afternoon in March the clubhouse bar at the Coral Reef Yacht Club was packed.
An impressive international field of 79 Star sailors—the elite of sailing's
elite—had converged on Florida's Biscayne Bay to race in the Bacardi Cup, and
after the first day of competition, most were shifting gears, from racing to
In the midst of a
large, convivial group sat the day's winner, Harry (Buddy) Melges. At his left
was Ted Turner, who had stopped by to join him in a celebratory glass. Clearly
enjoying himself, Melges described the day's race tack by tack. The bulldog
features of his etched, squarish face broke into a contented grin as he told
how he and his crew, John Dane, had easily won, their black-hulled Quest
seizing a commanding 25-second lead halfway through the six-leg race. With his
chunky build, cropped white hair and red shorts, the 53-year-old Melges looked
more like a contented businessman on vacation than the winner of the first of
six highly competitive races. All around him, the jokes and the alcohol
Out behind the
clubhouse, as darkness fell, there was a marked lack of festivity. The Stars
had been brought ashore back there, and Andrew Menkart, 23, was hard at work.
He had finished a respectable 13th that day, but he was anything but satisfied.
Tall and tanned, lean and serious, Menkart bent over his boat. Unhappy with its
speed, he had decided to move the mast a few inches forward and realign the
shroud position. As the sun went down, Menkart, pliers in hand, made minute
Over the next
week of racing, the Bacardi would come down to a confrontation between these
two, the jovial veteran, Melges, and the meticulous young man, Menkart. Two
more dissimilar sailors could scarcely be imagined.
Melges is what
opponents call an old fox: He has been sailing for 47 of his 53 years and
winning trophies for well over 30 of them, in A, C and E Scows, Solings, Stars,
Dragons, Flying Dutchmen and Ice Boats. He has won the North American men's
championship (or Mallory Cup) for three years running (1959-61); the National E
Scow Championship in 1965, '69, '78 and '79; a bronze medal at the 1964
Olympics in a Flying Dutchman; a gold at the '72 Olympics in a Soling (the most
recent sailing victory in the Games by an American); the Star World
Championship in 1978 and '79; the One-Design Sailor of the Year Award in 1978
and '79; and the Martini & Rossi Trophy as the best U.S. racing sailor in
1961, '72 and '78.
What is it that
makes Melges so successful, and in so many classes? According to his wife,
Gloria, herself a crack sailor, "Buddy's a seat-of-the-pants sailor—a
natural." Crewman Dane concurs, saying: "Buddy's not a mathematician.
He plays everything by feel. I mark my shrouds—he doesn't. He doesn't have to
go back to numbers. He goes after the wind—he's attentive to little wind puffs,
from years of lake sailing on Lake Geneva, down by where he lives in Wisconsin.
He calls it 'finding the gas pedal.' And Buddy never goes sailing against
anyone else. He just goes off on his own and tries to make the boat feel fast.
He never worries where the other boats are, he's that confident of his own
former executive director of the Star class, concurs: "Melges is one of the
best sailors there is. He has the overall boat knowledge. For example, he
doesn't spend much time training in Stars, but his talent is incredible. You
can see the years and years of experience."
himself has been concerned about a lack of recent training: He feels he has
been doing too much recreational and not enough really competitive sailing.
"I haven't trained seriously in six years," he says. To be sure, work
has been taking up a lot of his time. He runs three boating businesses—Melges
Boat Works, a sail loft and a spar shop, producing hulls, sails and spars. An
estimated dozen of the Stars competing for the Bacardi Cup were built by
Melges. And raising three children, including, of course, teaching them all to
sail, has taken many hours. (He intends to try out for the 1984 Olympics in the
Soling class with his sons Hans, 17, and Harry, 19, as crew.) As an all-round
outdoorsman Melges also must fit in time for duck hunting and training Labrador
When it comes to
competing in a class like the Star—one of the largest, with almost 7,000 boats
based in 27 countries, and considered one of the most demanding—Melges
especially feels that lack of training. "I've been sailing a long time, and
of course that works in my favor," he says. "But the young sailors now
are much more highly, specially trained than when I grew up. They have an early
expertise and ability to achieve far beyond what we had. You see, we're not
driving model A Fords anymore. And Herschel Walker—he learned from what Jimmy
Taylor did at LSU 20 years ago. He watched the films, he learned the moves, he
built on that."
In a way, Melges
believes that sailing is evolving beyond him, and he's not altogether happy
with the professional dedication and training of the young in a sport that was
once amateur in every sense of the word. "Nowadays they put such intense
work into it," says Melges. "They take time off from college, time off
from work, to train. I can't do that. I have to support a family and run three
businesses. Well, I have a heartfelt sympathy for the amateur athlete. But the
true amateur in Olympic classes is a thing of the past."