"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 62� 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 2� 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.