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Sailing legend Buddy Melges reflects on Wisconsin roots

March 25, 2014 | 04:20 PM
FONTANA — The ice covering Geneva Lake’s Fontana Bay is about two feet thick and honeycombed with small gaps beneath a crystal crust that is slowly receding. The spring equinox has come and gone, but the lake remains frozen and dozens of ice boats are idle on the bay, their sails slack and their runners sharp.

The old sailor bounces between boats running his hand along the masts — their owners don’t mind, he’s been mentoring and racing them for years. The conditions are near ideal for this time of year, he says.

Iceboating requires a smooth, snowless surface. For late March, this is about as good as it gets.

But it’s a sunny Friday afternoon, and he was hoping for overcast skies to keep the ice hard.

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Without looking, he points between two hills east of the bay, decades of experience guiding his hand.

“The wind is coming from over there,” he says.

He’s spot on.

The man has enyclopedic knowledge of sailing. But it goes deeper than that. He’s not spewing empty technical jargon, and he didn’t learn it from a book. He has his own language to describe the complex and abstract geometry of sailing. Angles, boat mechanics, design and physics. He’s condensing a Bachelor of Science degree into a 10 minute conversation before lunch. He’s brimming with enthusiasm for a hobby he’s had since five years before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

He doesn’t leave a beat to be skipped. He knows everyone and walks briskly from conversation to conversation. The boaters ask him for advice, and he challenges them to races.

He’s the “Wizard of Zenda,” the grand master of competitive sailing. The rival of billionaire Ted Turner and yachtsman Dennis Conner, known by some as “Mr. America’s Cup.”

Born Harry C. Melges Jr., his adopted name is “Buddy,” and it suits his personality.

Over the course of his lifetime, he has compiled more than 120 state, national and international accolades. His wife, Gloria, would know how many for sure, he said. He has trouble keeping track.

He won Olympic bronze in 1964 (Flying Dutchman class) and then gold in ‘72 (Soiling class). He’s in the America’s Cup Hall of Fame. He’s sailed San Francisco Bay and raced off the coast of New Zealand. Australia. Germany. South America. Japan.

He has a famous name and list of honors deeper than the lake he’s standing on. He’s been a world and national champion since the 1950s.

But he’s not concerned with all that.

Brushing aside his racing past, I asked big questions and he answered with small details. He learned his craft wave by wave on lakes too narrow to accommodate the massive regattas that won him international fame.

He’s a Wisconsin boy who sailed the world and couldn’t find a reason to leave, but he named plenty to stay.

Among them: Four seasons. Good ice. Ducks to hunt. Waters to sail.

Before all his medals and trophies were won, he was a 6-year-old boy learning to sail on Delavan Lake. He’s now an 84-year-old boy and he’s still learning.

“That’s why you can enjoy sailing from 8 to 80,” he said. Every lake, every boat and every day changes what he knows.

Wisconsin roots

Over a Stella Artois beer at Chuck’s Lakeshore Inn, Fontana, Melges recalled his first boat — a dinghy he learned to sail on Delavan Lake.

“That was my mode of transportation,” he said. “I didn’t have a bicycle, so if I wanted to go across Delavan Lake, I was either going to swim or sail. And my father wanted me to sail, so he scrounged and we got a dinghy and that was my way.”

Melges was 6 years old when his sailing career began, he said. He sold rides around the Delavan Lake for 10 cents apiece. He saved nickles and dimes for two years to pay for improvements to the boat.

For the first 10 years of Melges’ life, his father, Harry Sr., worked for the Palmer Boat Co. in Fontana, building scow boats — a type of sailboat common around the inner lakes of Wisconsin. Melges couldn’t help getting into more detail.

The boats were designed to hit a sharp line with the weight of the crew leaning on one side keeping only half the boat on the water at a time, he said. Scows would become the signature boat of Melges Boat Works, a company that had not yet formed.

“What you had between your ears and in your backside kept your boat on her lines,” Melges said of the scows. “And when you could keep the boat on a hair line, boy you were fast.”

Melges said racing scows were the fastest boats in the world at the time — it would take 20 years of development for catamarans to surpass them as the premiere racing boat, he said.

But in the early 1940s, war halted boat sales for Harry Sr.

“WWII came along, and it just turned the light switch off on anyone buying boats,” Melges said.

His father went to work for local businessman William Grunow, who had been raising chickens in batteries and shipping them in large quantities to Chicago. Chicken was a hot commodity during wartime meat rationing.

“You couldn’t buy steak and stuff like that because it was all going to the Army,” Melges said.

Between 1944-45, they were sending seven semitrailers filled with chickens to Chicago daily, he said.

And Harry Sr. used the money he made working for Grunow to found Megles Boat Works in 1946 — a small boat company based in Zenda.

“We built nothing but scow-type boats,” Melges said. “And I was fortunate to have the first boat ever built in Zenda.”

Melges and a friend crewed the first boat his father’s company produced in a regatta near Cedar Lake the same year the company was founded. And there were more than bragging rights on the line — a top finish would attract buyers, something the new-born Melges Boat Works needed to get off the ground.

“We weren’t doing too good in the first few races,” Melges laughed. “And my father at that time, he was 46-years-old. He kicked my crew off and got on the boat with me. And here I am, 16 years old, and he’s yelling in my ear about how to sail faster.”

There were around 80 boats on the lake, and it was so narrow from side to side that you could throw a tennis ball across it, Melges said.

“We sailed right through the whole fleet and got second in the race,” he said. “And father, after another two days of very successful sailing, he was signing orders for boats. It was truly an experience for me.”

It would jump start one of the most celebrated competitive sailing careers of the 20th century.

A helluva life

I leaned over the table at Chuck’s and asked Melges a question I felt I already knew the answer to: “Was there ever anything else you wanted to do?”

He answered with a question: Would I want to spend the rest of my life doing what I am most passionate about?

“Wouldn’t you like to do that every day of your life?” he asked.

“If you enjoy, truly enjoy, what you do, you put so much more into it,” he said.

Melges sails year-round on ice and open water, he competes in pick-up races and the occasional regatta. He hunts ducks in the fall with his labrador, whom he described as a “good citizen” who gets the paper every morning.

“I don’t have to shoot every duck that flies by,” he said. “But I sure like to watch them fly by. And I try to understand them more, and how I can maybe benefit their life and habitat. That, to me, is also very critical.

“It’s a good life when you’re outdoors and able to make a livelihood from your hobbies,” he said.

The Lake Geneva Yacht Club and Lake Geneva Sailing School have come together to build a new facility: the Buddy Melges Sailing Center, a place to teach kids to sail.

“I enjoy now trying to help other people who enjoy the sport as much as I have,” Melges said. “We’re working with the youth ... what better place to have your child than on the water learning about Mother Nature?”

His sons are avid sailors and hunters. His grandson, Harry IV, is in Colorado training in the junior Olympic ski program, he said. He’s proud of his kids and the parents they became. He’s proud to see them pursuing their own passions.

“It’s a helluva life,” he said.

Did he ever thinking about leaving Wisconsin?

“Why would you ever want to?” he asked.


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