lord Nelson a seven-pound, curlicued, solid silver soup tureen. Full of soup, this impressive memento weighs 18 pounds, but it is rarely used for this utilitarian purpose. To sailors all over North America it is known as the Mallory Cup, after Clifford D. Mallory, founder of the North American Yacht Racing Union, whose family in 1952 put it up as a prize for the best small-boat sailor on the continent.

As a piece of silver, the Mallory Cup is 39 years older than the America's Cup; as a trophy, it is equally or more difficult to win. Winning it three times in a row means bucking outlandish odds, for Mallory Cup competition is not designed for repeat winners. A lengthy elimination series in eight geographical areas of the U.S. and Canada decides the eight finalists, who then must meet in an eight-race, round-robin regatta. The type of boat used is changed each year; the actual boats must change hands daily to assure that it is the sailor, not the boat, that wins the series. So far, in 10 years, seven sailors have taken the cup home, but for the last three years it has not budged from a living room in Lake Geneva, Wis., where it is the proud centerpiece for a family of three—Harry C. Melges Jr., 32 (a young man who likes chocolate milk and hamburgers more than he does soup), his wife, Gloria, and Laura, their blonde baby daughter, who fits neatly into the cup.

That Harry Melges, whose friends call him Buddy, should have won the cup even once is surprising. In a sport whose protagonists are traditionally stereotyped as mellowed and wealthy eastern sportsmen, he is a decided anomaly, a hometown boy as mid western as corn, cabbages or flies in the summer. Buddy Melges began saving up for a sailboat when he was only 5 years old by rowing passengers around the lake for 10¢ a trip. Today he supervises the activities of the Melges boat works, which turns out the famous Melges sailing scows, and acts as a one-man traveling advertising agency for the boats produced there. In addition, he heads up the junior sailing school on the lake, hunts ducks along its shores, races iceboats on its frozen winter surface and, between sailing and family, remains an unpretentious local boy. "He don't even talk about sailing," says Mr. Macuba, who cuts Melges' hair in Dell's Barber Shop downtown. "And he waits his turn in the chair same as everyone else."

Patience is a virtue Melges possesses in abundance; sailing superiority did not come easily. It was achieved through discipline as solid as his Dutch ancestry, as gradually as learning to read. "Every time I get into a sailboat I learn something," he says candidly, and he means it. His classroom, as a boy, was Lake Geneva. His first teacher was his father, a stern Dutch taskmaster who had built and raced boats all his life and who took notes on his son's tactics in every race. After each race there would be an examination. "Why did you tack here? Why didn't you trim there?" Melges Sr. would demand. Melges Jr. would have to come up with an answer.

On June 15, 1946 the examinations really began to pay off. The first boat ever built by the Melges firm, a 20-foot Class C scow named Widgeon (after a wary, unpredictable duck), had been launched the night before. "We sneaked it down to the lake when no one was around," Melges says now. "We'd been working on that design for almost a year, but we really didn't know what we had until we actually put it in the water." That day, the opening of the season, their wary, unpredictable duck, with Buddy Melges at the helm, flew home ahead of every other boat. Eleven races later, with 10 more first places, Melges had won his first Lake Geneva sailing championship.

The pupil was also learning the finer points of his subject, like the value quotient of soggy matches. On the downwind leg of one race, Melges stuck a cigarette in his mouth, and his nearest competitor, looking over, saw him futilely trying to light it. As match after match was tossed aside the competitor grew more and more fascinated with Melges' efforts to get a light and less and less concerned with the trim of his own sails. Melges never did get the cigarette lighted, but he won the race. His competitor's spinnaker had collapsed for lack of attention.

Five years later Harry Melges, the boat works, was in full bloom, and Harry Melges, the sailor, also was blossoming in a big way. But in September 1951, Sailorman Buddy Melges became a soldier in the U.S. Army. Eight months later he landed in Korea. He didn't sail again for two years.

"But the day I got out," he now recalls with emphasis, "I was back working in the shop." The boat works had grown in his absence. Orders were pouring in faster than they could be filled. Buddy Melges began a service that has become a hallmark of the firm. Between June and September 1954 he put well over 30,000 miles on his car, traveling to distant regattas to tune up boats, service them in any way possible and offer tactical suggestions to their skippers. "Customers or competitors, it makes no difference," he says. "You never know when a competitor is going to become a paying customer."

He also got married and, with the coaching of his wife Gloria, who is herself a first-class sailor, began sharpening the competitive sailing edge that had dulled through inactivity. By the following summer that edge was keen enough to win the right to represent the Inland Lake Yachting Association at the 1956 Area Six Eliminations for the Mallory Cup in Chicago.

So far, all of Melges' victories had been in his own scows; now things were about to change. The boat selected was a Luders L-16, chosen because it resembled the Blanchard Seniors that were to be used in the finals in Seattle. Melges had hardly ever been aboard a keel boat, much less raced one. But, with Gloria as crew, he won the first four races, took a second in the fifth and in so doing mathematically eliminated his competition. The rest of the regatta was called off.

Lesson

"We found out we could win easily in a strange boat outside of our own backyard," Melges says. "We were pretty confident going out to Seattle." His confidence was well-founded—he stopped off en route to win his third ILYA championship in the familiar scow, and with it a place in the Mallory eliminations the following year—but in Seattle, Melges discovered he was still a pupil, and that he still had quite a few sailing lessons to attend to. "We got out there against guys like Ted Hood and Bus Mosbacher," he reflects ruefully, "and we really got a lesson in how to handle a sailboat." He finished the series in sixth place.

In 1957, in the area eliminations on Lake Erie in Cleveland, he got enough drive out of a Thistle (another class that was strange to him) to take four firsts and a fourth and once again call a halt to the regatta by mathematically murdering his opposition. The Mallory Cup finals that season were held on the open ocean off Marblehead, Mass. George O'Day taught Melges his lesson this time: the value of getting the most out of a boat sailing downwind.

"I went home," Melges recalls (he again finished sixth), "and decided to find out how to really sail a boat downwind." It took him two years, with iceboat practice through the winters, and in the process Melges almost gave up sailing completely. In 1957 a rival sailor had accused him of gaining unfair advantage in amateur sports by being a professional. The charge hit Melges so forcibly he sold his boats and retired from sailing. "You can make skis and still be an amateur racer," he now says bitterly. "You can make tennis rackets and still play tennis. But I was a boat-builder, so I was supposed to refrain from racing sailboats. I did a lot of duck hunting that year."

After a year's layoff, Melges yielded to the urging of friends and returned to sailing. He borrowed a boat and put his downwind practice to work in the Inland Lake Invitation Regatta at Green Lake, Wis. "We didn't pass a single boat going to weather," he remarks, "but we counted 40 boats falling off going downhill." And six weeks later, on Galveston Bay in Texas, in a Corinthian sloop, a keelboat he still was not familiar with, Buddy Melges came halfway through the fleet to win his first Mallory Cup by a scant quarter of a point.

The following year, 1960, was the zenith year for Melges and the boat works. That September, in Madison, Wis., eight sleek new Melges Class F scows slid into Lake Mendota's waters for the Mallory Cup finals. The eight finest skippers in North America climbed aboard, but this was Buddy Melges' cup of tea and, when the races were ended three days later, the cup had run over: Buddy Melges had amassed the highest total point score in the history of Mallory Cup competition: six first places, one second and one third, for 62½ out of a possible 68 points.

Only one man, Gene Walet III, had ever before won the Mallory Cup twice (SI, Sept. 20, 1954), and it looked for a while as if Melges would be content to share his honors. He was a busy man; the next summer he traveled another 30,000 miles to seven regattas and 20 fleets in eight states and three provinces of Canada, preaching the gospel of Melges boats. When a letter arrived one day informing him that the North American Flying Dutchman championships would be held in August in Chicago, he tried to put it out of his mind. He had never sailed a Dutchman, and he had other things to think about. But that afternoon he was on the telephone trying to borrow a boat. Within a week a Flying Dutchman had arrived from Barnegat Bay, N.J., and four days later Melges was sailing it in the North American championships.

It was a disastrous occasion. He over-stood the weather mark in the first race. His crewman fell out of the trapeze into the water in the second. He broke his centerboard in the last race—and finished the series a poor sixth. The Mallory Cup finals in Montreal were only one month away.

"I didn't have any hallucinations about walking away with it this time," Melges says. "They were using Dragons, and I'd never sailed a Dragon. Mosbacher and McNamara, those keel boat hotshots, were up there waiting for me." At Montreal, when Mosbacher saw him, he only grinned. "You here again, Melges?" he queried. Sheepishly, Melges replied, "I just snuck in the back door."

Melges indeed had to sneak in the back door to win. At the end of the fifth race he was only 2½ points ahead of the keelboat hotshots. The pupil, however, had finally become a teacher, and with the cautious, steady sailing which by now had become his specialty, he never let his Dragon fall behind. ("We're not spectacular sailors," he says. "We're Minnesota-football-type sailors, slow and steady, and we grind out every yard.") Three days later Buddy Melges, the unlikely and unspectacular master from Lake Geneva, had accomplished the most improbable achievement in North American sailing.

But the defeat in the Dutchman gnawed at him and continued to do so through the winter and spring. The old soup tureen will be on hand when the Mallory Cup championships get under way at Newport Harbor, Calif, next month, but, for the first time in five years, Buddy Melges will not. He has been sailing a borrowed Flying Dutchman on Lake Geneva this summer. He has his eye on the 1964 Olympics and he has his Dutch up. His reasons are more than personal. "It made me feel great when our track guys beat the Russians," he said recently. "If we're going to do it in sailing, in Tokyo, it's gonna take a supreme effort. We're getting our own boat in September. It'll be an American boat, with American sails, and when we get it we're going to go out and sail it every single damn day! By Christmas! We've got a lot to learn!"

PHOTOPARENTS LOOK ON AS LAURA PLAYS IN CUP NELSON GOT CENTURY AND HALF AGO PHOTOSCOWMAN MELGES (AT TILLER) AND CREW HEAD DOWNWIND IN LIGHT BLOW

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)