The waters of Lake Geneva have honed and shaped some of the finest sailors to ever represent the United States on the world stage.
Harry “Buddy” Melges Jr. immediately comes to mind. Some regard him as the best competitive sailor in history. He won a pair of Olympic sailing medals—including a gold at the 1972 Munich Games—and was part of the America’s Cup-winning crew in 1992.
Now 88 years old, Buddy has watched multiple generations of sailors carry on the legacy he built.
Harry Melges IV—yep, Buddy’s grandson—and Finn Rowe are the latest products of Lake Geneva’s proud sailing tradition. The two 17-year-olds, who will be seniors in the fall at Walworth Big Foot High School, have found a way to balance schoolwork and a rigorous training schedule.
The pair leaves Wednesday to begin a European tour as they continue their campaign toward a spot on Team USA for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. They’re on the short list of Americans who could reach the Olympics in the 49er boat class.
Did I mention they are 17?
“The people that we’re racing against in Europe, they’re probably all from 23 to older,” Rowe said. “We’re definitely the youngest out there right now, especially for the U.S. team.”
That age disparity hasn’t stopped the pair from competing—and winning. As 13-year-olds, Melges IV and Rowe took the E-Scow Blue Chip Regatta by storm in 2014, when they, as part of a four-man crew, won every race over the course of the three-day regatta in Pewaukee. Jim Campbell, a veteran sailor who currently serves as a special advisor to the United States Sailing Association, saw the youngsters cruise past a field that included seasoned professionals.
“They won every race, which is almost unprecedented,” Campbell said. “Their attitude, their mindset and their focus, their talent is certainly phenomenal.
“Here we are today, they’re 17, and there’s more to come.”
Still, Melges IV and Rowe have to face obstacles others don’t. For one, they’re still in high school. That means for about nine months out of the year, their ability to train during the week is limited. Both said they have been taking additional courses so they can graduate early in the winter.
Which brings us to another big obstacle—winter. Once the lakes freeze, training outdoors becomes almost impossible. To skirt that problem, Melges IV and Rowe said they spent almost every weekend last winter in Florida. They became regulars on the Sunday night Frontier Airlines flight from Miami to Milwaukee. They were always back in time for classes Monday mornings.
“It seems like the U.S. guys take time off for training … we are still working hard in school,” Melges IV said. “They have more time to train because we have school but we don’t take any breaks. It evens out in the end.”
“When we’re not able to train, we’re either watching videos or working out to get stronger for the sailboat,” Rowe added.
Melges IV and Rowe work as one unit when they’re on the water, but they each have a defined role in their two-man crew. Put quite simply, Melges IV steers, while Rowe makes the boat go as fast as possible.
“He reads the wind to make the boat go fast and I read it to point the boat in the right direction,” Melges IV said.
“We have different settings for the amount of wind we’re in,” Rowe said. “If it’s very light, I’m more forward in the boat in a different position and trimming the sails differently. When it’s windier, we’re out further, like hiking and trying to keep the boat flatter.”
Melges IV and Rowe have raced a variety of boat classes, but it’s their prowess on the 49er that could take them to the Olympics. The 49er can reach speeds over 20 knots (about 23 mph) and features two sails with a combined surface area of over 600 square feet.
“It’s one of the most athletic boats there is in the Olympics,” Rowe said.
Imagine a pack of those 16-foot-long boats jockeying for position.
“It is nerve-wracking at times when they’re in a regatta and there’s a whole cluster of boats screaming into one mark,” said Rob Rowe, Finn’s father. “You’re only as good as the boat next to you. If they crash on top of you, that’s calamity. I’m not worried about those two. They handle themselves in the boat really well.”
Recently, Melges IV and Rowe won the E-Scow Nationals title in April and followed that up with a Melges 14 Nationals win in June at Lake Geneva.
They have momentum and confidence as they prepare to embark on a European tour that will include several marquee regattas: The ISAF World Championships in Aarhus, Denmark, from July 30-August 12 and the Junior World Championships in Marseille, France, in late August.
Perform well, and they’ll remain on track to challenge for an Olympic berth.
“I get so much adrenaline racing sailboats,” Melges IV said. “I’ve done a lot of other racing—motocross, ski racing, other stuff like that—and sailing is the best I think. If I wasn’t racing sailboats, I think I’d be really bored.”
If Melges IV and Rowe qualify for the Olympics, would Buddy make the trip to Tokyo?
“I’d have to go. Someone would be twisting my arm pretty good,” he said. “The ultimate goal is to get on that No. 1 podium and have them play your song—’The Star Spangled Banner.’ That’s what really fires the old boiler.”
Buddy speaks from experience. Two years from now, it’s possible two more Lake Geneva sailors will know what he’s talking about.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misidentified the high school Harry Melges IV and Finn Rowe attend. They attend Walworth Big Foot High School.