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Melges, 'wizard' at the helm, now has new technology on his side


SAN DIEGO -- Harry "Buddy" Melges spent Thursday doing what he loves -- sailing.

In his 62 years, he has won thousands of races in boats of every size and description.

In the 1964 Olympics at Tokyo, he won a bronze medal sailing a little Flying Dutchman. At the 1972 Olympics in Munich, he captured a gold in the soling class. But the next two weeks in the Pacific, off San Diego, will be the pinnacle of his sailing career, Melges said.

Melges, the helmsman for America3, and the other 15 working crew on the sleek, white, 75-foot sailboat with a huge soaring eagle emblazoned on its hull, will defend America's Cup, sports' oldest trophy.

On Thursday, he spent more than six hours on the water, testing his boat. A new mast and keel were installed this week.

For 18 months, the America3 team has been training for the best-of-seven series that started yesterday against Italy's Il Moro di Venezia.

Some laughed, at first, at the team with the funny name headed by Bill Koch, 51, a successful businessman with a doctorate in chemical engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

America cubed (to the third power) was to be a campaign of talent, technology and teamwork, promised Koch, who only began to race sailboats 10 years ago.

Melges was an early recruit.

Melges, called the "Wizard of Zenda" after the small Wisconsin border town near Lake Geneva where he operates several sailing-related businesses, pulled together the America3 team, which last week defeated Dennis Conner, the early favorite.

Melges, sailor and leader, has clearly been the glue for the crew of America3.

"He is one of the world's most skilled sailors," said Joe Wright Jr., Commodore of the Chicago Yacht Club. "Watching Buddy Melges race is like watching Joe DiMaggio or Mickey Mantle bat."

"He is very straightforward and very humorous. He is so skilled, so knowledgeable, and so pleasant about it. He knows every job on the boat and can perform it himself," Wright said. "He is an inspiration to those who sail with him."

But for Melges, the Cup campaign is more than sailing.

"It is a race of technology and design and innovation," Melges said. "Some of my successes in sailing were due to innovations that I put on boats that were already designed. But here I watch first-hand what the designers are doing.

"We have a huge amount of technology available to us. We use wind tunnels that are used to design defense aircraft and test tanks where they test our battleship configurations," Melges said.

America3 built four of the new International America's Cup Class boats, which are much larger and carry nearly twice the sail area as the 12-meter craft used in Cup races from 1958 through 1987. The new boats are much faster, but because they are made with space-age materials like carbon fiber they are much lighter than the old aluminum 12s.

"The wizardry here is mind-boggling. We can monitor the performance of our competitors and know just how fast they are going and what angles they are sailing to the wind," Melges said.

"We have a laser range gun. We shoot it on a competitor, and it tells us how many boat lengths he is behind us. It computes crossings and tells you how much you are ahead or behind," he said.

America3 used two boats in the selection races, often rotating the crews from a pool of 40. But now it is one boat and one crew.

"I am happy and unhappy," Melges said. "Happy that we have one set team, but unhappy that we could not accommodate all the players."

"I am sure that the boat would perform just as well with four or five others of the team on it," Melges said.

The real difference between America3 and Conners' one-boat program was money. Corporate funding was hard to find in the recession. Conner had a second boat on the drawing board, but never got to build it.

So Conner, whose Stars & Stripes sailed best when winds blew 6 to 10 mph, will not be in the America's Cup finals for only the second time since 1974.

Koch's personal wealth meant no money worries for America3.

Melges, who headed the Chicago Yacht Club's unsuccessful Heart of America challenge for the Cup in 1987, appreciates Koch's resources.

"We are not in want of a thing," Melges said. "And because of that, we can excel and progress in sailing every day."

When Melges heads to the starting line, eight of the crew members will be former members of the Heart of America crew.

Like Koch, Raul Gardini, 62, head of Il Moro di Venezia, has personally bankrolled the Italians. During races, Gardini rides as the 17th crew member, a non-working spot.

Koch, however, steers America3 for much of each race, sharing the helm with Melges, who takes over just after the starting gun.

In the 10-minute prestart, as boats jockey for a favorable position, Dave Dellenbaugh, 38, a rules expert, drives.

Some have been critical of the "musical chairs" on America3. But it continues to win.

Melges calls his relationship with Koch, "a nice, positive arrangement."

"I would not call him a student by any means. He is maximizing his years in the sport with an accelerated program here at America's Cup.

"Sailing every day, being involved with nothing but sailors from early in the morning until late at night. When you eat, drink and sleep the sport that much, things rub off," Melges said.

"We have a training room that would make Ditka envious. We have as many trainers as the Bears and more apparatus than you can shake a stick at.

"It has been fun because of the intrigue, the intrigue of design, the intrigue of putting together an organization of this size," Melges said. "I am looking forward to a successful defense, and then my immediate plan is to go back to Wisconsin and enjoy a beautiful summer."

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