RIP, Buddy

Harry “Buddy” Melges, one of the greatest sailing racers ever, has passed at 93 after passing down a legacy that has reached down even to those learning how to sail.

I got into sailboat racing when Buddy Melges was a household name in racing circles. From Zenda, Wisconsin, Melges (pronounced with a hard “g”) was super successful in a variety of boat types and also influential – and consequential – in sailboat design.

IN THAT PIC: Melges in ’53 after returning from combat in Korea with a Bronze Star. Of course, he went on to win the coveted Star World Championships twice. Once is impressive enough.

I’ll leave the more general obituary to others (several are linked to at the end of the post, along with a photo biopic from a local paper). Here, I’ll talk about him from a racing perspective.

He was a scow sailor. What does that mean? Scows are type of very flat, wide, lake boat. Scow racing is very competitive in many lake areas of the US. Melges came up, so to speak, on scows, and was one of the most successful scow racers in history. He was particularly successful in the E scow, winning the nationals 5 times. I’ve never sailed one, but reading about Melges back in the day made me curious to try.

He also raced both dinghies and keelboats. He medaled in two Olympiads: the Flying Dutchman in 1964, and the Soling in 1972. The FD was the “heavyweight” 2-man sloop rigged dinghy with main, genoa and spinnaker, and it was a beast to sail. Paul Elvström and Ted Turner were two competitive FD sailors, to give some perspective on the talent in that class. (Neither won an Olympic medal in one.)

IN THAT PIC: Melges helming, and hiking, with his venerable crewman Bill Bentsen. This is a Flying Dutchman, the largest Olympic dinghy and perhaps the largest one period. While no longer in the Olympics, it’s still a popular class. These guys won Bronze in the 1968 Olympiad.

The Soling? The 3-man Olympic keelboat, also sloop rigged, with main, jib and spinnaker. I have a lot of time on Solings, although much of it was learning to sail and race when younger and, later, teaching both sailing and racing. I did sail in an East Coast Championship once as crew. Who did Melges beat in the 1972 Olympiad, amongst others? Paul Elvström, arguably the greatest racing sailor in history. (The Great Dane didn’t do very well in ’72, coming in 13th.)

But wait – there’s more! Melges also championed in the Star class, another sloop rigged Olympic keelboat (2 person; main and jib; no spinnaker). He won the World’s twice in that class. Who else is a sailing household name with fame in the Star? Dennis Connor of America’s Cup lore.

IN THAT PIC: The 1992 Americas Cup. Melges co-skippered with Dave Dellenbaugh and syndicate chief Bill Koch. That’s almost certainly Melges at the helm in the red jacket and white cap.

And, then, there’s the America’s Cup. Melges won that in 1992! Co-skippering, to be clear, with Bill Koch and David Dellenbaugh, but an integral part of the team. And, to win the right to defend the Cup, they had to defeat Dennis Connor, the name most synonymous with the America’s Cup. Melges was in his 60’s at the time, when the average age of an AmCup skipper was more like 38. Decades later, he said this:

“It’s nice to win the America’s Cup, but I’ll take an Olympic medal.”

Harry “Buddy” Melges, c0mparing winning Olympic Bronze and Gold to winning the America’s Cup. He did all three, and was more impressed with his Olympic successes.

Taking a few steps back in time from the America’s Cup, I realize I overlooked some of his successes. He won the Skeeter Ice Boat World Championships 7 times, and the 5.5 Metre keelboat class World’s 3 times. Almost more impressively is the fact that these two records, plus the E-Scow record, were all done from the ’50’s through the ’80s. Yup. Consistency over a long span of his life.

IN THAT PIC: Melges sailing a Soling with his sons hiking out as crew! I have fond memories of sailing Solings with my dad. Neither of us were in the same universe, much less league, as Melges, but we played the same way.

That record makes Melges one of the most well-rounded and diversely successful sailboat racers in history. At the moment, only Elvström comes to mind as a comparably, or arguably even more, successful overall sailboat racer. (Melges has the ice-boating, giving him a singlehanded class, and the America’s Cup. Elvstrom has the Finn dinghy, the world’s toughest boat to sail, with 4 Olympic golds, and he just missed the bronze in the Tornado catamaran when he was in his 50’s and his teenage daughter was crewing for him. As with Melges, Elvström was a 5.5 Metre champion. Elvström was top tier in the 505 dingy and Dragon keelboat as well. Melges built boats; Elvström built sails. Both businesses continue to thrive.)

Melges had always been into making and tweaking boats. Ultimately, he followed in his father’s footsteps with Melges Boat Works, transitioning and expanding it. After the ’92 Americas Cup, he partnered with renowned naval architects Reichel/Pugh and the Melges 24 was born, with a 32 to follow. The 24 was a true sport boat, super-light and fast AF with an asymmetrical spinnaker to make for more tactical and controlled speeding downwind. It became a very competitive class around the world, supplanting the J/24 (which was succeeded by both the J/80 and J/70).

IN THAT PIC: a Melges 24 racing flat out with main and asymmetrical spinnaker. This sport boat made the older J/24 show its age and ushered in more designs that were better racing platforms.

Melges was nicknamed the Wizard of Zenda, and he co-authored, with Charles Mason, a well-received book on racing called Sailing Smart: Winning Techniques, Tactics and Strategies. If memory serves from the debates from back in the day, Melges believed in something called the “lee bow effect.” Other experts didn’t. I happen to believe that most people misunderstand current, which is what’s involved here, and I always believed Dave Perry’s explanation of why there is no such effect (which he credits Peter Isler explaining patiently to him for over a year until he “got it.”).

The lee bow effect argues that, if the current is basically head-on to a boat sailing upwind, meaning it’s also sailing directly into the current, that the boat could pinch slightly (head up toward the wind) to get the current onto its leeward, or downwind, side. That, in turn would push the boat further to windward, more than offsetting the loss by going a little too close to the wind.

IN THAT PIC: Melges hiking harder than his crew – unusual to see. Reminds me of… Elvström! (He liked to steer from the trapeze sometimes.) This is a Flying Dutchman.

Never made sense to me. Set a fleet of boats adrift with no wind, but in current. Have them at various angles. They all drift the same way. Start moving them through the water with motors. They all travel exactly straight through the water. What’s different? There’s a ‘wind’ created by the boats moving through Earth’s atmosphere, regardless of current. The current simply changes that angle. But, rotating the boat in the water doesn’t make the boat ‘feel’ the current and react differently, so there’s no advantage to changing the angle of the boat to the path of the current. Boats neither ‘feel’ it nor are ‘deflected’ by it.

Having said all that, my racing success is limited to the local and regional level and nothing to speak of compared to that of Melges (nor to Dave Perry, Laser and Soling champion amongst other accomplishments, or Peter Isler, tactician to America’s Cup winner Gary Jobson).

Maybe Melges wrote about it in his book. I just ordered a used hard-cover copy to find out.

IN THAT PIC: Melges and Bentson after winning gold in the Soling class, 1972 – the racing result he always remained the most proud of.

Rest in peace, Buddy. The sailing world misses you already.

Links to some bios and obits:

The Olympics and Sailing Schools

Did you learn how to sail on an Olympic class sailboat? Probably not, but untold thousands did!

A Flying Dutchman. You can see the driver. Where’s the tactician, ballast, spinnaker magician, etc? Feet firmly planted on the rail of course with the rest out on the trapeze! This 20-foot, 2-man class is a beast. No wonder Paul Elvstrōm loved it. This one was screen-captured from a clip on Instagram, via @giornaledellavela on their feed.

While searching for some sailing stats (Ted Turner’s best result in the Flying Dutchman class), I came across some kewl graphics on Wikipidia of the boats raced in certain Olympiads.  I’m sure there are others, but I stopped at three.

Who in the group has sailed an Olympic class boat (or board)?  It’s something.  Not all excellent boats make it to the Olympics… but all Olympic boats are arguably excellent.  And, some of them are versatile.  The Soling?  One of the most heavily used designs for adult sailing instruction in the US in the past (and still in use today).  My dad’s sailing school (New York Sailing School, now out of business), taught untold numbers of adults how to sail on them.  Laser?  Found all over the world for beach resort rentals, junior training, and all levels of racing.  

The sailboat classes of the 1964 Olympiad: Finn, Flying Dutchman, Star Dragon, and 5.5 Meter. None remain today, and there are no keelboats now either.

The first graphic shows the 1964 lineup.  Why ’64?  Year I was born, and also the Olympiad I thought Turner either sailed in or campaigned for through the trials. (Still can’t verify if he was in the trials or on the Team; found conflicting info on whether he ever won the Worlds in that class.) Turner was one of the most prolific and accomplished sailors ever to race. Inshore? Flying Dutchman and 5.5 Meter chops (world level if not actual world champ, and he might have won a 5.5 Meter Worlds. Americas Cup? Won that. Offshore? How about he won the Fastnet in 1979, when 15 people died and many boats had to be rescued or at least didn’t finish?

The classes of the 1984 Olympiad: Windglider (not Windsurfer), made by Dufour; Finn; 470; FD; Tornado Catamaran; Star; Soling.

Next one: 1984.  Why?  There was a graphic for it, and it was the year Paul Elvström just missed bronze in the Tornado Catamaran.  Why would one care?  Because he was 53 at the time, and his teenaged daughter was crew!  Elvström, lest I let anyone forget, won multiple Olympic gold medals in the Finn and was European or World Champion (or close) in a number of other classes. Elvström, a Dutchman, was competitive in the FD. 1984 was also the first Olympiad with female sailors.  Only two, but at least it finally started. 

The 2012 Olympic classes: RS:x, Laser Radial, Laser, Finn, 470, 49er, Elliot 6m, and Star.

Finally… 2012.  The venerable Star Class saw its last outing.  At the Olympics, anyway.  It’s still a super relevant and competitive class, as evidenced by the Star Sailors League invitational regatta featuring champions from many classes and always a tight tourney.  Past Champions at the World and Olympic level include Lowell North, Dennis Conner, Robert Scheidt, and many other notable names. The 2012 Games were the last to have keelboat classes race.

Which Olympic classes have I sailed?  I have a lot of time in Lasers and Solings, and an outing or three in Stars, with racing from the most local of club levels to regional regattas such as the East Coasts.   I haven’t sailed any of them in awhile. I miss the Laser the most.  It’s the simplest to get back into, so who knows.  (For racing purposes, due to boring legal stuff, it’s referred to as the ILCA Dinghy, and the familiar laser logo is gone.) Most people ought to spend at least a little time in a Laser.  To paraphrase that line from Risky Business, “there is no substitute.”

“Laser: there is no substitute.” Kids can bop around in them; couples can canoodle. Having said that, they’re mostly raced by one person at all levels of competition. This guy? @stefopeschiera of Peru, a top contender at the world level, in full send mode. This is also a still grab from a clip on his Instagram.

Olympics Day: on How Many Boats Did I Play?

Our Director reminisces about Olympic sailing class boats he’s raced, and how it helps teach you how to sail and learn to sail better.

Laser dinghy, stand-up style! On Lake Garda, Italy: from Gregorio Moreschi’s Instagram.

I’ve been at this for awhile. I started sailing as a small boy aboard whatever my parents were on, and sometimes boats that just my Dad and I were aboard. We were both relative latecomers to one thing: sailing dinghies. He started WAYYY late, and I started somewhat late (at 15). Some of my fondest memories are of the two of us on separate Dyer Dhows in the Mamaroneck Frostbiting Association winter series. I sailed ‘Dyer Straits;’ he joined the next season on ‘Apocalypse Dhow.’ We had mixed race records, with a modest rate of success (i.e, staying in A Division and taking home some plaques and platter) But we hands-down had the best punny names for our Dyers.

But, I digress. Apparently, yesterday was Olympics Day! I figured it out on my Insta feed. I’ve followed Olympic sailing to some degree for decades. While I never competed at the national or world level, I did compete to one degree or another in three different Olympic classes:

  • Laser
  • Soling
  • Star

Sadly, I can’t find a single photo of me in any of those boats. There’s a great shot of me sitting on the rail of my capsized Laser in between races off City Island one day. In between races, one could sail by the committee boat and ask for a can of Coke. I flipped my boat so I could just relax with my feet on the daggerboard sipping my soda while others wasted energy sailing around for no reason. I won the regatta that day. I lost the photo. But, temporarily; it’s somewhere in family photo records.

Late 1970’s; a Soling converted for sailing instruction. This was when our family owned and operated New York Sailing School. We installed custom bench seats on two of the boats to make instruction and day sailing a little easier. Harsh boat otherwise, but oh, boy – did it sail! Almost all schools eventually switched to more student-friendly designs that were more effective for instruction. Almost. (We ditched them in the early 80’s for this purpose and never looked back.)

The Soling came first, as it was the teaching boat used at our family’s first sailing school (NYSS, or New York Sailing School). Dad sold that school in the winter of 86/87, and I started mine in the fall of 1997 with classes underway in the spring of ’98.

The Soling is a truly elegant, pedigree little yacht. 27 feet of purity and grace and zero creature comforts. It’s a racing machine, straight up. Yet, it’s fun to day sail and a surprisingly good teaching boat. However, the lack of seating, lifelines, etc and the wet nature of the boat really interfered with instruction and learning. So, when Dad found a better alternative, he took that tack away from the fleet of other schools.

I mostly raced Solings at the school. We had a Tuesday night series in the summer. No, not really very competitive – but still, super instructive as it was repetitive short-course racing with tight starting lines and put a premium on tactics and boat handling. And, we used spinnakers. My favorite was a solid black chute with a stark white steer skull in the middle.

Relatively recent action on a Soling: only the skipper stays on or in the boat on a windy day! Not just a venerable Olympic class, the Soling was heavily used by adult sailing school programs across the country if not the world.

The highest level I raced a Soling? The East Coast Championships one fall out of Stamford Connecticut. I was crewing, not skippering. Perennial class champ Hans Fogh of Canada was the skipper to beat that time. We didn’t. Windy couple of days; I spent much of it hiked out over the side in the manner shown in the photo above.

The Soling was an Olympic class for quite awhile. Two veteran American racers who did well in Solings were Dave Perry and John Kostecki; Perry also excelled in the Laser. One of the best sailboat racers in history, Robert Scheidt of Brasil, won 5 Olympic medals combined in the Laser and the Star: 2 gold, 2 silver, and a bronze. Only man to win Olympic medals in both dinghy and keelboat classes. Hmmmmm….

1972 Olympic Gold Medalists: Australian style! Star Class.

Then came the Star. The Stuyvesant Yacht Club on City Island, which was around from the late 1800’s, had a nice fleet of these sloops stored on trailers which they dry sailed by lowering and hoisting on a dedicated lift. I was invited to crew on a couple of occasions for Sunday afternoon racing. We had light winds, so it wasn’t too exciting – but it was fun and tactical. No spinnaker, so easier to shift gears on shifting winds in an instant and focus the whole time and tactics and strategy.

Star white room; typical recent scene for this low-riding, wet and athletic class that has seriously withstood the test of time.

The Star was in the Olympics for some time. It was the 2-person keelboat. One crew hikes over the side when needed; both sailors need to be decently sized to hold that boat down. It’s work. While no longer in the Olympics, the boat is still super competitive and used in series including the Bacardi Cup in Miami and the Star Sailors League Invitational regatta. Dennis Conner of America’s Cup fame was a world champion in the Star before he got involved in the Cup.

Next: the Laser, which came later to the Olympics but was already one of the world’s most widely sailed boats and is now the most. It’s a singlehanded performance dinghy with one sail (cat boat or uni rig), with three choices of sail size.

Olympic medalist Anna Tunnicliffe, from Steven Lippman’s shoot in ESPN’s In the Buff series. Note the cuts; this is an athletic boat to sail competitively.

I started sailing these in the early 1980’s and raced them for a few years in the NYC/Long Island district of the Laser Class Association. I also qualified for the Empire State Games once and drove my Laser atop my Pontiac Ventura Hatchback up to Syracuse. I was only about 118 pounds soaking wet, and raced a full rig – but as we’re in a light wind region here, I got away with it. The one time I actually won a regatta saw 15-20 with some higher gusts, but some of the better racers in that district didn’t attend. But, I sailed hard and beat larger sailors. First race: chose not to jibe on the screaming reach to the jibe mark. I did a ‘chicken jibe:’ I lowered the board, spun around in a tack, and continued. The guy I was basically fighting the whole day for 1st place? He kept it real and jibed. He flipped. I won the regatta by a hair and his capsize spelled the difference.

Medals in the Laser Class, District 8 (NYC/Long Island). From back in the day when our Director actively raced the world’s most popular sailboat. It’s still in the Olympics despite recent challenges by upstart imitator classes.

So, sailing on some Olympic classes paid off. First, it made me a better sailor. Second, it made me better understand how boats relate to teaching beginners and intermediates. Our family started teaching on the Olympic Soling in 1968. Since then, we’ve used three more designs for teaching beginners, in this order:

  • J/24, in late 70’s (immediately abandoned and returned to Solings)
  • Sonar in 1980 or thereabouts, continuing until NYSS sold;
  • Beneteau First 21 with my new school in 1998

I could have gone out and bought a fleet of Solings, Sonars, or especially J/24’s to make a cheap fleet. You get what you pay for. Spare parts for our Beneteau First 21 sloops typically exceed the purchase price of a cheap used J/24 and often that of a Sonar. I leave that for the multitudes of other schools that don’t know or don’t care.

Our Beneteau First 21 sloops have an enviable distinction: they’re the only sailboat design ever endorsed by a national sailing school organization such as ASA or US Sailing. The First 21 is the same boat as the Beneteau 22 and the ASA First 22. What’s the only difference between them? The ASA First 22 had a longer cockpit and smaller cabin. It’s the same exact hull, keel, twin rudders, mast, etc. The only real difference is the cockpit to cabin ratio. The Beneteau models have plenty of room already, so no problem there. Guess we got it right in 1998!

Here’s a couple sailing one back to our moorings on a windy day. This couple has a fair amount of experience: both raced J/24’s in NY Harbor; both sailed J/105’s. He did a Transatlantic! Also grew up cruising Maine. She did two levels of ASA courses in NY Harbor as well as an offshore delivery from Florida to New York.

Guess which Club they belong to now, and what their current favorite boat is? It’s ours – what many European sailors call the Baby Ben…

“At NY Sailing Center, we know a thing or two because we’ve sailed scores of boats, not just a few… including 3 Olympic classes.”

Captain Stephen Glenn Card, Director and HBIC (Head Bozo in Charge).