Harry “Buddy” Melges Jr. spent almost eight decades boatbuilding, sailmaking, and winning with what he created on soft and hard water. Though only a few American sailors pronounce his last name correctly (Mel-GUS), his ability to entertain and educate means that almost everyone has a favorite Buddy story.
In Sailing Smart, the book he cowrote with Charles Mason, he described his first sail at age five. After his dad pushed him off with only a few simple instructions, “I sailed away from the dock in a more or less straight line, turned around, and sailed back…. I already had plenty of confidence in what I was doing.”
His father started Melges Boat Works in 1945, and soon Buddy was winning races in boats built by the family company. At regattas, he developed a marketing technique that continues to this day: help his competitors improve, and then beat them anyway.
“The best thing my dad ever did for me was to take me along,” Buddy said in a 2015 video produced by what is now called Melges Performance Sailboats. “He took me duck hunting, he took me sailing, he took me iceboating. He went out of his way to make sure I was exposed to what he loved.”
In 1951, Buddy went to a Star regatta in Chicago and met his future wife, Gloria, who was crewing for the Star Class president. “I finished dead last, but…I was smart enough to get her phone number before I left,” he told a reporter in 2016. They married three years later, after Buddy earned a Bronze Star serving in Korea.
The first national recognition of Buddy’s sailing talent came from his winning the 1959 Mallory Cup, the North American Men’s Championship. He surprised many saltwater snobs by defending that trophy in 1960 and 1961, a record that wasn’t repeated until the next century. In 1961 he was awarded the very first U.S. Yachtsman of the Year trophy.
Teaming up with Bill Bentsen in the Flying Dutchman class led to a bronze medal at the very windy 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Three years later the pair won the 1967 Pan Am Games after managing to limp across another very windy finish line with a broken shroud. In 1972, Buddy and Bentsen and Bill Allen easily won a gold medal in the Soling, and a few months later, Buddy was named Yachtsman of the Year for the second time.
After finishing third at the 1976 U.S. Soling Trials, Buddy stepped back into the Star boat, partly for the legendary competition and partly to gain visibility for Melges Sails, the loft he’d started. “I hoped that we might be able to come up with something that would beat some of the well-established sails,” he wrote in a 1977 regatta report. In 1978, after his “better mousetrap” boat and yarn-tempered sails won every race at the Star World Championship in San Francisco, orders flooded in. He and Andreas Josenhans won the next Star Worlds as well, though Buddy later gave a different reason for that 1979 victory: “I think we outsailed them, quite frankly.”
Buddy had an oft-stated preference for sailing small boats, but in the mid-1980s Bill Bentsen talked him into an America’s Cup challenge. Heart of America was slow, but that experience surely helped his successful 1992 campaign as helm for Bill Koch’s America3.
Back home in Wisconsin, Buddy was one of the three “Iceboat Kings” (along with Bill Mattison and Peter Harken). He won seven Skeeter World Championships and was well known for sharing both knowledge and enthusiasm; as he put it, “Every day is Sunday at Lake Geneva when we have ice.”
In 1972, US Sailing awarded him its highest honor, the Nathanael G. Herreshoff Trophy for Outstanding Contributions to the Sport. Fourteen years later, he was the first recipient of its Sportsmanship award. He’s in the America’s Cup Hall of Fame, the Inland Lake Yachting Association Hall of Fame, and the National Sailing Hall of Fame (where his bronze statue greets visitors as they walk by).
Buddy leaves behind Gloria, their three children and seven grandchildren, and a successful business now run by Harry Melges III. Perhaps most significantly, his family continues to carry on both the Melges name and its best traditions—help your competitors improve, and then beat them anyway—to regattas around the globe.