The sea breeze comes in hard every day at noon here, just as it does in Fremantle, Western Australia, where in three months the biggest yacht racing series in history will begin.

From the beach at Santa Cruz, you can see two 12-meter sailboats out on the Pacific, a mile or two offshore, racing in the afternoon sunlight. The one with the big red maple leaf is Canada II. The other, with a golden pitchfork mounted on her transom as a flagpole, is Buddy Melges' new, white Heart of America.

"When we were in Canada last year, the Canadians flew their flag on a hockey stick," said Melges' wife of 31 years, Gloria. "Buddy wasn't going to be outdone. He went out and got a three-tine fork, which you use to pitch hay.

"Then one of the crew member's fathers came up with this brass-plated one, which has four tines. Now that's for spreading manure, which I'm sure the man didn't know. Of course, Buddy does. He was raised in the country."

In any case, Melges couldn't reject the gift, so now he sails with a manure fork trailing him, which may be just the talisman he needs as he plunges into the treacheries of the America's Cup.

It took him long enough to get in the game. "Buddy's been asked to participate in every Cup since the 1950s," his wife said, "but he's always been too busy with the boatyard and the sailmaking business."

"I've got 55 employes that depend on me for a livelihood," said Melges, 56. "I couldn't just walk off and go sailing for six months every few years."

Some say Melges avoided past Cups for another reason -- because he saw no particular joy in sailing and sweating for the greater glory and honor of the exclusive New York Yacht Club, whose dues he says he can't afford.

"But he always told them, 'If you ever lose it, I'll be glad to help get it back,' " said Gloria.

Now Melges, the 1972 Olympic gold medalist and two-time world Star champion, universally regarded as one of the half-dozen top racing skippers of this age, is fulfilling his pledge with a low-budget campaign to retake the Cup and bring it back to, of all places, Chicago.

"Bring the Cup Up," says the bumper sticker on the battered red pickup that hauls Heart of America's sails to harbor every day from the sail loft Melges made in a pear-ripening shed.

"It's free, but we have to be out of here in two weeks," said chief sailmaker Richie Stearns as he stitched up one of Heart of America's 12 usable sails. "That's when the pears come in."

The timing should work. By month's end, Melges and his youthful band of 20-odd sailors must pack boat and gear for the freighter trip to Australia. Oct. 5 Start

The 12-meter is due in Perth Sept. 7 and has to be ready to measure Sept. 15. Racing will begin Oct. 5 against 11 other boats seeking the right to challenge an Australian defender in late January for yachting's most treasured prize.

The timing -- launch, sail a month, pack up and go racing -- is reminiscent of America's Cup challenges in the days before it became a high-stakes, multimillion-dollar game involving up to three years training.

"Buddy's cutting it close," said Canada II designer Bruce Kirby, whose boat departs two weeks earlier. "I wouldn't do it that way, but Buddy will make it. He's lucky."

The grey-haired Melges is so lucky he's called the Wizard of Zenda, after the little town near Lake Geneva, Wis., where he's built and sailed Great Lakes racing scows all his life.

But lately he's taken some knocks.

When he organized a Chicago challenge, the first thing he discovered he had to do was prove Chicago was on an arm of the sea, as required of challengers in the Cup deed of gift. That took a ruling from the New York State Supreme Court, which found Lake Michigan qualified by virtue of locks leading to the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Then Melges, who never sailed big boats seriously, needed crew. He approached Gary Jobson and Charley Scott, world-class ocean racers from Annapolis, Md., both of whom pondered but declined.

Meantime, he sought out boat designer German Frers, an Argentinian who does business in New York. Frers agreed to seek U.S. citizenship, vital because boats must be designed by nationals of the country they represent.

But it became increasingly apparent that Frers' citizenship might be challenged by the Australians and Melges didn't like that. He went looking again.

The delays hurt fund-raising for the Heart of America budget, which at $7 million is half what the larger U.S. syndicates will spend.

"It seemed like every week someone else was saying we'd never make it, we'd never get to Perth," said Scott Graham, a member of the four-man design team Melges eventually chose.

Meantime, Melges needed time in a 12-meter. He bought the used warhorse Clipper, which failed in the 1980 trials, and began training his ragtag team. They went to Victoria, B.C., last November to sail against Canada II. On the day TV crews came, it snowed, and what went back to the States via ESPN was a pathetic tableau of Melges and his crew flogging around in an outmoded, snow-covered boat.

None of it stopped Melges. "Hell, the snow wasn't so bad," he said. "It was warm when it snowed. The clear days is what killed us. Man, that was cold."

Now, at last, he has a new boat with an Australia II-type winged keel, a full crew with six months training, $4.5 million of his budget in hand, a place to go in Fremantle and strong, warm winds to sail in for now.

And by any account, Melges with a boat and crew is a dangerous thing.

John Marshall, former president of North Sails and veteran America's Cup racer, said he asked his old boss, Lowell North, for some advice after Melges thrashed Marshall in the 1972 Olympic trials.

He remembers two specific warnings: "One was, 'Never race an important regatta with equal equipment; make sure you have an edge,' " said Marshall. "The other was, 'Never race against Buddy Melges.' "

His rivals and shipmates say Melges has the usual attributes of a world-class sailor -- intuition about the way the wind might shift direction or strength, a deft hand at the helm, skill in sail-shaping, wisdom in sail selection and a killer instinct when he gets an advantage.

Then, they say, he does a couple of things better than anyone.

"His vision is incredible," said Graham, the designer. "He'll say, 'See that wind line (from ripples on the water)?' and you'll say, 'Yeah.' He'll say, 'No, not that one, the one three shifts beyond. That's a lift.' It's uncanny."

"Buddy can see a fly on the wall at 100 yards," said his wife.

"He's got eyes in the back of his head," said Dick Neville, mainsail trimmer on the maxiboat Kialoa. "He may be the only guy who can sail a 12-meter and call his own tactics. Everyone else needs an extra set of eyes."

"I'll tell him something," said Bill Shore, Heart of America's tactician, "and nine times out of 10 he's already seen it."

"Oooh," admitted Melges, "I don't miss a trick." A Happy Ship

The other thing Melges does is run a relatively happy ship. You can see it in the easy way he deals with his young crew (average age 23). "If he yelled, 'Jump,' " said Graham, "all you'd hear would be 10 splashes."

"I've been asked to sail in many Cup campaigns," said Shore, at 44 the only other man of age on the boat, "but I always said no. This is the first one I thought would be fun. So far, it is."

Ever since he launched Heart of America here June 11, Melges has been hammering away at Canada II. The two groups have the only cooperative racing program between rival challengers.

With a little boat anyone could go out on the ocean and watch them race. Wednesday and Thursday you'd have seen two great races.

In the first, Canada II walked away from Heart of America at the start and marched away upwind. It looked like a rout until the Heart crew found a glitch in sail shape and corrected it.

Then it was racing, two days straight, as tight as it gets, with a hard wind building to 30 knots and the two sleek, white boats throwing sheets of glittering spray as they plunged into the troughs, bounding along a few boat lengths apart.

These were full-scale, Cup-style races in moderate to big winds, and both were won by Heart of America.

What does it prove? Nothing but that Heart of America, designed by guys who never worked on a 12-meter before (Graham, Eric Schlageter, Jim Gretzky and Duncan MacLane), in the water only a month, driven by a skipper new to the game and a young, relatively inexperienced crew, apparently can sail with Canada II. 'Nothing to Hide'

So what is Canada II? It's the boat that beat out stablemate True North for the right to represent Canada in the Cup this fall. True North was a respectable sixth in the 12-boat 12-meter worlds in Perth last winter. Then she came home and squared off against Canada II, which beat her 68 times in 70 races, according to syndicate chief Perry Connolly.

"Canada II is a fast, well-sailed boat. She may be the fastest 12-meter around," said Melges. "We're damn close to keeping up with her and we've got a lot yet to learn. We're very happy with our situation."

It would be silly to suggest Heart of America will be a factor in Fremantle next fall. She has 12 sails in her inventory, although more are on order. Dennis Conner's Sail America and the New York Yacht Club's America II probably have more than 100 sails apiece, according to the folks who supply them, and they each have three new boats to play with, with secret keels and killer crews.

"You have to figure the heavily financed groups will be tough," Melges said. "The rest of us have to depend on our horses. With a fast horse, we're in the hunt. Then it comes down to the men and the boys and the way they use their toys."

As Melges talked, a tourist walked onto the Heart of America dock with a camera. The 12-meter was out of the water, its winged keel and the unusually bulbous "bustle" behind the keel exposed. The man held up his camera.

"Hell, yes," thundered Melges. "Take all the pictures you want. Take 'em down to Hawaii and show 'em to Dennis Conner . We've got nothing to hide. Have yourself a ball!"

Think about it. A 56-year-old guy from Wisconsin with a nonsecret keel, a crew of unknowns and a manure fork for a flagpole wins the America's Cup and brings it back to Lake Michigan. What a long shot. What a story!