Captain Marvel : Highly Respected Buddy Melges Speaks His Own Language, Sails a Course Only He Can See

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Only Buddy Melges could invent his own language, fondly referred to as "Zendanese" by those who have heard it spoken on the deck of America 3, and get away with it. After all, rank has its privileges.

Of course, grammarians would go screaming into the night if they heard Melges bludgeoning the language but his crew understands him just fine. In no uncertain terms, Melges wants to win and the quicklier the better, to use one of his favorite words.

America 3 has done just that, first disposing of Dennis Conner's Stars & Stripes in the defenders' series and now hoping to do the same against Italy's entry, Il Moro di Venezia, sailed by Paul Cayard, in the America's Cup finals, which begin Saturday.

At America 3's helm when it counts most will be Melges, 62, the living legend. Or as one overly excited America 3 team official described him: "totally awesome and everyone loves him."

Maybe so. Perhaps the second-best sailor in the history of the sport--Denmark Olympian Paul Elvstrom is generally accorded the No. 1 ranking--Melges has done the improbable, winning a gold medal in the 1972 Olympics, a bronze in the 1964 Games, more than 60 major national and international races and the respect of his peers. In a sport replete with millionaire ego-monsters, this is no small feat.

"Generally, the best sailors tend to be feisty, headstrong and quite sure of themselves," said Gary Jobson, ESPN's America's Cup analyst and a world-class sailing talent in his own right. "But the mark of a champion in sailing, in my view, is when you win, your competitors are happy that you won. Buddy Melges is a man that, when he has won, his competitors are happy for him."

And this from Melges' wife of 38 years, Gloria: "Buddy has always treated everybody equally. He doesn't have any enemies that I know of."

In fact, if sailing has a folk hero, it is probably Melges, whose Midwestern background and small-town values account for part of his charm. There is also a sense of fair play in the equation.

For instance, you would need an abacus to count the times Melges has helped competitors in the middle of a regatta. And it is little accident that his crews have professed almost blind allegiance to the man known as "The Wizard of Zenda," in honor of his Zenda (Wis.) roots.

"I've never sailed with Dennis Conner, but I've sailed a lot with Buddy, so I'm biased," said America 3 port trimmer Stu Argo. "But I'd say (Melges) is probably the best in the world."

Melges has become an icon of sorts, a link between past and present. Fifty-six years ago, on the frozen waters of Lake Geneva, Wis., Melges climbed aboard a simple iceboat and sailed solo for the first time. Truth is, he knew how to sail before he ever owned his first bicycle.

Now, surrounded by a hand-picked crew that was whittled down from more than 500 applicants, armed with the best and most expensive sailing technology that owner Bill Koch's money can buy, Melges finds himself squinting into the glare of sailing stardom. No one, not even Elvstrom, has ever won an Olympic gold medal and an America's Cup, although Conner has an Olympic bronze to go with his three America's Cup titles.

"Elvstrom and Melges had the dominance in sailing that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had at his peak in basketball," Jobson said.

The difference is that Melges persists, picking up admirers and victories along the way. He does so while paying close attention to the words of the late Tom Blackaller, a good friend and fellow sailor, who said: "Melges, don't sail anything less than the length of your age."

Melges is safe. America 3is 75 feet long.

Attired in his workday whites--white sneakers, white socks, white pants, white belt, white polo shirt--Melges has the look of someone who steers a yacht.

He was raised in a sailing family and nearly every facet of his life is somehow connected to the sport. He met his wife at a Chicago sailboat regatta in 1951.

"It was pretty much love at first sight," she said.

Good thing, too, since Melges was shipped to Korea shortly after their first meeting. An Army artillery sergeant, Melges spent nearly two years overseas.

Once back, he married Gloria, then resumed his affair with sailing. He won races. He continued to build his business, the Melges Boat Works and Melges Sails, which, naturally, is in Zenda.

He and Gloria raised two sons and a daughter, and maybe it is only coincidence, but the oldest Melges boy met his wife at a regatta. And their daughter met her husband at another sailing race.

Now the sons, Hunts and Harry, are back home running the family business. Meanwhile, the old man is happily putting in 14-hour days and, truth be told, having all the fun.

The day officially begins when the team, including the fit Melges, convenes for 6:30 workouts. Showers at 8. Breakfast at 8:15. Meetings at 8:45. This particular morning includes several interviews, including one with ESPN ("ESPN-ing," as Melges refers to his on-camera time), a stint as compound guide to several visitors, a shift behind his desk for paperwork, and later, a dock start at 10:30. Gone until 5 p.m., the crew will be debriefed shortly after it arrives back at America 3headquarters.

"And I'll get home about 8 o'clock," Melges said.

He is used to the hours. Six years ago, he mounted an ambitious but ill-fated effort to challenge for the America's Cup in Fremantle, Australia. In the end, his Heart of America entry was done in by a lack of money, but not by any lack of effort.

Back then, Melges was chief money raiser, director of the syndicate, skipper and overseer of the crew. With him on the Heart of America was Argo, fresh from the Michigan State campus.

"He had a lot on his shoulders," Argo said. "He's probably one of the few guys who could pull that whole challenge off."

Despite Heart of America's lack of success, there was little doubt that Melges possessed a higher understanding of the subtleties of the sport. He talked to his crew members, not at them. He was one of them. If you looked hard enough, you could see the blue in his collar.

"He earned my admiration from Day 1," Argo said. "And he's still the same guy.

"Here, we've got a lot more toys to work with, so we've got that going for us. But he's still the same Buddy.

"I mean, we adapted Heart of America as best we could with the resources we had and we did a pretty good job. Here we have more resources and we've gotten a little further. But it's the same method and the same technique. About the only thing that might have changed is that Buddy has been able to concentrate more on steering the boat."

You'll get no argument from Melges, who quickly agreed with Argo's assessment.

"This is a more relaxed time because I don't have the pressure of fund-raising and looking after 40 people or so, like we had down in Australia," he said.

He also doesn't have to concern himself with being at the helm at the start. David Dellenbaugh does that. Instead, Melges assesses the wind on the race course and integrates the maneuvers and tactics of Dellenbaugh into his own plans.

"I don't have the personal pressure in the prestart maneuvers," Melges said. "As we get into the race and I take over the helm right after the start, I'm usually in a very relaxed state of mind. Maybe that helps us optimize the first five minutes of the race, which is very critical."

It is an odd mixture, this combination of Melges and Team Koch. Melges' reputation, earned during years of sailing nearly every class of boat, is one of touch, of understanding every nuance of the wind, the water, the crew, the competition, the craft.

"He's probably more in one with Mother Nature than anyone out there," Argo said. "His senses . . . he looks at the water, looks at the waves, looks at the sky and relies on his past experiences to predict what's going to come up next."

Those who have sailed with him or against him know this to be gospel truth. The Melges gift, if you can call it that, can't be defined in quantitative terms. It is a feel, the sort of thing that probably drives Koch, who believes technology conquers all, absolutely nuts.

"I don't think the people at America 3have listened to Buddy as much as they should have," Jobson said. "I think Bill Koch is so much of a scientist. He thinks the scientist wins out over the artist any time."

But state-of-the-art hulls and sails and equipment go only so far. After all, the boat can't drive itself.

"Buddy Melges has a couple of great things going for him," Jobson said. "He has great natural instinct for getting his mind and body in tune with the motion of the boat. And he has a great knack for looking up the course and anticipating what's going to happen. Conner has it. Buddy has it. (Former America's Cup skipper) Ted Turner had it. There's not that many that do."

Nor are there many helmsmen who can resist the temptation of too much information, too much equipment. Melges can, and does.

"Conner gets good by practicing all the time," Jobson said. "Cayard and Buddy, it comes easy to. Both tend to do things on their own. They're physically strong, mentally strong. They tend to like to make their own calls. Buddy gets a lot of input, but he tends to tune out a lot of it."

Instead, he relies on the lessons learned during those 56 years in sailing. He outsmarts people. He works harder than the next guy. He inspires his crew to work equally hard.

"I guess I'm most happy when I'm driving the boat and have a well-trained crew," Melges said. "Whatever I have to do to get up to those levels of competence, of course, is also fun for me. Maybe I'm most happy when we're out there practicing and trying to work out the bugs, being involved in the sailing design, looking at the rigs and having a rapport with the designers and telling them how the boat feels and what they can do to optimize it."

An example: Back in February, during the semifinals, America 3was modified so it would perform better in the light air off the coast of San Diego. As usual, Melges was there to offer his insight. The changes worked wonders.

More modifications were made between rounds, which resulted in even better performance.

"Even when Dennis tied us, 4-4, the crew and the support team came together without panic, made a few minor changes that they thought would correct our inabilities . . . and because of that, we won our last three races," he said.

In typical Melges fashion, there is no mention of his own contribution. Let others pat themselves on the back. Deep down, Melges knows what he has done.

And don't bother asking Melges about being an innovator. He will have none of it. Instead, he will recite the words of a crew member, who once told him: "That's all sailing is, going out and relearning the lessons already put down."

Who knows when Melges will tire of the sea, declare himself retired from the sport, retreat to his cabin in Canada and pass the days duck hunting?

Try never, his wife said.

"I think he always will (sail)," she said. "He always will until he can't anymore."

Whatever the timetable, Jobson said Melges has defied the odds by remaining at the top of competitive racing for so many years.

"Buddy is so good, he's a rare, rare exception to be able to keep doing this," he said.

Exception or not, Jobson predicted an America's Cup victory for America 3 . The reasons are simple enough: fast boat . . . and the power of Zendanese.

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