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.