Ben Lexcen

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Ben Lexcen
Personal information
Birth name Robert Clyde Miller
Full name Benjamin Lexcen
Nationality Australian
Born (1936-03-19)19 March 1936
Died 1 May 1988(1988-05-01) (aged 52)
Height 1.83 m (6.0 ft)
Sailing career
Class(es) Soling
Updated on 1 March 2014.

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.

Early life[edit]

Born in the small town of Boggabri, New South Wales on 19 March 1936. 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 boat-building, sail-making and ship-chandlery 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 sailing with Denis O'Neil and Ken Berkeley as fellow crew members.[1]

America's Cup[edit]

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 sail-making 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 Reader's Digest to find out the least-used surname within their membership. The result was Lexcen. "Ben" was the name of his dog.

Bond challenged for the 1977 America's Cup using the Lexcen and Johan Valentijn designed 12M Australia against media mogul Ted Turner and again with a Lexcen modified Australia in 1980 against Dennis Connor, losing both times.

The winged keel of Australia II.

After the 1980 challenge 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 host of advanced design features, not the least of which was a revolutionary winged keel, intended to lower the 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 since the testing of the keel was performed in the Netherlands.[2]

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 Metre, 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 and the America's Cup rules. The questions on her design origin were not formally answered at the time,[citation needed] but the controversy re-emerged in 2009 (see Later claims of Dutch Design for details). Claims that Peter van Oossanen was the designer of the Australia II's keel have been strongly rejected by John Longley, a key member of the Australia II team using documentary evidence.[3]

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, Australia II won the start and held an early lead but was overtaken by Conner who built up what seemed to be an unassailable margin. At the start of the penultimate leg (a square run) the America's cup looked like it would stay in Newport. Conner failed to cover Australia II which allowed them to run deeper and faster assisted by breeze and windshifts allowing Australia II to overtake the Americans by the leeward mark. Conner then engaged Australia in a spectacular tacking duel with nearly 50 tacks and a number of faked "dummy" tacks trying to break the Australian's cover. Australia II held on till both boats reached the starboard layline in amongst the spectator fleet and tacked several boat lengths ahead of Liberty and sailed to the finish to take the race. Australia II became 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. He designed Australia III and Australia IV for Bond's two boat defense program. Australia IV was ultimately defeated by the Iain Murray designed and skippered Kookaburra III in the Defender Trials. Steve Ward (builder of all four "Australias" maintains that Lexen's design was not at fault but that Australia IV was uncompetitive due to last minute design modifications ordered by the upper echelons of Bond Corporation. Australia IV was originally designed to be longer on the waterline with less sail area similar to Conner's winning design. 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.[4]


Lexcen died suddenly on 1 May 1988, of a heart attack at 52 years of age.


In 1988, the Toyota Lexcen was released by Toyota Australia in Ben Lexcen's honour. The car was a rebadged Holden VN Commodore and was built in Australia under the Button Plan.

In 1988 the University of New South Wales named its newly created sports scholarships the Ben Lexcen Sports Scholarships. These scholarships were the first sports scholarships to be offered by an Australian university.[5]

In 2006, Lexcen was posthumously inducted into the America's Cup Hall of Fame.




  • Stannard, Bruce (1984). Ben Lexcen: the Man, the Keel, and the Cup. London: Faber and Faber. ISBN 0571133967.