Sailing World Magazine Article: "Melges 14—Sowing the Seeds"

Photo by Melges / Hannah Lee Noll

Photo by Melges / Hannah Lee Noll

Melges 14—Sowing the Seeds

Article in Sailing World Magazine – March 2019

By Dave Powlison

Eddie Cox has been on the road a lot lately. His Chevy Silverado and covered trailer, each emblazoned with the blue-and-red Melges Boatworks logo, is part of a travelling road show of sorts. With five of the company’s new dinghy, the Melges 14, filling the trailer, he’s been preaching the gospel of Melges to the faithful and, like a modern-day Johnny Appleseed, planting one new dinghy fleet at a time. In the early days he hit up more than 20 yacht clubs across a dozen states. Wherever he pitches his tent, so to speak, new faces approach with piqued curiosity.

“I go down with a full load of boats and hopefully come back empty,” says Cox, a slender, energetic 20-something.

Early on, one of those stops was at Lake Lanier Sailing Club in Flowery Branch, Georgia.

Local sailor Adam Ankers recalls, “We thought, ‘Well, we should probably go out because they’re bringing these new boats, it’s free, and you don’t have to do anything but go and sail.’ It was a beautiful day with a nice breeze, and before Eddie left, we had bought three boats right off the truck. He stopped back again on his way back from Sarasota and sold the rest.”

Fleets of varying sizes, often with similar stories, are popping up throughout the country and, thanks to Cox and a half dozen dealers, there are Melges 14s from Rochester, New York, to San Francisco, to Florida. A push is underway in Europe as well.

“Nelo, which is the world’s largest kayak and rowing-shell builder, approached us to build the 14,” Harry Melges III says. “The guys who are running it are sailors; they saw the boat and were keen on doing it.”

Located in Portugal, they’re up and running and have produced around 75 boats, he says. U.S. production is a bit more than 300 now. Not surprisingly, the epicenter for Melges 14 activity is Wisconsin’s Lake Geneva YC, located a stone’s throw from Zenda, home of Melges Boat Works.

Logically, this was the place for the class’s inaugural U.S. National Championship in 2018. And while there have been modest-sized fleets at the Midwinters in Sarasota, this one easily eclipsed those. With 37 boats registered, it’s the class’s largest gathering to date, with owners from distant fleets, as well a contingent of charter-boat sailors who just wanted to know what all the fuss was about. That group included me.

Having only seen the boat once from a distance, my first close-up revealed why it’s drawing attention.

Those already in the Melges 14 class enjoy the camaraderie ashore that seems to be present at every class gathering. Photo by Melges / Hannah Lee Noll

Those already in the Melges 14 class enjoy the camaraderie ashore that seems to be present at every class gathering. Photo by Melges / Hannah Lee Noll

For starters, it looks fast and modern sitting on its dolly; its modest hiking wings seem like fins on a rocket ship. The beam is 5 feet, 2 inches, providing a significantly wider hiking platform than most other single-handers in its size range. The shallow cockpit and open transom alleviate the need for bailers — which I would find quite valuable later — and controls for everything but the vang are led to each side. The carbon mast tubes slide together easily and fit snugly. The square‑headed, fully‑battened sail is sleeved onto the mast, and acetal collars around the bottom section provide a tight fit in the mast step that allows the mast to rotate as if the contact points were ball bearings. Everything fits like a glove. Rig the carbon boom, slide the kick-up rudder into the gudgeons, fit the tiller into the rudder head, and off you go on 120 pounds of pure sailing joy.

Three rigs are available — red, blue and gold, at 58, 85 and 98 square feet, respectively — all pretty big numbers for a small boat.

“We kept the bottom section as short as we could,” Melges says, “then use different top sections. For instance, we wanted the tip to be more flexible for the smaller sail. It just didn’t make sense to have the same tip you have for a gold sail that you do for a red sail.”

Between the leverage provided by the wider hiking platform and sail controls that easily allow you to twist off the top of the sail like a windsurfer — just pull hard on the ­downhaul — even the larger sails can be handled by smaller people.

The forecast for the three‑day event was for winds in the 5- to 15-knot range. The word on the clubhouse lawn was that I could hang in there upwind with a smaller rig, but downwind, I’d probably pay the price. And with the wind predictions in the light‑to-medium range, the majority of the fleet went with the big rig.

Even many of the feather-­weight sailors, including 14-year-old local ace Chapman Petersen — who might hit 140 pounds soaking wet — went with the gold sail. He notched all top-10 finishes, including two bullets, and ended up third overall.

Mickey Thompson, from North Carolina, age 74, was sailing his first Melges 14 regatta and went with the blue sail. A former motorcycle racer, this event marked his first foray into competitive sailing. “I’ve sailed my boat a lot, but I’ve never been on the same waters as another Melges 14,” he says.

At the opposite end of the age range, 62 years younger than Thompson, is Victor Larimer, from Lake Geneva, the sole red-sail competitor.

“That’s one of the great things about this boat,” says Josh Landers, who sails out of the Privateer YC in Chattanooga, Tennessee, “the wide range of ages that are sailing in it as well both genders.”

As you’d expect from a 120-pound boat with a big, powerful sail, the Melges 14 accelerates rapidly. It also slows just as quickly. Fathers’ Day weekend and 90-degree temperatures brought out plenty of wakeboarders and pleasure cruisers, and every time I fail to effectively manage an oncoming wake, boatspeed plummeted. Take a wave over the bow, and water easily runs out the self-draining cockpit. Good news there, but even better, if you could catch a powerboat wave going in your direction, you got an easy ride — even upwind.

The smaller sail plan — in this case the blue rig — provides an opportunity for even the youngest sailors to mix it up with the big kids.

The smaller sail plan — in this case the blue rig — provides an opportunity for even the youngest sailors to mix it up with the big kids.  Photo by Melges / Hannah Lee Noll.

The smaller sail plan — in this case the blue rig — provides an opportunity for even the youngest sailors to mix it up with the big kids. Photo by Melges / Hannah Lee Noll.

Like most boats, those who can shift gears the best — vang, especially, and the downhaul — gain the most. That’s accentuated in a boat this light. It quickly becomes apparent who has spent more time in the boat. Petersen, for example, who is leading the event at the end of the second day, sails the boat regularly in the junior program at Lake Geneva YC. Local Harry Melges IV, 17, who has been sailing the boat since its inception, is a speedster.

He stumbles early on with a 13th in the regatta’s second race, but then nails four of the last five races to win the no-throw-out event.

But it’s not all about time in this specific boat.

Rich Chapman, a Wisconsin band director who doubles as a sax player in a rock-and-roll band, is a long-time small-boat sailor who has competed in many Sunfish events internationally as well as Force 5 events in the United States.

“There are a lot of similarities between the 14 and the Force 5,” he says. He chartered a boat and ended up fourth, showing that many of the skills needed in other classes transfer to the 14 — very encouraging for neophytes in the class who are veterans in other boats.

Part of drawing veterans from those other classes is showing that the Melges 14 is a viable option. “I think there are a lot of people who are watching us [at Lake Lanier] and ready to make the jump, but it just takes a lot of activity to show what we’re up to,” Todd Wilson says. He has been in the class for a little more than a year. “We have our own local regatta, and there are some nearby regattas, too — all a lot of fun.”

The Lanier group also works hard at making sure knowledge is shared around the camp.

“Whoever did well on the weekend sends out an email to the fleet, picking something to talk about that they felt helped them,” Ankers says. “I had a good weekend and then talked about sail settings.

“At our Spring Fling regatta, Josh [Landers] schooled us all, and then he talked about tactics and where he was putting his weight. We’ve got all different weights and ages, so it’s neat to hear what works for Josh, who weighs 60 pounds less than I do, and what works for somebody my size.”

While the lighter winds of the Nationals provide plenty of ­challenges, when the breeze picks up, the fun factor skyrockets. It’s a remarkably comfortable boat to hike on, with the deck rolled on the inside and cut at an angle on the outside. A lot of sailors wore hiking pants but, given the heat, I wore shorts and never gave comfort a second thought.

Knee-pads are nice, but the floor has a relatively soft, non-skid surface, and when kneeling, such as when sailing downwind, as long as you don’t slide, even that’s not an issue.

RELATED: Olympic 49er Hopeful Harry Melges IV Now Carries the Family Name

The boat sails upwind with a balanced helm — the flatter you sail, the more balanced the helm — and being able to reach forward from a fully hiked position to adjust the controls was a real bonus. Downwind, the boat can be squirrely, so you need to stay on your toes and be ready to give the mainsheet an aggressive pump when you start to roll to windward. Keeping the daggerboard down a bit lower also helps stability.

The boat really shows its stuff on the final day, when the breeze briefly picks up to the low teens, and the race committee sends us on a triangle-windward-leeward course. It’s clear from the range of techniques that, for many, a course with reaching legs was something new to be mastered.

The 14 came from the drawing board of John Reichel, of Reichel Pugh Yacht Design. Over the years, his designs have ranged from a 50-inch radio-controlled sailboat to 200-foot mega-yachts. He also designed the Melges 17, 20, 32 and 24.

“Harry [III] came to me and said they were interested in a single-hander,” he says. “They built a prototype based on my design — a one-off — but there were very few changes from the prototype to the full mold. I think the mast was originally about 6 inches taller. After they sailed it for a bit, they reduced the sail area to make it a little less powerful. And it was their idea to have different sail sizes to accommodate a wider range of people.”

The Melges 14 appeared on the scene at what some see as the pinnacle of single-handed sailing.

The elder Melges says, “A couple of years ago, there seemed to be kind of a lull in the action with single-handed sailboats, so this seemed like the thing to do. People were seeing kind of a gap in the single-handed market — maybe there should be something new and more exciting to captivate younger sailors as well as older sailors who were ready for something new.”

Unbeknownst to him, RS Sailboats and Devoti had the same idea, and all of a sudden there are three new choices available to single-handers.

“I think everybody had the same idea,” Melges says. While the Devoti D-Zero is more of a European boat, with few in North America, the Melges 14 and the RS Aero are treading the same ground. Time will tell whether one — or all three — will become the new premier single-handed one-design, or even gain Olympic status for Paris 2024. Those at the Melges 14 U.S. Nationals have no doubt which is the preferred craft.