The man whose name is synonymous with the winged keel, Ben Lexcen was the most prolific Cup designer over the five-match period that ran from 1974 through 1987. Of the six 12-Meter boats that he designed, three sailed in Cup matches. Most important, one of those boats, Australia II, became the first challenger ever to win the America’s Cup.
Born Robert Miller in New South Wales, Australia, he left school at the age of 14 and discovered boats in the coastal town of Newcastle. He built his first boat at 16, started winning races, and became a sailmaker and part-time yacht designer specializing in the 18-foot skiff class, which he revolutionized. He designed light-displacement ocean racers, including Apollo for Alan Bond. When Bond challenged for the America’s Cup for 1974, he commissioned Miller to design his boat. An unusually long 12-Meter, Southern Cross showed bursts of speed, but lost the match. Miller soon after changed his name to Ben Lexcen in order to avoid confusion with the sailmaking firm of which he had been a partner.
From Southern Cross through Australia IV (1987), all his 12-Meters showed a flair of originality. “Good ideas are all around us,” he often said. Lexcen constantly experimented with keels, rigs, and concepts from aircraft design. Lexcen and his associate Johan Valentijn tried out some of these ideas on Bond’s 1977 and 1980 challenger, Australia. In 1980 Lexcen borrowed an idea for a bendy mast from the British challenger and Australia won a light air race.
Bond became convinced that the only way to win the America’s Cup from the New York Yacht Club was to have a superior boat. In 1981 Lexcen headed the international design team working in the Netherlands and Australia that produced the design that changed America’s Cup and yachting history. The team of Lexcen and two Dutch research scientists, Peter van Oossanen and Joop Slooff, working in Dutch towing tank and aeronautical research facilities, came up with an unusually small hull over an upside-down keel sprouting winglets. Looking unlike any yacht that had ever been launched, Australia II beat Dennis Conner’s Liberty in seven races. Lexcen was later awarded a Member of the Order of Australia.
People who worked with Lexcen have described him as brilliantly intuitive. Bob Fisher, a British yachting journalist and member of the America’s Cup Hall of Fame Selection Committee, has described his talent as “outrageous in its naivet?fundamental in its approach, and gloriously effective in its delivery.” His premature death from a heart attack left a vacuum in Australian yachting, and the entire America’s Cup.