Buddy Melges, a skipper who learned to sail on lakes in his native Wisconsin and went on to capture two of the sport’s biggest prizes, as part of an Olympic gold medal team in 1972 and at the helm in an America’s Cup victory two decades later, died May 18 at his home in Fontana, Wis. He was 93.

His daughter, Laura Melges, confirmed the death but did not specify a cause.

Melges was considered among the world’s most astute and innovative tacticians at the highest levels of competitive sailing, including the super-engineered racing yachts used in America’s Cup in which fortunes are spent on keel designs and anything else to seek to gain an edge.

Yet among the big stakes and big egos, Melges (pronounced mel-gis) retained a folksy informality and accessibility that made him a mentor for generations of sailors. In sailing circles, he became known as “the Wizard of Zenda,” the site of a family-owned boat works in Wisconsin.

He adopted the arcane word “quickly” as his guiding principle of trying to coax every knot out of a boat through design improvements, knowledge of winds and water, and intuition about Mother Nature’s next moves. “Not wait till she gets on the boat and makes a decision,” he said in 2011. “We got to see her, fetch her out.”

Melges learned to sail before he could ride a bike, heading out into Geneva Lake in southeastern Wisconsin in small sloops in warmer months and turning to ice boats, fitted with sled-like runners and sails, in the winter. At the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, Melges and partner William Bentsen won the bronze medal in the Flying Dutchman class.


In Munich eight years later, Melges teamed again with Bentsen and another sailor, William Allen, to win Olympic gold in the Soling class. For Melges, it was the pinnacle of his sailing life. “It’s nice to win the America’s Cup,” he said decades later, “but I’ll take an Olympic medal.”

For a time, it appeared that his chances for the America’s Cup had come and gone. Melges was at the helm of the Heart of America in Freemantle, Australia, in 1987 for the Louis Vuitton Cup, which decided the boat and crew that would compete for the America Cup.

Melges and Heart of America finished well back in the group. America’s Cup spot went to Stars & Stripes 87, led by Dennis Conner, who was defeated in the 1983 Cup by the boat Australia II, outfitted with a breakthrough wing-shaped keel. Conner redeemed himself by winning back the Cup in a four-race sweep over the Kookaburra III.

As sailing syndicates put together their boats and crews for the 1992 America’s Cup, Melges had crossed into his 60s, decades older than nearly everyone else aboard. Melges was as surprised as the rest of the sailing world when he got the call from Bill Koch, a billionaire investor and world-class sailor, who led the group behind the 78-foot America3, called “America Cubed.”

Melges, at 62, was to share helm duties with Koch and 38-year-old David Dellenbaugh. First, they needed to get past Conner and his Stars and Stripes, winning in the finals for the right to compete in America’s Cup against Italy’s Il Moro di Venezia in the waters off San Diego.

Melges’s team took a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven races. In the fifth race, America3 had an 18-second lead after the first leg. It grew to 51 seconds by the midpoint after the Italian boat blew out two battens, flexible inserts inside a sail. A crew member had to clamber up the mast for repairs.


The Italian boat started to cut the lead: behind by 24 seconds going into the final leg with winds kicking up to 14 knots. Koch, who was at the helm, turned it over to Melges, wearing the Ray-Ban aviator sunglasses that were his signature look. He took a tack at just the right moment to fill out the sails. America3 was 44 seconds ahead as they headed for the finish.

In the final seconds, Melges and Koch pretended to fight over who would be in control of the boat when they won.


Harry Clemons Melges Jr. was born in Elkhorn, Wis., on Jan. 26, 1930, and grew up in nearby Delavan Lake. His father managed a chicken farm and later created Melges Boat Works, starting with rowboats and canoes. His mother was a homemaker.

He began studies at the University of Wisconsin but left to serve in the Army during the Korean War from 1951 to 1953, receiving a Bronze Star Medal.

Melges often studied the natural world – the aerodynamics of birds, the wind ripples on water, or how fish navigate currents – to improve his tactics while sailing and enhance boat designs.


The Melges 24, a 24-foot sailboard first produced by the family boat business in 1993, set a new standard for racing craft with a relatively flat bottom that helps it plane over the water’s surface. His book, “Sailing Smart” (1983), written with Charles Mason, is still pored over by competitive sailors.

“He is probably more at one with mother nature than anyone,” Stu Argo, a crew member on the America3, told the Los Angeles Times. “He looks at the wind, looks at the waves, looks at the sky and relies on them to predict what’s going to come next.”

After America’s Cup win, Koch recruited Melges to coach the first all-female America’s Cup team, Mighty Mary, in 1995. The boat was defeated by Connor’s Stars & Stripes in pre-Cup races.

Melges was inducted into the National Sailing Hall of Fame in 2011 and was a three-time recipient of the Rolex Yachtsman of the Year award (1961, 1972, and 1983).

In addition to his daughter, Melges is survived by his wife of 69 years, the former Gloria Wenzel; sons Harry Melges III and Hans Melges; and seven grandchildren, including Harry Melges IV. He is a helmsman for America’s Magic team preparing for America’s Cup next year off Barcelona.

When asked about advice for sailing, Melges nearly always presented it as a task of trying, but not always succeeding, to read the winds and the waters.

“It’s between you and the sail and mother nature on who is going to win the race,” Melges said. “And that makes it interesting.”

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