HE IS NO PRISONER OF ZENDA

Zenda, Wis. may seem an unlikely home base for an Olympic sailing ace, but that is where Buddy Melges first distinguished scows from cows
August 05, 1973

When the Soling, a nifty sloop of Norwegian origin, was picked as one of the classes for last summer's Olympics, many wise old owls and aspiring pussycats hopped aboard the new design to try for the gold medal. In the final U.S. Olympic Trials alone there were a dozen skippers who had won national or international titles in 18 classes. Of all the Americans lured into the Soling class, the logical favorite to win the Olympic berth was 43-year-old Harry (Buddy) Melges Jr., a lake-bred Wisconsin skipper of utter devotion and wayward heart. When it comes to jumping from one kind of boat to another, Melges (pronounced Mel-gus), the middle-aged boyish wonder of Wisconsin, has few peers. Be it a mere cockleshell or a big mussel craft matters not. If a hull is alive, alive-o, Melges can make it go.

Abetted by his crew, Bill Bentsen and Bill Allen, Melges did win the U.S. Soling trials on San Francisco Bay according to form and went on to win the Olympics at Kiel, Germany. His victory, though not surprising, was far from cut and dried. Summed up, Melges' quest for the gold medal began as a nightmare in the Trials and ended up as a rout at Kiel.

In the first race of the Trials, deceived by the tide, Melges ran into the starting buoy and also failed to lay the windward mark twice. In the course of the race he went from first to dead last, up to second, back to 18 and finished fifth. Anyone who can wander through a classy field so erratically is no ordinary performer. He is a peculiar genius, a stop-and-go Silky Sullivan more to be admired than scorned. Never one to rest on ambiguous laurels, in the second race of the Trials Melges did far worse. He cleared the windward mark second, but before the boat got humping on the reach, the 35-knot wind carried away his mast. Since by the rules Melges could throw out his worst race, he still had a chance and made much of it. In the remainder of the series he took three firsts and two seconds to win by 11.7 points over Lowell North, the 1968 Olympic Star champion.

At the Olympics on Kiel Bay the Soling skippers from 22 countries got in only six races in soft, dragging air. The cancellation of the seventh race mattered little. At that point, with three firsts, a second, a third and a fourth, Melges was leading Stig Wennerstrom of Sweden, the 1970 Soling world champion, by 23 points and already had the gold medal mathematically in his pocket.

A fortnight ago Melges was at it again. He crewed in the 5.5-meter sloop of Houston's Ernest Fay in two major regattas in Swedish waters, the Scandinavian Gold Cup and the world 5.5 championship. This redoubtable pair won the former with a sweep of three first places and the latter with three firsts, a third, a fourth and a fifth. Next Melges hops back into his own Soling for the North American championship at Toronto, a Canadian Olympic series at Kingston and the fight for the world Soling title, which will take place off Australia in January 1974.

In 30 years of hard, if spasmodic, sailing on lakes and on the sea, in light and heavy going, in the best of summer and the worst of winter, Melges has won high honors in a dozen classes of centerboarders and bilgeboarders, keelboats and iceboats. "The object of the game in any boat is to keep the sails ventilated and the hull moving," says Melges, and he should know, since he plays the game well, not only in featherweight hulls that slug along at 12 knots and scows that hit 30, but also in two-ton iceboats that can scorch it at 80 knots and better.

In the late '50s and early '60s, before he became too involved paying higher taxes, being a proper parent and tilting at Olympic windmills, Melges tried five times for the Mallory Cup, an old tureen that is symbolic of small-boat supremacy in the U.S. and Canada. In his Mallory quests he set a record, winning his regional round each time and the finals thrice. It was a remarkable performance considering that he had never sailed in, much less raced, a Thistle, a Blanchard Senior, a Corinthian, a Crescent, a Luders 16 or a Dragon—six of the seven classes involved in his Mallory campaign. In 1960, when the Mallory finals were sailed in E scows, the beloved skimming dishes of the inland lakes where he began, Melges sacked his rivals as the Goths did Rome, ringing up six firsts, a second and a third. In 1961, largely because of his scattered genius in Mallory competition, Melges was voted the Martini & Rossi sailor of the year—the first such award. Last year, for his Olympic win in the Soling class, he was again selected as the Martini & Rossi man. a fitting tribute since Melges is very partial to martinis and probably would not decline a Rossi if offered one.

Although he thrives on racing, Melges has proved he can live without it. His sailing career has suffered a number of interruptions, some unavoidable, some self-inflicted. The longest nonsailing period of his life was imposed by his parents, who mollycoddled him ever so lightly when he was a tot. His father, Harry Melges Sr., has always been an outdoors-man—a master boatwright by trade and a racing skipper, angler, wildfowler and upland game hunter by preoccupation. Although the senior Melges was eager to pass his talent and loves on to his son, he was not the kind who would push a child into anything before he was half ready for it.

Melges was 10 when he sailed his first race in a Class X boat, a popular junior class on inland lakes. But within a year his career suffered its first serious hiatus—World War II. Inland racing for seniors stopped, and junior competition virtually ceased. The senior sailors went to sea and the artisans who built fine racing hulls went to more vital jobs.

During the war Melges' father signed on as field manager of a chicken farm. For a man who handcrafted exquisite sailing scows of oak, Sitka spruce and white cedar, switching to the poultry business was merely a profitable comedown, somewhat like quitting the Stradivarius Violin Works to take a better paying job in a Grand Rapids furniture factory. As soon as the war was over the elder Melges went back to boatbuilding.

The first craft produced after the war by the new Melges Boat Works were flat-bottomed rowboats, good for lake fishing and little else. The elder Melges started with this undistinguished line in order to meet his payroll and keep creditors at bay. As soon as he had a little running room, he began making C scows. The first C scow off the form went to his son, age 16. In the late '40s, in C scows and E scows, Buddy Melges did very well on the inland circuit. With back-to-back titles in the C scow in 1949 and 1950, he was riding high when his career was again interrupted, this time by the Korean War.

Melges is not the sort of sporting soul who is easily contained, in war or peace. With no chance to sail during his Korean hitch he fell back on other sports. While learning artillery survey and fire control he played on the Fort Sill basketball team. At supply school on the Japanese island of Eta-Jima he played on the baseball team. When his howitzer battalion moved up to the fluid front, if any engineer in his outfit had bothered to lay out a football field, Buddy Melges, the old Lake Geneva High School gridster, would have been on it, taking his knocks.

Toward the end of his combat tour Melges kept sane mainly by hunting pheasant with a mediocre over-and-under shotgun a crony had picked up at a PX in Seoul. Because the farmlands in his sector of Korea had been largely abandoned, game birds abounded. By simply taking a position on the elevated rubble of a building, like a Scottish laird armed with a Purdy on a stand, he often bagged half a dozen pheasant rising from the overgrowth of grass and cane. "The hunting was easy," Melges says, "but I am not an Arkansas hunter. I never ground-swatted a bird in Korea. I took them all on the rise." His pheasant hunting in Korea was better than he had known with his father back home, albeit more chancy. Before going hunting he always checked the battalion fire-control center to see if any new minefields had been laid down on the perimeter. It also occurred to him that while he stood atop the ruins of a building with gun at the ready an infiltrating North Korean would have no qualms about ground-swatting him in unsporting style. He simply considered the game worth the risk. On one occasion a rolling barrage from enemy mortars walked past his stand, but not close enough—he now reports almost in disappointment—to put up any birds from the cane surrounding him.

Once while roaming for pheasant, Melges found a slough where mallards settled in on the very edge of night. Although the wild-fowling proved poor compared to pheasant shooting, it was a good secondary diversion. "When he is fighting a war a man cannot live by pheasant alone," Melges points out. "He needs a little dark duck meat to keep going."

Half a year after his military discharge, while Melges was working on hull plans with his father back at the family boat yard, an Army colonel in uniform entered and asked if he was Harry demons Melges Jr., former sergeant, Army of the United States. Although in all the details of sailing—the blueprintery of a hull, the cut of a sail, the tactics of rivals in a race—Melges has excellent recall, his memory of most other matters has more holes than a kitchen strainer. By the sheer luck of it, when accosted by the colonel, Melges did remember his own name and his former rank, and even part of his serial number. Satisfied that he had the right man, the colonel then proceeded to read a citation for the Bronze Star. "I don't remember the exact citation," Melges, the great forgetter, now reports, "but it was something about meritorious service." His battalion had caught only routine fury from the enemy, and he cannot recall having personally done anything very valorous. He suspects the Bronze Star had some connection with his spectacular pheasant dinners.

On one of his last sailing sprees on Lake Michigan before going to war, Melges met Gloria Wenzel. When he returned from Korea he asked for her hand, and they were soon married. Melges maintains it was Gloria's beauty and charm that attracted him and not at all the fact that she had quite a reputation on the Chicago waterfront as an able sailor in class boats and cruising competition. His claim is credible, since a skipper selecting a woman for his crew—by marrying her or any less binding arrangement—must consider not only her experience and brains but also her deadweight. Although Gloria Melges has often crewed for her husband well, notably in scows in light air and also in heavy going that calls for a third hand to fill the weight allowance (she weighs 125), most often she has had to stay on the beach.

The third major hiatus in Melges' career came in 1958, when he quit racing for a year in a righteous huff. After making the Mallory Cup finals in 1956 and 1957 and finishing sixth each time against such masters as Cox, Mosbacher, Ficker, Hood, Morgan and O'Day, Melges was eager for a third try, but back home he got a low blow from an old scow rival and friend. His friend—who in this account will be known as John Q. Nitpicker—protested the participation of Melges and three other skippers in competitions of the Inland Lake Yachting Association because they made boats and sails for a living. "The night before I heard about the protest," Melges recalls in disgust, "the man who made it was in my own home drinking my soda pop." Melges could have continued racing scows until the protest was ruled on, and could have raced other classes regardless, but he did neither. When the protest finally was dismissed, he returned in slam-bang style, winning three Mallory titles in a row.

A month before he won his last Mallory sailing a Dragon, Melges hopped into another class, the Flying Dutchman, with an eye to the Tokyo Olympics three years away. In 1962, his first full year in a Dutchman, he won four of five regional events. The next year he did better, thanks to freakish weather and the devotion of his crewman, Bill Bentsen. For some curious reason the west end of Lake Geneva—Melges' proving ground—did not freeze over in the winter of 1962-63, so Melges and Bentsen could keep working out in a soft-water hull. Although Bentsen is a complicated deep-thinker encumbered with a doctorate in economics, he swung through the Wisconsin winter in 10° air on the hiking trapeze of Melges' Flying Dutchman with the singlemindedness of a Barnum ape.

With Bentsen loyally swinging for him, Melges won the North American title in 1963, the bronze medal at the 1964 Olympics, then two consecutive national titles in 1966 and 1967 and the gold medal at the 1967 Pan-American Games on Canada's Lake Winnipeg. His Pan-American performance was highlighted by the most bizarre race of his career—a disastrous event now rated in yachting annals as the Little Big Horn of the Flying Dutchman class. In winds climbing from 20 to over 40 knots, the Barbados boat blew out her jib on the way to the start. The Mexican hull capsized on the first windward leg, recovered, then retired with her traveler pulled loose. The Brazilian boat broke her rudder on the first reach. Puerto Rico capsized at the jibing mark and bowed out. Jamaica capsized four times before retiring. Broaching at the leeward marks, the Virgin Island boat lost the covers to her buoyancy tanks and was blown a mile off course before getting back afloat. The Canadian boat sprung her mast but struggled on, finally broaching on the downwind leg. Melges capsized once and knocked his mast akilter. By the time he crossed the finish with a jib sheet rigged as a mast shroud, the rest of the fleet had been wiped out. He was all by himself.

Melges finished the summer of 1967 by competing in the world championships at Montreal. Then—with another Olympics only a year off—he abruptly quit the Flying Dutchman class. He has never sailed in it since, nor is he inclined to. Because his ninth place in the world meet at Montreal was his worst showing in major competition in any class, his quitting looked like sour grapes. It was, in fact, another case of honest disgust. By international rules a racing crew cannot use any power except "the natural action of the wind on the sails." Paddling, sculling with the rudder, moving from side to side to rock the boat, shifting weight fore and aft to "ooch" the hull along are all expressly forbidden. Yet in dead air at the world championships of 1967 Melges saw a number of top contenders fudging on the rules. As he lay windless near the jibing mark in one race another sailor passed him, sculling with his rudder. "Would you like to borrow a paddle?" Melges shouted. His sarcasm was wasted. The sculler replied, "Do you have one?"

There is one certain way to beat Buddy Melges in a sailing race. All you have to do is get a dozen ducks and train them to fly in a circle formation rather than a normal wedge. If you then get the ducks to head south over the starting line of a race when they should be going north, Melges will come unglued. As if a total addiction to sailing were not enough, Melges suffers from waterfowl on the brain. His most persistent and successful sailing rival, Bruce Goldsmith of Chicago, observes, "If you get Buddy when he is tense right before a series he either won't talk to you at all or he'll talk about ducks—and he'll talk your head off about ducks."

When he quit the Flying Dutchman class Melges was hardly at a loss. By then he was a man of many parts. He had always enjoyed the boatbuilding business his father began and the sail loft he himself had started in the same small cornfield town of Zenda, Wis. He is as devoted as ever to all the classes of scows he has sailed, and he remains very loyal to Ferdinand, his 3,800-pound iceboat that throws him from its cockpit now and again in spin-outs at 60 mph. Leaving a spinning iceboat that may pitchpole at high speed is not recommended, but Melges pooh-poohs the risk. Each time Ferdinand has thrown him, Melges has traveled through the air in a flat trajectory, striking the ice obliquely and sliding for 50 yards or more.

In the two years between quitting the Dutchman and getting aboard a Soling, Melges took on another love: he paid $125 for a Labrador puppy named Oscar. Part of the time he would have spent working out in a Dutchman for the 1968 Olympics he devoted to training Oscar to be his boon companion and a field trial contender.

When Melges produces a batch of ribbons won by Oscar, it is best to be impressed. Oscar's prizes mean a great deal to Melges and they actually stand for a lot. Two years after he started training the puppy, Melges was offered $10,000 for him. At the time the Melges family lived in a house overlooking Lake Geneva and were trying to ante up enough for a place right on the water. Gloria Melges idly pointed out one day that if they cashed Oscar in for 10 grand, their waterfront financing problem would be largely solved. Melges countered, "Why don't we sell one of our children?"

Melges today is as steeped as ever in sailing—but blessed still with a capacity to abstain. He was recently offered the helm of a 12-meter boat for the coming defense of the America's Cup. The challenge appealed to him but he declined, mainly because an America's Cup trials, extravagantly prolonged and blighted with foofaraw, would not fit in with the lasting loves of his life. In a U.S. Olympic Trials in any class, or a Mallory quest, a sailor gets better competition than most cup trials offer. And Melges lives on competition.

Melges plans to keep sailing a Soling and the inland scows, where quality competition is guaranteed. The A scow, born nearly 80 years ago, is the oldest and still the fastest class of monohull in existence. The smaller E scows and C scows in which he usually competes are both more than 45 years old. At an advanced age when many classes of boats die out, the scows are proliferating. Since World War 11 they have spread from the glacier-pocked regions of Minnesota and Wisconsin and the Jersey bays to man-made lakes across the Corn Belt, the South and the Southwest. Melges rejoices at the prosperity of the scows on two counts. He makes scows, and the scows made him. As he puts it, "The scows have an ugly-sounding name, and maybe they are not much for looks, but there are a lot of beautiful sailing lessons built into them." There must be.

ILLUSTRATIONBUILDER/HELMSMAN Melges enjoys a rail-down thrash on Lake Geneva in an M-20 scow. ILLUSTRATION
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)