Buddy Melges needs no introduction, but his young grandson, embarking on an Olympic 49er campaign, does.
Few grandchildren can boast that their grandfather won not one but two Olympic sailing medals. Seventeen- year- old Harry Melges IV is one of those. His grandfather, 88- year- old Harry Melges II, more widely known as Buddy Melges, has a bronze and a gold medal to his credit, along with a slew of wins in other big- league championships. And Harry IV is a chip off the old block, already dominating a number of scow classes and recently winning the Melges 14 National Championship. Young Harry and his crew, Wisconsinite Finn Rowe, have jumped into the 49er class, and while it’s very early on in their campaign, the clear goal is to match his grandfather’s achievement.
At the Lake Geneva Yacht Club on a mid- June afternoon, Buddy is dressed in his usual khaki pants and nondescript polo shirt. Harry’s white T- shirt says “Melges-rowe” in bold black block print.
Buddy: Nice shirt! It’s fun to see what you and Finn are accomplishing. Those boats you’re sailing now, by God, it’s a little, narrow hull, and you’ve got these big wings and everything — that’s something else. How did you get started on all of this?
Harry: We won the E Scow Blue Chip about the same time Peter Burling and Blair Tuke started to get really dialed in the 49er. They were two years into the quad for the Rio games, and they’d won every single regatta they entered. Since this was an Olympic class, it was even more impressive. They are just crazy good sailors. Finn and I really looked up to them. We also thought that the 49er looked super fun, fast, just like the E, so we decided to work hard together to get into that class. We started with the 29er, learned how to sail that pretty well, then graduated up into the 49er, and it’s been going really well.
Buddy: And I heard that, for the first
time, you felt confident in the boat, that the boat wasn’t going to rule you after all. Is that true?
Harry: Yeah. We’ve spent a lot of time in the boat, a lot of working on our techniques, on our tack and jibes. Now I can confidently say that we won’t tip over in anything up to 25 knots. Buddy: That’s something. Harry: I think sailing on Lake Geneva has been a huge help. We have big chop here, as well as really flat water, and it’s really great how shifty it is, especially for the 49er. With that boat, boatspeed is all about transitions in puffs and shifts, and this is the best place to train for that because of all the puffs and lulls and shifts.
Buddy: The thing is, it forces you to get your head out of the boat and work on presenting the boat to Mother Nature as she’s approaching.
Harry: We couldn’t sail the boat without looking around. If you have your heads down and looking at what you’re doing in the boat, it’ll tip over.
Buddy: I’ve been watching you and your crew put in monstrous hours. I think you’ve put in your time, and now you can begin to build from there.
Harry: Part of that building must have to do with your mindset. How was going into the Olympics different than, say, a world or European championship?
Buddy: You’re talking about the pinnacle of the sport, so I guess you would have to say that the Olympics are beyond a world championship. Even representing your country in a world championship, you could be one of five people in that event from your country, but when you’re in the Olympics, you’re the one, and it’s a special spot. And then when you do really well in the games, you win a medal, not just a bronze or a silver, but a gold, they play the national anthem, and you know you made that happen — boy, oh boy! If that doesn’t make the shivers go up your spine, I don’t know what will. Harry: Is the preparation much different? Buddy: In 1973, there were so many things happening in my class, the Soling, because the class was sort of new. If we go back to ’ 63, the Flying Dutchman was also sort of new. In both our Olympic efforts, my crew Bill Bentsen brought so much information to the table. He knew what all the other people were doing. Once we knew that, we could say, “OK, we’ve already been doing that — we’ve scuffed that out the back door.” We were also in the business of building sails, so that was a plus in our category. When push came to shove, the fact that we had people using our equipment, and winning, gave us a point of relaxation in regard to equipment — sails and other stuff. Going in, we knew that our equipment was as good or better than anybody’s. In the 49er, everything is supplied, right? Harry: Yes, everything is the same. Buddy: Then it falls more on your shoulders as far as where you’re placing the boat on the racecourse and how you place it there. And then, after you place it, you find all the opportunities available to you to get the maximum performance, not only from yourselves, you and Finn, so that maybe you can present the boat a little bit better than your competition, and that’s all you have to do. The rest of it is start first, increase your lead and finish first. It’s a mind- boggling situation for some, but you put the time in, and the results will come out.
In the second race in Japan, in the Dutchman, we’re leading pack and the rudder breaks. Looking back, it seemed like that was a good excuse, when, in fact, it wasn’t. We didn’t do the due diligence to make sure that our boat was 100 percent.
You have to press not only your equipment but your physical level too, so that it doesn’t let you down when it counts. If you’ve got a crew that gets tired, or you get tired, there’s no excuse for that. Train properly, and it all falls together, whether it’s the boat, the equipment, the conditioning. The better your physical conditioning, the clearer your thinking is. When you get to the Olympics, being too tired is no excuse.
The other thing is, every opportunity that you get to race, to sail in different wind conditions. The last couple of days have been pretty light, and no one sails. Today is lovely, and everybody goes out. But you’ve got to be ready to sail in all conditions to do well. Think about the conditions as another opponent you’re trying to rule over. The more experience you get in your boat, jibing and tacking in the range of conditions, all the better. I would never go out for a sail. I’d go out for a training session. And it led me to good results.
Harry: The Olympics must have made a pretty big impact on your life.
Buddy: In a lot of ways. First of all, I was going to make damn sure I was never going to let it affect the friendships I had with my competitors, regardless of their rank in the pecking order. And I wanted to make sure I could talk with young people like yourself, as they asked questions about sailing and how to approach it. And I shared as much as I possibly could with my competitors. I also always thought I could learn from something they might say, even though I had achieved things in the sport that many of them hadn’t. They might not even know what they’re saying or why they’re saying it — how they’re handling their boat and stuff like that — but it might suddenly hit home to me, like a brick on your head, and it would be useful.
Harry: Both boats you sailed were crewed. What should the goal be there?
Buddy: Your crew is so important. You have to become one in all your movements and stuff like that. Sometimes, the more time you spend together, the more little individual mannerisms become a problem, but you have to overlook those. You have to look at what the crew is bringing to the table. If you feel he could do more, well, I would certainly talk to him about that. But I would never stop short of figuring that he was 100 percent in about what our goal was.
Harry: What do you remember most about either the trials or the Olympics?
Buddy: The Soling trials were in San Francisco, in the Berkeley Circle, and we were over early in the first race. But we clawed back and ended up fifth. That was all right, and it told us we had good speed. The next race, it’s really smokin’, and we go around the windward mark in first place, set the kite, and I’m not sure — maybe
You can present the boat a little bit better than your competition, and that’s all you have to do. The rest of it is start first, increase your lead and finish first.
Olympic 49er hopeful Harry Melges IV now carries the family name to international events, always heeding the wisdom of his grandfather, Hall of Famer Buddy Melges.