The Melges Dynasty: From Inland Lakes to International Success
1 August 2009
As published by A Brush With Sail
About seventy-five miles northwest of Chicago, in Walworth County, Wisconsin, there is a beautiful lake with high wooded shores and having a depth of over one hundred feet. This lake is nearly nine miles long and about three miles wide and is geographically known as Geneva Lake, but commonly called Lake Geneva after the town of that name, located at the east end of that lake.
Geneva Lake, was first visited, in May of 1831, by John Kinzie and his family who were on their way from Chicago to Fort Winnebago, (now Portage) Wisconsin. At that time, the area was inhabited by the Pottawotamie Indians who, had villages at Fontana and Williams Bay. They called the Lake ‘Kishwauketoe’, meaning Clear Water.
William P. Nelson, a resident of Lake Geneva at the beginning of the 1840’s, is said to have built the first flat-bottomed boat used on the lake. Undoubtedly this boat was very similar to our present day rowboats.
Some time between 1840 and 1850, Captain Marshall hauled a forty ft. long schooner, overland from Kenosha to Lake Geneva, on two wagons. This was the pioneer sailboat on the waters of Geneva Lake.
In the early eighteen-sixties, the first paddle wheel steamer appeared on the lake. The boat was 40 feet long and was built, to be used for passenger service, but the undertaking was not successful.
Ernst Schmidt's 1925 Sheridan Trophy winning scow, Senta II. Sketch by Jim Bolland. Other boats followed these and in 1900 there were probably twenty-five or more luxuriously equipped steam launches belonging to the summer residents of the lake. There was also a public boat company with more than a dozen steamers, making regular trips around the lake. Some of the early residents and their decendants, had summer residences on the shores of Geneva Lake.
There are no records showing sailboat racing at Lake Geneva until the summer of 1874, when the yacht club was organized.
Some of the founders were Julian S. Rumsey, General A.C. Ducat, John W French, John Bullock, A.C. Calkins, Al. Lytle and N.K. Fairbank. The Lake Geneva yacht Club was started so that a race, later known as the Sheridan Cup Race, could be sponsored.
This race was held in honour of the famous General Philip H. Sheridan, who was a frequent visitor to the lake. The trophy, which is still sailed for on the last Saturday of August of each year, is a beautiful silver replica of the topsail sloop Nettie, which belonged to Julian S. Rumsay. The Nettie won the first two races.
Off to another Inland Lakes Regatta, 1925 style.The following account was published at that time in the ‘Lake Geneva Herald’, on Saturday, September 5 1874:
‘On Monday last, was sailed another exciting yacht race. A large number entered the race, but interest centred in the ‘Nettie’ by J.S.Rumsey and the new yacht owned by John W. French. The race was arranged suddenly in honor of General Philip Sheridan, who has been a visitor for nearly a week among us.
The Cup is to be contested for each year on the thirty-first day of August, except when it comes on Sunday and will be held the winning yacht until that yacht is defeated and over $200.00 has been contributed for it.
Mr J.S.Rumsey, who with the aid of Billy Wood, has won all the yacht races on the Lake with his ‘Nettie’, holds the Champion Cup and will it until he is defeated. General Sheridan, it is expected, will be an annual visitor to our lake to witness the racing in which he takes so much interest.’
The Introduction, is from the writing of Ernst C. Schmidt in the book 'Sailing Craft' by Edwin J. Schoettle, published by the Macmillan Company in 1928.
Sometime during the same decade, a North German family, the Melges, migrated to the land of opportunity, the United States of America and settled in Chicago. Illinois. On October 14, 1900 and in the same City, Harry C. Melges, was born to William and Clara Melges.
Around 1920, Harry’s grand parents, moved to Delavan Lake, west of Lake Virginia, Wisconsin, and set up in the hotel business. It was here that young Harry C. Melges got the sailing bug, as he delivered ‘booze’ to local businesses around the shores of Delavan Lake.
In 1928 Harry started his first business venture, an automobile agency in Delavan, but the great depression deepened and the business was forced to close. He then began working in the boat business and this became his lifelong love and financial support for his family. Even though a man with ambition, it’s doubtful if he could have imagined the dynasty he had created!
During World War II, Harry C. Melges, worked for a large chicken farm, driving six semi trailer loads of chicken daily, to the Chicago Markets.
Harry C. ’Buddy’ Melges II, grew up on Delavan Lake and it was there that he learned to sail iceboats and then soft water, in a ten foot dinghy. At the age of six years, those two vehicles were his mode of transportation when he visited friends homes around Delavan Lake.
In 1942, the Melges family moved ten miles east to Lake Geneva. ‘ The Lake is the most beautiful in Wisconsin. Nine miles long by three miles wide, on which I honed my sailing skills.’ Says Buddy. ‘Dad was an excellent sailor and ice boat champion in the Inland Lakes yachting Association.’
Yesteryear. M 16's prepare for racing, at the Lake Geneva Yacht Club.
He continues. ‘The Inland Lakes Scow type of sailboats were his passion. In ice boating he was an innovator to the designs of today. Ice boats are capable of sailing at sx times the speed of the wind, on perfect ice.’
‘Harry C. Melges always wanted his own company, as he felt confident that his designs would be competitive in the world of scow type boats.’
Harry C.'Buddy' Melges.And so it was, that the scow designs of, the 38ft. ‘A’ Scow, 28ft. ‘E’ Scow and the 20ft. ‘C’ Scow, would became the foundation of Melges Boat Works. But the big growth in the company didn’t eventuate until 1946.
In 1944 through ‘45, Melges Boat Works were building dinghies and among the few boat builders employed at that stage, was fourteen year old ‘Buddy’ Melges, learning the trade and getting ‘as one’ with boats. His father, meanwhile, was searching Walworth County for pre world-war II boat builders. When he did find them, it was full steam ahead at the Zenda boat yard and superbly built Inland Scow Class yachts began to create an aura around the Melges brand.
‘These were the years that influenced my business future and becoming a more accomplished sailor,’ says Buddy ’I was a boat building apprentice and under my father, a student in the sport of sailing. Dad had a no-nonsense approach to sailing, simply put, the more time in the boat, the better the results!’
The Lake Geneva Yacht Club and Melges Boat Works, grew together in putting good sailors on the starting line. Within three years of Melges building Scows in Zenda, the L.G.Y.C. became a dominant force in the Inland Lake Yachting Association, which has 50 member Clubs in the lake county, of the mid-west of the U.S.A.
Melges had three competitors at the time, but because of superior designs and quality of construction, there is now only Melges to provide I.L.Y.A. with boat needs.
‘From 1946, all of the scow classes were built of oak ribs and cedar planking, with Sitka Spruce spars.’ Says Buddy Melges. ’GRP came to Melges in 1971, but it was not until 1976 that the complete conversion was realized.’
He continues, ‘The year of the America’s Cup, 1992, Harry and Hans visited Reichel Pugh to discuss the design of the Melges 24. My boys have done wonders with the company. They took over the management and operation during the ’92 America’s Cup and never looked back.’
Buddy Melges (on the helm), with friends, demonstrating the power and speed of the Class A Scow.
‘Harry is now the sole owner of Melges Performance Sailboats. The quality of service has put the Melges name ahead in one-design, throughout the world. Gloria and I could not be more proud of Harry III and his brother Hans.’
‘When travelling the world to sail, I always find it great to come back home and sail on my beloved Lake Geneva, in Scows.’
‘We are sailing Class A Scows, eight in all, at L.G.Y.C. and any one of the eight are capable of winning. These boats are as fast as ‘hell’ and yet very tactical, because they sail close to the wind, due to the unique bilge-boards for lateral resistance.’
In his long and successful sailing career, he has established an impressive collection of championship titles and Olympic medals.
During the 1964 Olympics, Buddy won a bronze medal in the Flying Dutchman Class. In 1968, at the Pan Am Games, he won a gold medal, again in the Flying Dutchman.
In 1972, he won a gold medal in The Soling in Kiel, Germany — the Soling’s official debut in Olympic competition. He is the only sailor to have won an Olympic Bronze Medal, a Gold Medal and to hold an America's Cup title.
In the years that followed, Buddy won more then 60 major national and International Sailing Championships. They include:
- Star World Championship in 1978 and 1979;
- 5.5 Meter Worlds in 1967, 1973 and 1983;
- International 50 Foot World Cup in 1989 on Carat VII;
- Maxi World Championship in 1991 on Matador2;
- National E Scows in 1965, 1969, 1978, 1979 and 1983,
- I.L.Y.A. A Scow Championship, in 1981, 1986 and 1987;
Buddy also won the International Skeeter Ice Boat Championship a record seven times — 1955, 1957, 1970, 1972, 1974, 1980 and 2001.
Buddy’s list of sailing achievements doesn't stop there. In addition to winning a number of other prestigious international trophies, he was named Yachtsman of the Year in 1961, 1972 & 1983 and One Design Sailor of the Year in 1978 & 1979.
Among the 1987 America’s Cup Challengers, he represented the Chicago Yacht Club at the helm of Heart of America. He raced against Dennis Conner, sailing Stars & Stripes. Unfortunately, Buddy did not win. In the end, Conner described Buddy as 'one of the great sailors in the world.'
In 1992, Buddy Melges captured the America’s Cup on America3 alongside Bill Koch. Their campaign symbolized the last successful defence of the Cup by an American team.
Other achievements include:
1961, 1972 and 1978: Martini Rossi Trophy
1972: King of Spain Trophy
1973: Hereshoff Trophy
1987: W. Van Alan Clark Trophy 'Sportsman of the Year'
1990: Shamrock vs. Endeavor (Return of the J's) 1st
1991: Columbus Cup
1992: America’s Cup, America3, Winning Helmsman
A member of the Lake Geneva Yacht Club, Chicago Yacht Club, Columbia Yacht Club, Milwaukee Yacht Club, Texas Corinthian Yacht Club and Little Traverse Bay Yacht Club, Buddy is fun-retired and spends a good deal of time lecturing and teaching at clinics around the world.
An avid outdoorsman, environmentalist and conservationist, he also serves the Delta Waterfowl Foundation (formerly the N.A. Wildlife Foundation) as Chairman of its Delta Marsh Rehabilitation Committee.
Buddy, by his beloved Lake Geneva. He can think back on a magnificent career in sailing.
For some years now, Melges Performance Sailboats has been operating under the guidance of the third generation of this famous sailing family and the ‘baton change’ of management was as smooth and professional as would be expected from a team continually dedicated to efficient production and quality customer service.
Present day CEO, Harry Melges III, was fully aware of the sport of sailing from a very young age:
‘When you grow up in a sailing family you are around it all the time. Since my father was also in the boat building and sailmaking business it was even more of a lifestyle for our family.’ Says Harry.
‘Growing up in a family that lived and breathed sailing and boating and most notably, competitive sailing was a big influence on my childhood years. From a very early age we sailed, not only soft water boats but iceboats as well. In fact, we learned to sail on the ice first and then later on water.
‘When I was growing up we did not have the Optimist, so most kids played around on what ever they could until they were old enough to sail our junior boat in the mid-west, the X boat. I think that I was hooked on iceboating at a young age and that probably taught me more about sailing than anything else in my childhood.’
With father Buddy being a very competitive sailor and manufacturing racing sailboats along with some Olympic classes, there were always great sailors from around the world coming to pick up boats and they would often stay with the family.
Harry Melges III. CEO of Melges Performance Sailboats.
It’s very easy to imagine the amount of top class sailing information available for young Harry III and his brother, Hans, to soak up from all of these talented sailors. as the stories went around the dinner table.
‘Not only were we exposed to a lot of sailing at a young age but we were also exposed to building boats. Mostly wood, in the early days but that slowly transitioned to fibreglass,’ continues Harry.
‘I spent a lot of time building iceboats and the first boat that I built was a hydroplane when I was about 13.
‘Growing up sailing scows was a huge influence on all of us at a young age too. In the scow classes it is very common for kids to be sailing with adults and in most regattas you are allowed to put crew on and off the boat between races depending on the wind.
‘So, at a young age we were gaining a lot of experience sailing with, a lot of great scow sailors, especially when it was windy.’
The young Melges lads also sailed scows a lot with Buddy, and were able to learn from the best. Scows are great family oriented classes and whole families will go to the regattas. It's a part of scow families lives.
‘I think that scows really hone your skills so that you really feel everything about a boat, continues Harry. ‘They are light and fast, really fast and just awesome boats to sail and the slightest adjustments can make a huge difference and you feel it right away.
‘You learn really quickly what is good and what is bad.'
Entering junior competitive sailing was a natural progression for the young Melges boys, as they were very aware of the sport from an early age.
‘Everyone sailed X boats, our junior boat growing up.’ Says Harry. ‘The X boat had been around for years and all the best sailors grew up sailing them, including Buddy. It was definitely something we were going to do if we wanted to sail and race.
‘I think it was and still is, some of the best junior sailing in the country without a doubt. Now the kids start even younger. I think I started racing X boats when I was 10. My son has been sailing his Optimist since he was 4 and that is going on all over the World.
‘We were exposed to a lot of boats at a young age and were spoiled quickly by A scows, E scows, C scows, Flying Dutchman, Soling, Stars, etc. It was hard for us to stay focused on X boats.
‘My son, who is now eight, has the same problem I had. Optis, O'pen Bic, Melges 17, Melges 20, Melges 24, A scows - too many great boats to sail, how can you choose just one?
Regardless of almost, growing up in ‘Melges Boat Works’ and involved in sailing, it’s just possible that the younger Melges could have had ambition for careers in other fields. Or did the aura of a flourishing business and having a Father who was Internationally successful in the sport, make continuing the dynasty a given??
‘I think it was a given. At a young age we worked at the boat works in the summers sweeping floors and cleaning up.
‘That gradually, transitioned into boat building, working in different departments and learning how to build boats. It was not easy work and most of our friends were playing at the lake, sailing, water skiing, golfing or just goofing off.
Harry emphasised how, as young fellows, they learned how to work and learned how to build boats.
‘There were a lot of times when you really wanted nothing to do with it as it was very hard dirty work and in the summers it was really hot.’ He says.
‘I think that I always had a passion for building things, even more so than sailing. I love sailing, but at the end of the day my true passion is developing new boats. I spent a lot of time in class rooms, day dreaming about a sail shape or a new mast set up or new hardware layout or just an entirely new boat design or iceboat design. So, I think it was inevitable that I would work at the company building sails and boats.’
But Buddy’s idea of learning the ‘Boat Works’ business, would be the same for his boys as it was for him. It was a ‘sweep the floor first’ progression, through all the facets of the operation!
Harry Melges III, with portraits of preceding CEO's of Melges Performance Sailboats. Founder, and his Grandfather, Harry C Melges, (far left) and his Father, Harry C.'Buddy' Melges.
‘For sure! I touched on this previously. I do think it has helped me understand every level of the business and know what it takes to build a product and how to do it better.
‘We're constantly trying to improve processes and quality and when you have first hand experience you can quickly rule out things that you know will not work.
‘I remember wood boats being built when I was a kid, and most of the boats I grew up sailing on were wood. We made the transition to glass in the mid seventies when I was around 9 or 10.
‘I think we made mostly scows at the time but I do believe Buddy was making some fiberglass Flying Dutchman, primarily for his own use.’
Hans Melges and Harry Melges III, took over management and operation of the family business in 1992 and some new thinking came to Melges Boat Works in the 1990’s. In 1992 Buddy was involved in Bill Koch’s ‘America 3’ defence of the America’s Cup and at about the same time Hans put an idea he had for a sports boat, to Harry.
‘We then started discussions with R/P while out in San Diego and got the whole thing started.’ Says Harry. ‘Both Buddy and myself were with America 3. I was there for about 6 months as test helmsman and got to know Jim and John quite well. We started to discuss the possibility of the 24 at that time.’
The result of that idea of course, is a world wide fleet of exciting sports boats, the Melges 24. With the new direction into global marketing, Hans Melges came up with a new name for the business and in 1994 ‘Melges Boat Works’ was re-branded as, ‘Melges Performance Sailboats.’
A second, larger sports oriented keel boat, the Melges 32, launched and this was followed by the Audi Melges 20.
The powerful 'A' Scow is a Melges' family favorite.
Anyone who has any involvement with ‘Melges Performance Sailboats’ and understands the backup they deliver to their product and clients, will understand the success of the market spread of their sports boats. The support of each class in every aspect, right through to the class organizations and regatta publicity is quite outstanding and an example to any other class.
‘For sure this is a really critical part to the success of any one-design class. You have to have a high level of support from the builder and the class organisation to keep regatta attendance strong, boats being serviced, sailors having fun and resale values high.’ Comments Harry.
‘Of course we can do better, but we do focus a lot on this and it is a very high priority.’ He continues, ‘I think keeping the energy level high is the key to making a class successful and it starts with the above but it also requires the sailors to buy into it as well.
‘The one thing we try to always do, is have the best product for the sailors. If they are having so much fun sailing and being at a regatta then our job becomes a lot easier.
‘That all starts with really fun boats that are a blast to sail and then you have to be there to service and assist wherever possible.'
Has the world wide recession affected Melges Performance Sailboats? The public persona of your business is still upbeat and positive, but is there a drop off in sales?
‘We have noticed a drop off but I think we were well positioned coming into this recession, with a wide variety of product and a presence in a lot of strong sailing arenas around the world.
‘Our Melges 24 and 32 classes have remained strong and growing and the launch of the new 20 has been really well received with close to 60 new boats now sailing and more on the way.
The Melges 24, heralded a new direction for Melges Boat Works. © 2009 JOY | U.S. Melges 24 Class Association
‘With the sponsorship of the Audi Melges 20 and the Melges 32 class by Audi, it has brought a lot of attention to these classes and the up-coming World Championships for the M24 and M32 are creating a lot of buzz.
‘We also re-tooled our MC Scow deck mold and have had an incredibly positive response with the introduction of that and many new orders. We have definitely noticed a significant increase in activity over the last 3 to 4 months.’
What of the future? The spectrum of the scow classes appears to be complete. Are there plans to expand the sport-boat fleet, or add a bigger, high performance keel yacht?
‘Right now we are concentrating on really growing and supporting our existing line. I think someday we will venture into something new but right now we have nothing planned for the immediate future.’
Then when the new boat, whatever it may be, comes to fruition, would the build of that boat be by contract, to an outside builder (as is the Melges 20) or would it be built in an expanded Zenda facility?
‘We're always exploring all options. Much has to do with our capacity in Zenda and if we have capacity in house to bring on another line. Everything is always open for discussion.’
How much sailing does the CEO manage, while running a successful business? Does he sail regularly? If so, which boats does he sail? And, the big question, does he have a favourite among the various designs that ‘Melges Performance Sailboats’ markets?
‘I sail a fair amount, normally now with friends and customers. I don't get to sail my own boat much anymore. Maybe when my kids are older they can crew for me like I did for Buddy. I think that was the most valuable learning that I did.
(Standing left to right) Suzanne & Harry Melges III, Olivia Arbaugh (Laura's daughter), Michalene Melges (Hans' wife), Gloria & Buddy Melges, Laura Melges-Arbaugh (Buddy & Gloria's daughter) & Hans Melges. (Standing in front of Gloria), Monroe, daughter of Harry & Suzanne. (Seated), Harry Melges IV, son of Harry & Suzanne. Hans Melges, Max Melges & Buddy Melges, sons of Hans & Michalene Melges.
‘I sail mostly the A scow, E scow, Melges 24, Melges 32 and Melges 20. All the boats are great and have their own special attributes. I can't really pick a favorite, they are all great and each one has different attributes that make them appealing at different times and in different conditions.’
Will Melges Performance Sailboats be a fourth generation dynasty?
‘I do have an eight year old, boy, Harry IV, who is addicted to sailing. He spends all day at the yacht club sailing his Opti and Open Bic and then comes home and wants to go race the A scow with the guys or sail the M17 with his buddy.
‘We'll see how it goes, no pressure. He can do whatever he wants. He's a great skier too so maybe he'll do that.
‘Our daughter, Monroe is 4 and just starting Pram Camp at the YC and loving it!’
To be continued next month...
By Jim Bolland - with many thanks to Buddy Melges, Harry Melges III, Andy Burdick and Joy Dunigan.