Design is a team sport, and no sport relies on teamwork more than yachting, especially the America's cup.
Australia's win in 1983, overturning 130 years of American domination through 26 previous challenges, is often remembered for Ben Lexcen’s design of the winged keel, but as we shall see, it was also a team effort.
Lexcen started life as Bob Miller, born in dry country, given up early by his parents, raised by his grandparents, leaving school at 14 to take up an apprenticeship in locomotive engineering, before he showed an affection and affinity for boats, building his first sailboat, the Comet, at 16.
He designed small dinghies with vicious names like Taipan (in 1960, starting the modern era of the class) and Venom (in which he won the world championship in 1961). He did a sail making apprenticeship with Norman Wright in Queensland, and then founded a boat building, sail making and ship chandlery with his friend Craig Whitworth (Miller + Whitworth) and designed boats part time.
An early success was the Contender, a potential successor to the Olympic Finn class, and it was accorded international status in 1968, with a fleet in more than 12 countries. His early keel boat designs had clean, easily driven hulls with relatively small sail areas. He had great success with these designs, including the innovative Ginkgo and he competed in the 1972 Munich Olympics. By the early seventies Miller was a well-known boat designer and sailor
Perth entrepreneur Alan Bond engaged him to build the successful ocean racer Apollo. Miller designed the 12m class Southern Cross when Bond first challenged for the America's Cup in 1974. The challenge was unsuccessful, but Bond could see great potential in Miller's creativity and enthusiasm.
Now committed to Bond and the pursuit of the America's Cup, he exited Miller and Whitworth, and changed his name, to avoid confusion with the former company. With designer’s intent, he sought an original name, asking a friend at Reader's Digest to find their least subscribed surname: Lexcen. And Ben was his dog’s name.
As Ben Lexcen, he designed Australia for the America's cup in 1977, which lost against Ted Turner, then a modified version 1980 against Dennis Conner. Lexcen realized that to beat 130 years of America's Cup experience they would need a far superior boat. He set out to design the most radical boat he could, of which the most prominent part that people know was the winged keel.
Described as ‘upside down’, the keel lowered drag, made the boat more stable and manoeuvrable, particularly in tacking duels. The key feature was reducing tip vortex, the turbulence resulting from the pressure differential between the windward and leeward sides, the same design idea that is used in the ends of modern airplane wings. This idea was tested in a Netherlands tank facility, which was to lead to problems later on.
But Australia II, was a revolutionary design far beyond the winged keel. It had the shortest waterline length ever measured on a 12m boat, radical vertical sail designs, all Kevlar running rigging and a lightweight carbon-fibre boom. Lexcen often remarked that Australia II was a whole boat, not just a keel.
But a boat on paper won’t win the contest. It had to be built and built in Australia by the Cup rules: enter Steve Ward, the master boat builder of the time, who built all four ‘Australias’ for Alan Bond (before and after the ‘83 win). It's all very well to design a fast boat, now you need a team effort to sail it fast enough to win.
The key appointments are John Longley as project coordinator and Warren Jones as manager to keep the media (and negativity) away from the team (it was said that his hair went from black to grey in four months). Next appointments were the expert skipper John Bertrand, tactician Hugh Treharne and navigator Grant Simmer.
The team, numbering 30, included many champions: Olympic bronze medal medallist, Colin Beashal (who spent 40 minutes atop Australia II’s mast trying to free a sail during one race); seven-times 18 foot skiff world champion, Rob Brown, who devised the intricate code system for the tender yachts reporting on wind conditions at each mark; world Etchells champion Phil Smidmoore as mastman whose judgment of wind shifts was impeccable; and the grunt on the winches was provided by champion Olympic rowers, Brian Richardson and Will Baillieu.
The team, living in close quarters in just a few houses, built a strong team spirit as they trained, driven by Peter Costello in countless in countless tacking duels, crucial in winning races. Bertrand learned how to steer the boat downwind with its unusual keel and Treharne, an expert sailmaker designed and made the breakthrough innovative spinnaker so vital in winning the final downwind leg of the ‘83 Cup, giving Australia the winning edge.
Australia II inspired the Boxing Kangaroo as the official mascot (which Hugh Treharne helped design) and adopted Down Under by Men at Work as the official Anthem. Invaluable wisdom, encouragement and advice came from Ken Beashal and Perth WW2 heroes John Fitzhardinge and Newton Roberts, the latter concluded, following the win, that the team had enacted the true meaning of mateship not seen since the war.
But off the water it had not been smooth sailing. The New York Yacht Club tried to discredit the design saying the winged keel did not meet the rules, and that Ben Lexcen was an illegal designer since he had assistance from another country in the tank testing (the design and manufacture had to be from the home country).
Lexcen weathered the attacks with good humour, often playing pranks such as leaving a phoney keel design in the Newport boat shed photocopier, ringing desperately to pretend to get it back, and delighted to find the false design on the front cover of the morning newspapers, vexing the other teams with a misleading MacGuffin.
Lexcen replied to the accusations of plagiarism by saying: “I have in mind to admit it all to the New York Yacht Club that I really owe the secret of the design to a Greek guy who helped me out and was invaluable. He's been dead for 2000 years … bloody Archimedes.”
Years later, two members of the Dutch team who had done the tank testing asserted that they had been the real designers of the winged keel. The suggestion was repudiated by many. Sir James Hardy said the keel was a 100 percent Benny creation. Bertrand said he had no doubt that Lexcen was the principal designer but noted that success has many fathers. “Without Ben there is no way the total design solution … could have come together … Ben was brilliant, I regard him as the Leonardo DaVinci of this country, he was a sponge for knowledge and how to apply it”.
The esteemed yachtsman and writer Rob Mundle maintained that there was ample evidence to suggest that Ben Lexcen had been working on winged keels as early as 20 years before the development for the 1983 America's Cup.
After the win ,John Bertrand assumed centre stage as the hero of the hour, and wrote a book Born to Win, the Power of a Vision, emphasising the team effort, whilst inter alia claiming much of the credit for the win. He’s had a stellar career as a business coach and as president and chairman of various sports foundations.
Lexcen designed Australia III and IV for the defence in Fremantle, but neither boat could beat the Iain Murray-designed and skippered Kookaburra III. Boat builder Steven Ward maintained that the loss by Australia IV was not a design fault, but that it became uncompetitive owing to last minute design modifications ordered by the Bond Corporation, as they outgrew their position as financiers.
Lexcen died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 52 not long after cup had returned to America in 1987. In 1988, in his honour Toyota released the ‘Lexcen’ a rebadged Holden VN Commodore, which sold until 1997. It was built in Australia, under a plan devised by Labor minister John Button, to rationalise the Australian car industry. We could do with more politicians with Button’s vision, and more manufacturers commemorating our great designers and team players.
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