Truly it’s vexing that sailing luminaries don’t get more attention in the U.S.—a nation founded on the very skill of being able to sail successfully and well—and it really hits you front and center watching “The Wizard of Zenda,” Mark Honer’s terrific documentary film about the legendary Buddy Melges. His sailing career has been so remarkable that few superlatives come close to describing it; even sailors like Gary Jobson and Dennis Conner, who raced with and against him over the years and managed to become household names, sometimes seem almost speechless in their own efforts to do so.
“That’s his level,” Conner says, talking about how Melges won Olympic gold in 1972 in the Soling Class, then turned around and won two back-to-back world championships in what’s arguably the most elite and competitive one-design class of all, the Star. It’s rather the equivalent of winning the Daytona 500 in NASCAR, then shifting gears and winning two Formula One championships. “One of a kind. Unique…He could win a world championship in any boat he wanted to. Any boat, he could do it. I’m convinced.”
“Buddy’s a phenomenon,” Jobson says. “I’ve studied him a lot. And Buddy, in our era, stands out. I’ve sailed with all the best names in the sport. All of them. And Buddy’s a cut above.”
At one point, the film scrolls through a list of Melges’ world and national championships, and they were frequently multiple years in classes ranging from Iceboat Class and Flying Dutchman to E-Scows and 5.5. Metres. Along with Olympic gold and bronze in two different classes, he won the Mallory Cup (North American champion) three years straight and was a three-time Yachtsman of the Year. It’s hard to think of any other athlete winning across so many disciplines in a single sport, for so long.
The film’s structure is centered around the 1992 America’s Cup, which Melges would go on to win as co-skipper of Bill Koch’s America3 campaign. Using that ultimate yachting prize as the touch point, the film goes back and forth in time to take us through Melges’ life and career.
Documentary footage by 1992 America’s Cup cinematographer Phil Uhl is mingled with materials from Koch’s archives, as well as dazzling contemporary sailing on Wisconsin’s Lake Geneva in Melges’ beloved E-Scows hiking out alongside his kids and grandkids (he was national E-Scow champion in 1965, ’69, ’78, ’79, and ’83), Olympic footage, and family photos of him duck hunting and fishing. Along with a multitude of sailing stars like Jobson, Conner, John Bertrand, Mike Toppa, and Koch, interviews include family members, former team members, fellow club sailors, and the youngsters he continues to coach and mentor.
That he was a driven, sometimes difficult, skipper to sail with comes through, but so does his deep appreciation of the natural world and his singular skill at understanding how nature and a boat must interact. At one point, the famously data- and technology-driven Koch placed a $250,000 camera atop the America’s Cup boat mast that would read wind shifts and velocity. At the same time, he asked Buddy for his interpretation of what he (and presumably the camera) was seeing. “We took all the data down and compared it, and we found that Buddy was 50 percent more accurate than the camera,” Koch says. “So, we got rid of the camera.”
His deep love of sailing and commitment to the sport and community is also evident, particularly when it comes to sharing knowledge and helping others learn to sail better. “There’s not a drum roll when he walks in the room,” says Ellen Bentsen, Lake Geneva Yacht Club historian. “He’s a very humble person, considering everything.”
Toward the end of the film, several people weigh in on Melges’ legacy to the sport. But Melges, now 93 and still sailing, laughs: “No, there’s no legacy. You start first, you sail out in front, you increase your lead, and always sail around on the starboard tack.”
To see where “The Wizard of Zenda” is playing now, visit wizardofzenda.com and check the events calendar, or sign up for a screening for your yacht club or group. The film will be available on streaming services likely later this year.