Buddy Melges, 1930-2023

Buddy Melges, 1930-2023

Legendary American sailor Buddy Melges known as the ‘Wizard of Zenda’ has passed away at the age of 93

Skipper Buddy Melges and the crew of America 3 get set to round the second mark on their way to a victory over Stars and Stripes in the America’s Cup defender series 30 April 1992. (Photo by Vince Bucci / AFP) (Photo credit should read VINCE BUCCI/AFP via Getty Images)

Harry Clemons ‘Buddy’ Melges Jr., widely considered to be one of America’s greatest competitive sailors, passed away on May 18, 2023.

Born on January 26, 1930, in Elkhorn, Wisconsin, Buddy grew up on Delavan Lake, honing his skills sailing the boats crafted by his father, Harry Melges Sr., at Melges Boat Works. From its humble origins as a wooden rowboat builder, the family business evolved into one of the most innovative boat builders in sailing, producing high quality performance hulls and sails while also fostering a passionate sailing community over the last 78 years.

Over his eight-decade career, Buddy advanced the sport and etched his name into the annals of sailing history in many different areas of the sport., 

His remarkable career included Olympic glory, earning a gold medal in the Soling class in 1972 and a bronze medal in the Flying Dutchman class in 1964. He also claimed a gold medal in the Flying Dutchman Class at the Pan American Games in 1967, was two-time Star World Champion (in 1978 and 1979), and a remarkable three-time 5.5 Metre World Champion in 1967, 1973, and 1983.

Medalists in the Flying Dutchman at the 1964 Olympic Games, in Enoshima, Japan. Gold Earle Wells (front) and Helmer Pedersen NZL; silver Keith Musto and Tony Morgan GBR; Bronze Buddy Melges (far right) and William Bentsen USA. Photo by Bride Lane Library/Popperfoto via Getty Images

Competing on the US national stage, Buddy won the E-Scow National Championship five times, triumphing in 1965, 1969, 1978, 1979, and 1983. He also won the North American Men’s Sailing Championships and the Clifford D. Mallory Trophy – a US ‘champion of champions’ event – in 1959, 1960, and 1961.

Buddy Melges was also talented in ice yachting, with seven Skeeter ice boat World Championship titles to his name (in 1955, 1957, 1970, 1972, 1974, 1980, and 1981).

It was in the America’s Cup that he perhaps achieved some of his greatest accomplishmentsAs a challenger in 1987 with Heart of America, he competed against Dennis Conner’s Stars & Stripes, earning high praise from Conner. Then in 1992, Buddy achieved the ultimate success, helming America3 to victory alongside Bill Koch, securing the America’s Cup against Italian challengers.

Fremantle, Australia, 1986: Heart of America US-51 racing in the America’s Cup trials.
Photo: Jonathan Eastland/AJAX/Getty Images

America3 was designed in collaboration with Reichel Pugh Yacht Design, and the partnership between Reichel Pugh and Melges Performance Sailboats went on to create some of the sport’s most successful asymmetric sportsboats and one-designs. In 1993 the Melges 24, designed by Reichel Pugh to a brief from Melges, was launched and swiftly named ‘Boat of the Year’ in the USA in 1994. Other designs followed from the partnership, including the Melges 32 in 2005.

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Buddy Melges: the Wizard of Zenda

Buddy’s list of sailing accolades goes on, including being named US Sailing’s Rolex Yachtsman of the Year (1961, 1972, and 1983) three times, and twice One Design Sailor of the Year (1978 and 1979). In 1972, the national authority (now US Sailing) presented Buddy with its most esteemed award, the Nathanael G. Herreshoff Trophy for Outstanding Contributions to the Sport. 

In 2001, Buddy was inducted into the America’s Cup Hall of Fame, recognising his significant contributions to the event.

Buddy was also known for generously sharing his knowledge and serving as a mentor to aspiring sailors. His captivating lectures and teaching abilities inspired countless individuals across the world. He was a member of numerous clubs, including the ILYA Bilge Pullers (where he was the oldest surviving member), Lake Geneva Yacht Club (where he was Member #1!).


Photo: by kind permission of the Melges family

Besides his remarkable sailing career, Buddy Melges had a distinguished military service. During his younger years, he served his country with honor and valor as a member of the United States Army. His exceptional service during the Korean War earned him the prestigious Bronze Star.

Away from sailing Buddy was a devoted environmentalist, and conservationist, and found great joy in his passion for duck hunting. His favourite place to hunt ringneck ducks and mallards was at his cabin on Lake of the Woods in Nestor Falls, Ontario.

Fast and fun racing in the Melges 32 off Miami in 2010. Photo: Alamy

For all of his remarkable achievements, Buddy remained humble and approachable. Known for his colorful personality and infectious love for the sport, Buddy was always willing to lend a helping hand and offer words of encouragement to fellow sailors, inspiring them to always start first and increase their lead.

Often referred to as the ‘Grand Master’ of competitive yachting and affectionately known as ‘The Wizard of Zenda’, Buddy was a true legend in the sailing world. His induction into the National Sailing Hall of Fame in 2011, and the World Sailing Hall of Fame in 2007 solidified his legacy and celebrated his remarkable contributions to the sport.

He is survived by his wife of 69 years, Gloria, their three children, and seven grandchildren.

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