Sixty Years And Still Going Strong
2 January 2005
Somewhere between Chicago and Milwaukee, in the heart of America, lies a magical place called Zenda. In fact, a wizard resides there, and the spells he has cast have helped sustain an institution called Melges Performance Sailboats (MPS), now celebrating its 60th year of business. While innumerable boat builders have come and gone during that period, and others have had to continually reinvent themselves, MPS has remained true to its founder's vision of producing unique and exciting race boats that emphasize the family as much as they do the racing.
Three generations of Melges men have taken the helm of this tight-knit family business, beginning with Harry Melges Sr., a strict German with a no-compromise business temperament. The senior Melges was also a first-rate craftsman with an eye for fast boat designs, and he would pass these qualities along to his son, Harry Melges Jr., a.k.a. Buddy Melges and 'The Wizard of Zenda'.
Today, MPS is run by Harry Melges III, a keen sailor and businessman in his own right, but with a distinctly different management style than his forefathers. "My grandfather was a strong but fair man", says Melges III (right). "He was a great craftsman and designer as well as a great sailor and iceboater. I am sure it was his way or the highway. I have heard stories about him not selling a boat to someone if they didn't take it the way he built it! I believe that my style is a bit more subtle than that of my father or grandfather. I try to lead by example, work hard, do the job right, know every job in the shop, and do whatever it takes!"
Melges III clearly understands the value of empowering his employees. "I think just about everything we have done since I have been running the company has been very open in terms of design and build," says Melges. "I set the parameters on some things, or sometimes make a final call, but for the most part, whoever is working on the project is free to think for themselves in order to complete the project as efficiently as possible and create their own masterpiece. I think this creates a more open environment for ideas to flow from one employee to the next. Someone is always coming up to me with a new idea to improve a process in production or improve something on a boat that we build. Most of the time it is really a great idea and we implement it."
Melges credits his employees with developing the Melges 'M-Preg' laminating process. "Our M-Preg process has been refined over a 13 year period with hundreds of great trouble shooting ideas contributed by numerous employees. This process, more than any one thing in our company, has made us what we are today. It improved our efficiency and thus our profitability to the point where our competition could not compete. You do need great products too, but without the M-Preg process, I do not think we would be what we are today."
The M-Preg laminating system (M-Preg is a trademark name, but the process is not patented) is a 'one step' laminating process. The cloth is impregnated with resin using a vacuum impregnation machine. The outer skin laminate, the core, and the inner skin laminate are all laid up and vacuum bagged together. According to Melges, the savings in time and laminate weight are huge. "With the core bagged into the wet laminate, you don't need putty, and you save a lot of weight. Thus, we are able to increase the glass content of the laminate, which makes a lighter, stronger boat, in less time. This process also allows you to turn the molds over more often improving efficiency."
The magic of Melges doesn't stop at boat construction. "Not only do we have a dedicated and experienced work force," says Melges, "but we have a very talented sales team as well. We can provide expert service and advice on sailing, boat building, and sail making. I believe we have one of the most experienced and talented teams in the industry when it comes to one design racing and winning." In fact, getting an interview with Harry was difficult because he and his staff attend so many events each year. "We attend as many regattas as possible in all the different classes that we manufacture to provide parts and service and ensure that the regatta experience is as good as it can be for our customers."
Despite being known internationally for their 24ft sportboat, what is perhaps not so well known outside of the States is that the vast majority of the Melges line comprises scows - shallow draft, flat-bottomed boats with low sheer and square, sloping ends (the Topper is an example of a small scow hull).
Scows are particularly suited to inland lake sailing, where large chop is less of a factor for flat-bottom boats without a sharp bow. The wide decks allow for ample righting moment without the need for a trapeze, and scows are typically sailed with greater heel to reduce wetted surface and extend the waterline. Scows feature two sideboards, situated outboard near the turn of the bilge, rather than a single centerboard like most dinghies. The scows produced by Melges come in a variety of sizes ranging from 16 feet (4.9 meters) for the MC Scow to 38 feet (11.6 meters) for the powerful A Scow. Sail plans also vary between cat rigs, sloops with just a main and jib, and sloops featuring asymmetrical spinnakers. The most popular scow in the Melges line is the MC. Melges averages 75 new boats per year, and fleets have spread throughout the US with nearly 2,400 MC Scows built.
One interesting aspect of scow racing is the flexible crew limits. In most classes (A, E, C, and MC Scows), you can add an extra crew member or two on a windy day, allowing for greater participation. "It really keeps the family going to regattas together and I think that it has really kept scow racing strong", adds Melges on the crew rules.
Without question, the most popular Melges creation worldwide is the Melges 24. Influenced by his experience defending the America's Cup in 1992, Buddy commissioned naval architects Reichel/Pugh to design a small, light displacement keelboat, with ample sail area, and the rest, as they say, is history.
At low point in the cycle of keel boat handicap racing, the Melges 24 when it was introduced in 1993, taking the yachting world by storm much like the J24 did in 1978. The little speedster possessed the speed of a 40-footer around the course, and it quickly became the scourge of PHRF sailors everywhere in the US as well as in Europe. Tthe term 'sportboat' was virtually invented to describe the Melges 24, and it seems appropriate that it remains as the benchmark from which all others in the genre are judged.
What makes the Melges 24 so incredibly popular? Harry thinks the boat just sells itself. "The M24 is a joy to sail. She is easy, comfortable, and really fast." The lifting keel and light displacement allow for easy ramp or hoist launching, towing, and rigging. To date, 635 Melges 24s have been built, with production in the US and Europe.
However, Melges' attempt to scale the 24 into a 30 footer was ill-fated. "We started out own the same design path as the M24", explains Harry, "but we got too carried away with making her an all around speedster instead of concentrating on the same simplistic features that make the M24 such a success." The Melges 30 included a large overlapping genoa, running backstays and an articulating bowsprit, and even dabbled with trim tabs on the keel. In the end, the Melges 30 got too complicated for the average sailor, and production ceased after hull number 18.
With lessons learned from the M30 experience, Melges and Reichel/Pugh went back to the drawing board. The result is the new Melges 32, built in Trinidad by Paul Amon's company SOCA Sailboats, builder of other sportboats like the Henderson 30. The overseas construction alleviated capacity issues in Zenda, while also providing lower cost construction for the labor-intensive M32. Additionally, there are no import duties levied on boats produced in the West Indies.
The Melges 32 (right) uses the same proven hull form as the Melges 30, but with refinements to the layout and foils, and a simplified rig and upwind sail plan. Soca's influence in the 32 can be seen by incorporating the Variable Aspect Rudder Assembly (VARA) and Contained Retractable Outboard (CRO) systems, they pioneered with the Henderson 30. The VARA is an ingenious rudder cassette system that allows the sailor to vary the rudder depth, fore/aft sweep, and cant side-to-side but on the 32 the depth and angle of the rudder are fixed. The CRO is a self-contained unit that allows an outboard motor to be raised and lowered through the hull. A plate attached to the bottom of the unit mates flush with the bottom when sailing.
While Melges was careful on the M32 to retain many of the simplistic features that have made the Melges 24 popular, the rules do allow for three different asymmetrical spinnakers - a Code 1A VMG, a Code 2A Runner, and a Code 0 Reacher. However, the flavor of Melges 32 racing is intended to be decidedly different than the largely professional Melges 24. Strict one design class rules govern the M32s amateur owner/driver requirements, professional crew limitations and crew weight maximum to limit the number of crew. To date, 20 Melges 32s have been sold, with production capacity at two per month.
Meanwhile Melges continue to develop their scow range, the newest edition being the Melges 17. With this design, Melges is clearly targeting people who want a bit more innovation and performance added to the traditional scow concept. The Melges 17 offers a generous sail plan, featuring a high-aspect mainsail with full battens and lots of roach at the head. The jib also has significant proportions, with a roller-furler system for easy handling. The asymmetrical spinnaker launches from a tube on the foredeck, and sports a retractable carbon bowsprit which is operated integrally with the spinnaker halyard. Melges calls this the Melges Hands Free Kite System™ (HFKS). When the spinnaker halyard is pulled, the bowsprit also extends.
The numbers offer some insight into the Melges 17's performance. With an upwind sail area of 220 sqft (approx 20.4 sqm), and double that canvas downwind (assuming furled jib), she has some horsepower. The displacement of 300 pounds (136 kg) is light to moderate for a performance dinghy, so the Melges 17 should offer excellent acceleration, especially off the wind. "Downwind with the mast head asymmetrical she flies", says Melges. "She is as fast or faster than our popular 28 foot E scow downwind, and that is fast!"
This much sail area without a trapeze may raise some brows in the high-performance dinghy community, but Melges claims that the combination of large form stability, a rig that depowers automatically, and the normal trim being heeled up slightly for wetted surface reduction all contribute to a manageable platform. Melges adds, "A lot of the sailing we do is on inland lakes which offer very shifty winds. We elect not to utilize a trapeze because you are tacking often, and it becomes too athletic for a large majority of the sailors."
Melges claims that the optimal all-round combined crew weight for the Melges 17 is only 320 pounds (145 kilos). "The great thing is you can sail with your son or daughter or wife or girlfriend. Second at the inaugural US Nationals this year went to a boyfriend/girlfriend team, the top Master and 5th overall position went to a father and his 11 year old son! Sailors of all ages and sex are having a ball in this boat. The crew position is demanding, but everything is easy to pull so it is not too physical."
Traditional racing scows have never been popular in Europe, but perhaps the Melges 17 will change perceptions. "I think that the scows would be great on the lakes in Europe!" exclaims Melges. "We have shipped some of the new Melges 17s to Switzerland and Italy. Maybe because the Melges 17 looks a bit more modern she will more easily be accepted in places where there have not been scows historically. Racing scows is the best racing you will do, so I am sure that once we have some fleets in Europe, it will spread like wildfire!"
Like many new high performance dinghies, the M17 has had some teething problems. There were some rig failures associated with an insufficient secondary laminate in the hound area, but Melges claims that these problems have been solved. The latest rig encorporates lower shrouds that help with headstay tension and lower mast control, and upper spreaders to help support the masthead kite.
Harry III is not only a driven boat builder, but an accomplished sailor, having won many titles including the venerable Melges 24 World Championship. These combined experiences give Harry very valuable insights into the marketplace which yield strong opinions on what makes for a successful one-design class. "Scow sailing retains a high emphasis on family. To us that is critical for the success of any fleet. The Melges 24 class can be that way if you want. There are all sorts of M24 teams that sail with family members. To us, that is the only way to go. All of the boats we build are youth friendly and female friendly which is key. We all have families too, and for us to spend the amount of time we do sailing, our families need to be involved and having fun."
Harry is also emphatic about his design philosophy. "Our goal is to create boats that are easy, fast, really fun, and comfortable. You need to have a blast sailing whether you are winning or in 30th place. If you are screaming downwind with a big grin on your face, having the ride of your life, sometimes you forget what place you are in! If the boats aren't a blast to sail, then we don't build them!"
Melges also opines on amateur sailing, and how professionalism can hurt one-design classes. "The more sailors that can compete as weekend warriors, the more successful your class will be. The racing is great, you have many different winners, and the regattas are more fun since it tends to not be so serious. There is as much emphasis on the social aspect as there is on the sailing, and this is key. One thing that needs to be controlled is the level of coaching and coach boats on the water. I believe that no outside assistance from the time you leave the dock is the way it should be to help level the playing field. Some of the well funded programs with more than one boat and tender boats and coaches, etc start to drive away the weekend sailors who are there to have fun but also hope to do well. If it does not appear to be a level playing field, you start to lose those weekend sailors from the major regattas and eventually from your class."
Where is one-design sailing headed, according to Melges? "In my opinion, the most successful new classes over the next two decades will be owner/driver or amateur classes. People don't have the time to spend training or away from their family so if you can minimize the time away, make it a family event, and make it a party they won't want to miss, you should have a winning formula.