Buddy’s Way

Shift-playing, sail trim, tactics, tuning ... Bronze and gold medalist Buddy Melges explains his approach. From Yacht Racing/Cruising, February 1983
connecting puffs
The art of connecting puffs requires recognizing the oncoming lift or header and making sail and course adjustments accordingly…without looking down to the sail control when making the adjustment. Yacht Racing/Cruising

Why is Buddy Melges so good? If you put that question to the three sailors who have seen Melges at his best, you’ll get three different but complementary explanations. Bill Bentsen, Buddy’s crew at the ’64 and ’72 Olympics, sees raw talent as the main ingredient in the Melges success story: “Buddy is blessed with certain fundamental human abilities—quickness of thought, excellent eyesight, physical coordination, sensitivity, feel. People don’t understand how good he is in just plain steering the boat.” 

Bill Allen, Buddy’s middleman at the ’72 Olympics, ascribes Melges’ winning ways to anticipation: “He’s way ahead of himself out there on the boat course, always figuring out when his next tack will be. In the Soling it almost seemed like he already knew what his path was going to be up the weather leg, as if there were a map drawn on the water.” 

Andreas Josenhans, Buddy’s crew at the ’78 and ’79 Star Worlds, sees it this way: “Buddy can take in the whole picture while also concentrating only on what he sees as the relevant thing at the time. For instance, he can work a puff coming down from to weather and ahead while commenting that the boat to leeward and behind has on too much runner.” 


From these descriptions you get an image of Melges as a gifted, seat-of-the-pants sailing wizard. And his magical results on the racecourse surely seem to bear this out. But does he really have something that others don’t? Is Buddy (who has been referred to as “Mel-Jesus” by more than a few awe-struck competitors) such a “natural” that mere mortals have no hope of emulating him? 

“Baloney,” he says from his desk at Melges Boatworks, where the scent of fiberglass is so thick you can almost taste it. “I had to learn from my mistakes just like anybody else.” And as he begins reciting examples from his sailing past, a grin crinkles the corners of his mouth. Even after close to 40 years of spreading the gospel throughout scow country, Buddy still takes an obvious pleasure in talking about sailing. But once he starts to delve into the nuts and bolts of making a boat go, he is all seriousness. Speaking in a rapid-fire tenor, his hands held out like air­borne boats, the Wizard of Zenda reveals his magic… 

Finding The Upwind Groove 

“Every boat has a ‘groove’ in which it’s traveling at its maximum speed for the given wind velocity. To find that groove, you’ve got to start with tunnel vision, looking dead ahead, three feet off the projection of the boat. This enables you to pick up the angle that the jib stay makes across the horizon, which is your most crucial reference point. Every boat, whether it be a 12-Meter, scow, Soling or whatever, has an angle of heel at which it performs best, and once you’ve found the optimum jib-stay horizon angle, you want to keep it constant. 


“Now, of course, the speed adjustments on the boat—traveler, boom vang, sheet, backstay, etc.—all have a direct effect on maintaining the right horizon angle. But before you even begin to race, you should have such a good idea of what each control does to the sail shape that you don’t have to move your eyes from the horizon to make an adjustment. (For Buddy’s analysis of the relationship between rig controls and mainsail shape, see the sidebar}. For example, when you pull the cunningham, you should know exactly what is happening to the mainsail; you should have a mental picture of it. The worst thing in the world is to reach down into the cockpit of the boat to make an adjustment, look up at the sail a few seconds later and say, ‘Jeeze, I don’t know if that did any good or not …’ Meanwhile, you’ve lost total track of your horizon angle. 

RELATED: Honoring Buddy Melges in Wisconsin

“If you know exactly what your sail looks like without moving your eyes from the horizon, you are free to watch the air come to the boat, which is absolutely necessary if you’re going to anticipate the lulls and puffs. But once again, you’ve got to spend a lot of time on the water before you can ‘read’ the velocity of the wind and immediately relate it to what your boat tune and crew position should be. 


“Now, suppose the air is dropping in velocity ahead of me. I’m still using tunnel vision, so that my concentration is straight ahead and I can see that I’m sailing into a dying breeze. The first thing I’d do is release the vang, which straightens the mast and puts low and forward camber back in the mainsail. The second thing I’d do is bring the traveler up to windward. As a result, the lull would not change my angle of heel, nor would it deviate my course because I’d be showing Mother Nature a greater, more cambered sail shape, which would also allow me to keep my crew weight on the rail. Now, if I had allowed the boat to go flat and had to move the crew to leeward and then begun to make my adjustments, a competitor could have lifted off me by 20 degrees.” 

Taking Off the Blinders 

“So far, we’ve been using tunnel vision to groove the boat and shift gears, but when you’re actually on the racecourse, you’ve got to widen your field of vision. The broader your scope of vision, the higher your performance. Years ago, people were into developing greater sensitivity by putting a bag over their head or sailing with their eyes closed, but I’ve always maintained that you better open up your eyes to everything around you, make yourself a part of the environment. Remember, the name of the game is to outfox Mother Nature as well as the competition. 

“It’s amazing what you can see around you without turning your head. Even though you’re looking straight ahead, forward of the bow, you can pick up the ticklers on the jib and the telltales on the sidestays (which shouldn’t be so high that you have to look up to see them). Your peripheral vision also gives you a sensation of where the boats around you are. 


“I find that this sensation is crucial to playing windshifts, especially on an inland lake. Using this awareness of the other boats, I’ll pit myself against the fleet in such a way that I have a mental picture of the fleet’s relationship to my own boat. I then use the compass only as a point of reference to help me sort out what I’m seeing on the racecourse. 

“Let’s say you’re on port tack with a guy on your weather hip, and he begins to fall into you. You might say, ‘Ahh, we’re really pointing great!’ But are you really pointing great? Check your compass. ‘Hey, no, we’re being headed to the right a few degrees.’ Now the first indication that something was up came from what you saw on the racecourse, not from the compass.

In this way I like to use the people I’m sailing against first, use the compass as a reassurance, and then begin to plug in my tactics after that. 

“This method also keeps you on top of what your boatspeed is like. If you see that somebody is starting to crawl up your hip and the compass check shows that you’re not in a lift, then you better get on the strings and get your boat moving again.‘’ 

Reading The Water 

“If I’m on starboard tack and I see a puff coming right at me, I consider it a header; if I see a puff moving from right to left in front of me, I know it’s going to be a lift. When looking for wind on the water, I’ll often turn my eyes to weather to at least an abeam position, and if I see dark water up there coming straight at me, I’ll say, ‘Ahh, here comes a real hay­making lift.’ Let’s use this situation as an example, and see what we might do with it tactically. 

“If I keep sailing my boat fast and straight ahead (in the groove), I’m liable to sail right on into a heading shift dead ahead. But between the lifting force on my right and a heading force straight ahead, there will be a lull. You have to ask yourself, ‘Which batch of wind is really going to prevail?’ In this situation, I might just squeeze the hell out of the boat, not go for speed at all, and come up to the breeze on my right and let it build (see diagram). The second I know I’m in it, I’d pop my boat into a high-speed condition: ease the sheets, camber the sails and get my boat flying (a scow does this in pretty near its length). 

“Now what I did was ‘wait’ for the wind, and in doing this I would have opened up an immense amount of distance between myself and a competitor to leeward. Once the new lifting wind filled across the lull and that competitor finally got in it, he’d be almost dead astern of me. 

“Moves like this are so important on an inland lake. A person who his head or her in the cockpit is going to get burned, time and time again. Remember, be aware of the environment.” 

Pre-Race Strategy 

“Prior to the start of a race on an inland lake, I’ll spend up to half an hour watching how the air is coming across the water. I’ll also think about how the topography around the lake will affect the wind coming off the shoreline. 

“Before a race on open water, I’ll use my compass much more and record the different headings on the deck with a lead pencil. I then have in front of me a real security blanket of numbers – a confidence builder. Now I can determine if the wind is oscillating or if it’s swinging in any one direction. 

“Very often in open-water sailing, one side of the course is tremendously favored due to a sustained shift. And, of course, if you have a permanent clocking, it pays to take the header early, get up on the fleet’s hip and let the wheel turn some more in your favor. But I’ve never been very good at sustained shifts. I’m too bull-headed, I guess. I always wait for that little header to come back—because even though there may be a clocking going on, there is usually a little header that lets you get back.” 

puffs and lulls
The classic advice to sail “up in the lulls, down in the puffs” illustrates the changes in apparent wind as you sail between puffs and lulls. Yacht Racing/Cruising

Downwind Speed in Light Air 

“A lot of people have trouble making their boat go on a run or broad reach in the light stuff. Too many people just pull their spinnaker pole back and slog their way down the rhumbline to the leeward mark. I’ve never seen a spinnaker perform well with the pole back 90 degrees from the keel line—it brings the chute too close to the mainsail, which becomes totally ineffective because of the air off the spinnaker. 

“What I try to do is open up the slot and give every sail a chance to breathe. On a light-air broad reach in a Soling, I like to put the pole about 2 feet off the headstay (between 30 and 45 degrees off the keel line). I then bring the boat up to course and slowly let it wind. As the boat begins to accelerate, the apparent wind moves forward and the chute starts to collapse. When this takes place, too many people have a tendency to trim the sail to compensate for the luff. But think about it—the true wind hasn’t changed, only to be apparent. What you should do is leave the sails where they are and peel away (see diagram). Peeling away and maintaining your apparent wind forward will bring you back down to a rhumbline course, but at a much greater speed than you would have had if you had never freshened up. Eventually, of course, the boat slows down and the true wind begins to take over again, causing the apparent wind to shift aft. Then it’s time to freshen and build up your apparent wind all over again. 

‘”My one and only experience sailing offshore was a good example of how this technique really works. I sailed with Tom Blackaller and Tom Dreyfus aboard Louisiana Crude at the 1981 SORC during the Lipton Cup—a day race from Miami to Ft. Lauderdale and back again. During the beat up to Ft. Lauderdale we lost our buns and were way behind everybody else in our class. When we started the slide down on what was a cross between a broad reach and a run, we tried to hook up to the quarter wave of a larger boat, which I believe was Infinity. But the breeze died and we just sat there, and Infinity started to sail away from us. God, this was driving me nuts. So, I asked if we could freshen. We were so far sewered in this race that everybody had pretty much given up hope so they let me give her a try. I could see shots of air coming off the Miami Beach shore to the tune of 20 knots, while the lulls were as low as six. 

“With the pole cleated in a forward position we sailed above Infinity (which stayed on a rhumbline course), hit a shaft of air and came flying back down with the true-wind dead behind us, but with our apparent wind pretty near abeam. Next thing you know, we’re down below Infinity by 150 yards; she goes into a lull and pretty soon we’re 200 yards upwind of her; then we’re down below her; then we’re up again … I’m sure her crew thought we were dingbats. But all this time, Scaramouche, which had been just a dot on the horizon, kept getting larger and larger, and she was a class ahead of us. When we got to the Miami Sea Buoy, we rounded first in our class after being 22 minutes back at Ft. Lauderdale, and as you might imagine, the adrenalin was just flying on our boat.” 

The Skipper/Crew Relationship 

“When I begin training a crew, I don’t mince words. If they make a mistake, they’re going to know about it, right then and there. Dave Perry may say that skippers who holler don’t get results, but I disagree. I try not to belittle a person, but if I get too much chin music back from a crewmember who is trying to excuse himself from the wrong he’s committed on the boat, then I really come down hard on him. 

“I can always tell if my crew is really locked up and sailing the boat race with me. Even individuals who have been sailing with me for a long time have their hot and cold days. If I feel the crew is having a bad day because he’s slow, I’ll try to psyche him up with some verbal abuse and get him a little bit mad at me. If he gets angry, it’s going to get his adrenalin pumping and he’ll get up to speed.” 

The Rules 

“I’ve only filed one protest in my entire life. I figure that unless you absolutely have to use a protest, you’re probably detracting from your own performance if you’re taking the time to try to throw someone else out. When you push your luck or your position to gain the lever of a rule, you often miss a tactical or strategic move that could have really helped you. 

“So, if you see that a guy has made up his mind to cross you on port tack, let him go, even if it’s close; you don’t want him tacking underneath you anyway. But if you get fouled on the finish line, that’s a different story … bite down and go after that guy.” 


“Mental preparedness has got to be done through a training program that leaves no stone unturned. Only through practice, practice, practice can you create a feeling of absolute superiority: the boat is ready, the crew is ready, you are ready. You’ve got to feel it in your gut-that there’s not one thing left to doubt. You don’t care if it blows zero; you don’t care if it blows 35; you just want to get at ‘em, to go out there and fight tooth and nail. When I go to a series with that attitude, I feel really good about it. 

Just Like a 727 Wing: Melges on Mainsail Shape 

“I like to compare mainsail shape to the wing shape of a 727, which has a spoiler in the front and a flap on the back. If a bird were flying over the top of your mast and looked straight down, it would have the same perspective as someone looking horizontally at the 727 wing. 

The spoiler corresponds to the main’s luff camber while the flaps correspond to the batten section of the sail. We affect the camber of the mainsail through the boom vang (which thrusts the mast into curvature), the backstay (which also bends the mast), as well as the cunningham. We control the batten section through the mainsheet, boom vang and permanent backstay. 

“When we start out at slow speeds, we have to camber up (which means the 727 wing has its spoiler and flaps down). Then, as we begin to build our speed, we retract that spoiler at the front of the 727 wing by pulling on the vang, which throws the mast (and the sail with it) forward. We also begin to turn off the batten section (equivalent to lifting the flaps) by tensioning the backstay (which eases the leech). 

“If you have a clear idea of how all these controls relate to the shape of the sail, they can be used as a tactical weapon. For instance, if a guy tacked into a safe-leeward position on your bow, you could release the backstay for a moment and bring up the flaps, which would let you sail closer to the wind. Once you put some space between the two of you, you could trim the backstay again for more straight-line, high­speed sailing. 

“If you’re going to be able to do this type of thing, every adjustment on that boat has to have enough mechanical advantage that when you grab the line the adjustment is moving, without any body distortion diverting your concentration from the wind, the waves and the tactics around you.”