Ben Lexcen AM born Robert Clyde Miller (19 March 1936 – 1 May 1988) was an Australian yachtsman and marine architect. He is famous for the winged keel design applied to Australia II which, in 1983, became the first non-American yacht to win the prestigious America's Cup in 132 years.
Born in the coastal town of Newcastle on the 19 March 1936 in the Hunter Region of New South Wales. After his parents abandoned him as a child he stayed briefly at Boys’ Town, Engadine, before going to his grandfather at Newcastle. He left school at age 14 to pursue a locomotive mechanic's apprenticeship but soon found his attention turning to sailboats. At 16, he designed his first sailboat The Comet with his friend William Bennett in Hamilton, NSW, and began to make a name for himself in local competition. With friend Craig Whitworth, he founded a boatbuilding, sailmaking and shipchandlery firm (Miller and Whitworth) and designed boats part-time as well. One of his lasting early successes was the design that became the International Contender. It was selected in 1967, in multi boat trials, as a potential Olympic successor to the Finn dinghy. The Contender was awarded International status in 1968 and now has fleets in more than twelve countries throughout the world. Miller competed in the 1972 Munich Olympics representing Australia in the Soling class.
Miller was commissioned by Alan Bond to build Apollo, an ocean racer. This partnership continued when Bond first challenged for the America's Cup in 1974 with the Miller-designed 12-metre class yacht Southern Cross, named for the southern hemisphere constellation. Their challenge for the Cup was unsuccessful but Miller was kept on as the designer for future yachts, all of them designed to the 12-metre class rules as used for America's Cup competition at the time.
During the first years of his partnership with Bond, Miller withdrew his partnership from his sailmaking company but the company retained its name of Miller and Whitworth. Soon after the 1974 Cup challenge, Miller changed his name to avoid confusion with his former company. Keen to prevent the possibility of there being any confusion surrounding his name and business interests in the future, he asked a friend who worked for Readers' Digest to find out the least used surname within their membership. The result was Lexcen.
Bond and Lexcen challenged for the America's Cup in 1977 (against media mogul Ted Turner) and again in 1980, losing both times.
Lexcen realised that to win against the defenders, with their 100+ years of America's Cup experience, they would need a superior boat. His next design featured a whole host of advanced design features, not the least of which was a revolutionary winged keel, intended to lower the wave drag and to make the boat more stable and maneuverable in the water. The keel design borrowed elements from aeronautics, and was to prove highly controversial.
Australia II was a revolutionary design approach with her winged keel and hull design comprising the shortest waterline length ever measured on a 12-metre. The winged keel served to increase the effective keel aspect ratio in order to reduce the level of lift induced drag resulting from a tip vortex, which inhibits the speed of the boat. The New York Yacht Club, holders of the Cup, formally protested both that the winged keel boat was not a legal 12 Meter, and that the design itself was not of Australian origin. The ruling arrived at on the boat confirmed that Australia II complied with both the 12-metre class rules and the America's Cup rules. The questions on her design origin were not formally answered at the time, but the controversy reemerged in 2009 (see Later Claims of Dutch Design for details).
The 1983 America's Cup saw Lexcen's Australia II, with John Bertrand at the helm, take on the NYYC skipper Dennis Conner and the defender yacht, Liberty. The Australians were sure they had a fast boat, but mechanical failures and capable sailing on the part of the defenders caused Australia II to fall behind, losing the first two races. Australia II stormed back to take three of the next four. This was the first time in history that the series depended on the result of the last race, and the pressure of keeping a slow boat out in front of a fast one was now firmly on the defenders. In the deciding race on 26 September, Conner held tenuous cover over Australia II, but gambled on a wind shift to lift him ahead to the finish. The shift did not materialize, and when the two boats came back together Australia II was ahead. Australia II went on to win the race, becoming the first challenger to wrest the Cup from the United States since its inception in 1870. Lexcen was made a Member of the Order of Australia for his contributions to the winning design.
Lexcen was commissioned by Bond once again in 1986 to design a defender for the 1987 America's Cup. Australia IV, Lexcen's final design, was defeated by the Iain Murray designed and skippered Kookaburra III in the Defender Trials. Australia competed in the Cup without a Lexcen designed boat for the first time in ten years. Kookaburra III lost in the finals to Dennis Conner and his American challenger, Stars & Stripes 87, 4 races to nil.
Lexcen died suddenly on 1 May 1988, of a heart attack at 52 years of age.
In 2006, Lexcen was posthumously inducted into the America's Cup Hall of Fame.
- "Australian Olympic Committee".
- Robinson, Blue (2 October 2009). "Ben Lexcen: A crazy, lovable rogue". Scuttlebutt News.
- "The 12-Metre Class America's Cup Contenders 1958 -1987". Sail World. Retrieved 2008-02-23.