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A Bloke With Designs On The Cup

Aug. 29, 1983
Aug. 29, 1983

Table of Contents
Aug. 29, 1983

Pan Am Games
Dallas Cowboys
Berlin Track
Australia II
Kevin Saucier
Baseball
Golf
Harness Racing
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

A Bloke With Designs On The Cup

Is it Ben Lexcen's controversial keel that makes Australia II so fast? An edgy Newport waits and wonders

On a sunny morning early this month a big, rumpled man in his mid-40s ambled out of a shed on a wharf in Newport, R.I., blinked once or twice behind his metal-rimmed glasses at the brightness of the day, and then smiled for no particular reason except perhaps that he liked being outside better than inside and smiling better than not smiling. Ben Lexcen, designer of Australia II, the 12-meter yacht that has had Newport buzzing like an angry bee ever since this America's Cup summer began, is not a desk man. His office is in his head. In fact, Lexcen's head is one of Australia's natural resources. And if Australia II should happen to beat the American defender in the Cup series that begins Sept. 13, Lexcen's head is likely to be declared a historic monument as well.

This is an article from the Aug. 29, 1983 issue Original Layout

A grinning, blue-eyed, slightly impish monument with heavy dark hair that stands straight up from having had thick weathered fingers running through it at 30-second intervals. In Newport, a town where this summer hardly anybody seems to like anybody else, nobody doesn't like Ben Lexcen. "He's not only a brilliant person," says Ted Turner, who as skipper of Courageous beat Lexcen's Australia in 1977. "He's one of the funniest and nicest guys to be around that you could ever find."

"He's a one-off," says John Longley, the project manager for Australia II. "There was a flash of lightning one day and there he was."

"There's obviously a lot of love there," says John Bertrand, the helmsman of Australia II, who once worked for Lexcen in a Sydney sail loft. "He has a heart of gold, for a start. He would never intentionally hurt anyone, and he's a brilliant man. You don't have many like that."

Even the competition, other naval architects who fight for a piece of the 12-meter pie with the ferocity of pit bulls, has kind words for Lexcen. Johan Valentijn, the designer of Liberty, the American favorite at the moment, worked with Lexcen on Australia in 1976 and 1977. "I've always admired him because I think he's very smart," says Valentijn. "We worked together for a year and a half and we had a great time together, and when our paths parted we left on good terms."

"He's an independent thinker," says Dave Pedrick, the young designer of Defender, another of the three American Twelves. "Basically, he doesn't assume that the present way of doing things is the end of the line."

Before Lexcen designed Australia II, with her revolutionary bulb-nosed, winged keel, the 12-meter class was considered pretty near the end of the developmental line. The measurement rule that governs the class seemed to have been stretched as far as it would go.

Australia II is Lexcen's third Twelve, which makes him as old a hand at that esoteric game as anyone around these days. (Olin Stephens, the dean of yacht designers, is not involved in the Cup this year for the first time since 1937.) While Lexcen's first Australia lost to Courageous 4-0, she came back, redesigned, in 1980, and although in the end she lost 4-1 to Dennis Conner's Freedom, she threw the first bona fide scare into the U.S. defenders in years.

Lexcen blames himself for the 1980 failure. "We could have won three or four of those races last time but we were just dopey," he told Bruce Stannard of the Melbourne Age. "I personally was the dopiest. I was tactician and I was scared. I got stage fright because of the way Freedom had chewed up the other [American] boats. We didn't win because we weren't man enough. Their people were better than ours."

This summer Hugh Traherne, a sailmaker from Sydney, is serving as the tactician on Australia II, while Lexcen is pacing the decks of Black Swan, the syndicate's tender. And Australia II is chewing up the foreign opposition the same way Freedom did the Americans in 1980. Last Sunday, with a 7-1 record in the challengers' semifinals and an impressive 43-5 record for the summer, Australia II had clinched a spot in the challenger finals beginning on Aug. 28. It's obvious that this time it's the Americans' turn to be scared.

How much of Australia II's success is attributable to Lexcen's design, how much to the skill of her crew and the vast experience of her shoreside managers, many of whom are now in their fourth Cup campaigns, and how much to sheer Australian guttiness is still open to question. Whereas crews, management and sails are variable factors that can be dealt with and adjusted as the situation requires, boat speed, the end product of design, is not. If one boat is significantly faster than another, no amount of tinkering with people and equipment can bridge the gap. But until two boats actually meet, there is no way of knowing which is faster. It has so far been observed that Australia II has very good maneuverability in the starts, that she tacks quickly and that she accelerates out of a tack quickly. Her keel could account for all that. On her record she would seem to be faster than all six of the other foreign challengers, but whether she is faster than any of the American boats, no one yet knows. As Valentijn says, "If you win a lot it means that everybody else is very poor or you're really fast. The chance for either one is 50-50. No doubt the boat is a good boat, but they [the Australians] always seem to end up on the right side of the course, to pick the right wind shifts, and that's experience. They have a boat that's maybe a super-boat or maybe just a regular good boat, but it makes them look supersmart. On Sept. 13 maybe we'll have a different view."

If the New York Yacht Club has its way, the view of the starting line on Sept. 13 may not include Australia II at all. On July 24, with a memo addressed to a member of the international measurement committee responsible for certifying the Twelves, the N.Y.Y.C. fired the first shot in a war of letters, memos and telexes that has grown increasingly nasty in succeeding weeks. In that first memo, Robert McCullough, chairman of the club's selection committee, contended, among other things, that if the wings on Australia II's keel are taken into account, she will measure out to something more than a legal 12-meter—say, a 12.5- or 12.8-meter. The Australians reply that their boat has been measured under the rule, that it has been declared legal by an international committee of measurers, and that the N.Y.Y.C. has no right to try to change the rules in the middle of the game. The International Yacht Racing Union, the body to which the N.Y.Y.C. has addressed its complaints, has agreed to review the matter on Aug. 30, just a week before the challenger—and defender—must be chosen.

As the paper war escalated, only one laugh, a horse laugh, echoed through the old Newport armory that serves as press headquarters. The laugh came when America's Cup veterans read the following memo, written by Liberty's navigator, Halsey Herreshoff, in support of the N.Y.Y.C action: "...there is no precedent for the shrouded, clandestine attitude of the Australian syndicate shutting out competitors from their rightful knowledge of that against which they are competing under known, strict rules." Clandestine is and always has been Newport's middle name.

Not surprisingly, Australians both in Newport and Down Under have taken the efforts to discredit their boat personally. Alan Bond, the syndicate head, was almost shaking with fury when he said, "This, of course, is an attempt to undermine our morale, but it is not succeeding." Telegrams of support from home paper the walls of the syndicate office in a shed at Newport Offshore:

"Don't let the miserable efforts of the N.Y.Y.C. distract you. The b—s are running scared."

"Bring back the old tin cup and make the Yanks compete here. At least we'll give them a sporting chance."

"If in doubt, bring out the secret weapon. Hold a koala over your opponents' martinis."

Keeping his head while all about him were losing theirs was smiling Ben Lexcen. He'd seen it all before. "They started it as psychological warfare, a game, but now they're believing their own press releases," he said of the N.Y.Y.C. as he strode toward a deli for a burger. Lexcen has the build of a grinder, those brawny crewmen whose shoulders power the winches that trim the sails of a Twelve. He wears faded blue shorts, an equally well-worn polo shirt and deck shoes—the waterfront uniform. "I thought you had to be sharp to be in New York," he said over his shoulder. "But I went to a 12-meter owners' association meeting the other night and a couple of them were there. I was stunned. I'm going to find out what business those guys are in and I'm going to get into it. I'll be rich." Then, shifting gears, he said, "That's it, though. They're not in business. Their fathers were in business, or their grandfathers. These guys all live in Vermont or somewhere."

Lexcen was born in 1936 at a dusty crossroads called Boggabri in the Australian outback, 200 miles from the sea. "I went back there one time to have a look," he says. "If you don't know Australia you can't even imagine what it was like. Australia is very dry and dusty once you get over the mountains along the edge of the coast. The rivers are hundreds of miles apart and they're just dribbly, slow, meandering streams. A big town will be about a thousand people, O.K.? Not poor, but a bit ratty. One main drag, nothing else, and usually a lovely center—Victorian architecture, stores with awnings to keep the sun off. A bit like High Noon, you know? This town that I lived in is the next step down.

"I have no idea what my people did," he continues. "It was the Depression. They did nothing. They walked around trying to get a job, with me under one arm and a suitcase under the other, that's what they did. I remember when I was really young my father used to cut timber to make railroad ties. By hand. Then the war came and he went into the Air Force, and away he went and he never came back. He didn't get killed, I mean. He went off with another woman, and my mother never forgave him. Or me."

At the age of six Lexcen went to live with his maternal grandparents in Newcastle, an industrial town on the coast 75 miles north of Sydney. There he roamed the beach because it was free and made model boats to sail in rocky pools. "My grandmother died when I was about nine or 10, and I lived alone with my step-grandfather till I was about 14 or 15. He was a very quiet old guy, never talked much. He just lived to keep me alive. He became my slave without me knowing it. He used to cook my food, wash my clothes, never disciplined me or told me to do anything. I was a completely free agent. I never appreciated what he did until about 20 years later when he was old, old, old. When I was about 12 he nearly died of a cerebral hemorrhage. While he was in the hospital, his real children came to divide up his possessions. I remember it plain as day. This guy had nothing. He was just a poor man who worked in somebody's bloody house and stoked coal for the fire. His name was Mick. Mick Green. He was in the Boer War, the First World War; he was at Gallipoli, Flanders, the battle of the Somme. I've read that Australian casualties in that war were terrible. Guys just got up and went. They didn't even have to. They wanted to save the kingdom, or something like that. Even when I was a kid, Australia was full of a lot of fantastic...oh, I don't know what you call them. When your car broke down 20 people would stop to help you fix it. Now they drive by and don't look. It's kind of like New York. No eye contact."

Lexcen is a throwback. He didn't go to school until he was 11 and he quit at 14, as soon as quitting was legal. At 15 he went to work as an apprentice machinist in a railroad foundry. The apprenticeship lasted six years. Throughout those years he was building, sailing and racing boats. He had progressed from childish models made from scrap to serious racing models built from designs published in an English model boat magazine to small racing dinghies. When the apprenticeship was finished, he left the foundry and went to work for Peter Cole, a skilled Sydney sailmaker who cut his cotton sails in a church hall and sewed them up with the help of his wife in a small room in a Sydney wharf district known as Balmain.

"Then I got ambitious, or something," says Lexcen, "and I wanted to have my own sailmaking business. So I went to Brisbane, the capital of Queensland, where there were no sailmakers but there were some boats." It was in Brisbane that Lexcen began to design racing skiffs. In Australia, 18-foot skiffs, "eye-deens," are the stock cars of yachting. Their devotees have traditionally been blue-collar workers and red-tempered gamblers. Lexcen's design completely revolutionized the class, and not everybody concerned liked it. "Those old 18-footer guys were rough, tough blokes," says Longley. "Several times Benny wasn't able to come ashore and take his boat out of the water, because he was going to be brained by someone."

With his reputation made in eye-deens, Lexcen moved on to bigger boats. His first ocean racer, a 40-footer named Mercedes III, was high scorer in the 1967 Admiral's Cup, which the Australians won by the widest margin ever. His next was Volante, a 54-foot "rule ignorer" built for a New Zealander who didn't care whether he won a race; he just wanted to beat 70-footers across the finish line. Volante caught the attention of Bond, a self-made millionaire from Perth on Australia's west coast, who wanted a 58-footer for day racing on Perth's Swan River. The result was Apollo, one of the most famous Australian ocean racers of all time.

"So poor old Apollo, which wasn't supposed to go out of the Swan River, ended up sailing hundreds of thousands of ocean miles," says Lexcen. Apollo led to Ginkgo, Apollo II, Ciel III and finally, in 1974, to Southern Cross, Lexcen and Bond's first collaboration on a 12-meter for the America's Cup.

Let's back up a little. Throughout his rise to design prominence, Ben Lexcen wasn't Ben Lexcen, he was Bob Miller. In the late '60s he and a Sydney sailmaker, Craig Whitworth, had formed a company that by the early '70s had become successful in both sailmaking and yacht design. Then Miller and Whitworth had a falling-out. Miller left the firm, but found he could not take his name with him. "I had had a great design business, a fantastic business, and I lost all that," says Lexcen. "They were advertising everywhere, and all my mail was going to them. I tried to get the post office to change it. Noooo. I just had to do something, so I changed my name. Lexcen was one of my wife's family names from way back. I had a friend who had a computer check it against the mailing lists of the Reader's Digest and American Express to see if there was anybody with that name, and there wasn't, at least not in Australia." And Ben? "I wanted the same number of letters."

Bob Miller went down in flames with Southern Cross when Courageous beat her 4-0 in the 1974 Cup series. "That was a bit of a wank," Lexcen has said, "because I thought I was a lot smarter than I was. Actually, I think I was pretty smart, but I didn't trust myself. I thought I wasn't educated enough, so I went out and hired bloody experts and engineers to do things."

Bond stuck with his designer for a second try, however, and in 1977 Ben Lexcen rose from Bob Miller's ashes with the first Australia. In between, though, Lexcen had a few rough years. "We all need recognition," says Raza Bertrand, the wife of the Australia II helmsman. "But people who are creative need it more than the average Joe. With Southern Cross, everyone said it was just a dog boat. That's really hard to take, and Ben still had to go home and survive it."

Only since 1980 have 12-meter people begun to talk seriously about the possibility of the U.S. losing the America's Cup. One reason is the rule change made by the New York Yacht Club, to its eternal sporting credit, that allowed foreign challengers to avail themselves of American sail technology. That evened the odds some. But just as important is the fact that Bond and his Australians are now in their fourth Cup campaign and have amassed more experience than any other challenger since 12-meters became the vessels of choice in 1958. Says Turner, "I think they pose the greatest threat in the history of the Cup."

Seven of the 11 Australia II crew members have sailed in Cup races at least once before. Bertrand, an Olympic bronze medalist in the Finn Class and the holder of a master's degree in ocean engineering from MIT, has competed in four. "I sailed with Australia in 1980, when Dennis Conner was on Freedom," he says. "He, like any other top sailor in the world, is very, very good, but like any other person, very beatable. In 12-meters, if you don't have the boat speed to match the opposition, then they're all awesome. If you have equal or better boat speed, then it becomes a real yacht race. Dennis is no better than 10 other helmsmen in the world, and I race against those 10 quite a lot. It's my feeling that Australia II is the fastest boat in Newport."

"I think our greatest strength is the smallness of our group," says Warren Jones, Australia II's executive director. "We brought 28 people here. A week ago there were only 21 of us left. We can cut corners. We can be like a little group of commandos versus a big infantry that's got to have all sorts of rules."

As a Newport veteran, wife of the skipper and mother of three, Raza Bertrand has become the unofficial den leader for the group of crewmen's wives and 10 children who live in two rented houses on Dennison Street, down near the docks. "We're a very family-oriented campaign, with all the children here, and we seem to be fairly self-contained," she says. "The crew is unbelievably close. We had a dinner at the crew house the other night and I was quite taken by the love and support that is there."

Lexcen and his wife, Yvonne, live nearby in another rented house. Lexcen is godfather to two of the crew's children, but the children to whom he is closest, his three step-grandchildren, are at home in Sydney. "My whole life is around those kids," he said. "If they have a day off from school, I have a day off and I spend it with them, if they want me. Wind surfing, teaching them to make things on a lathe, playing Space Invaders when their mother's not looking. I try to teach them how to survive in the world."

Anybody who can survive four America's Cups would have to be a good teacher. Lexcen thinks Australia II will win this time if the rulemakers give her a chance, but even if she doesn't, he has plans for a different sort of life from now on. For one thing, he would like to build some more ocean racers. "A 12-meter is too long between when you get the concept and the design to when there's a result," he says. "Two or three years. If you're doing ocean racers, there's a new one almost every month. Good or bad, you get a kick out of it." He also plans to sail every day next year, "for several years, I hope, if I live that long.

"I don't want to set the world on fire. I tried that when I was in my 30s. That's a road to nowhere. You end up in a box, dead. Everybody. Alan Bond, Bob McCullough, the Aga Khan, the taxi driver on Thames Street, the garbage man, all end up in the ground, dead. So you got to squeeze the goodness out of your life."

In 1981, a year after the America's Cup races were over, Jim Hardy, the helmsman of Australia, was knighted for his valiant but losing effort. If Australia II were to win, would Ben Lexcen be knighted? "They'd never knight me," says Lexcen. "What about the owner? What about the skipper? Besides, there's a socialist government in Australia now and socialists don't knight people. They have orders, like the Order of Lenin. They have the Order of the Kangaroo, or something."

But what if? Lexcen chuckled. "Then I'd have to go around like Jim Hardy all the time." He tucks his chin in against his neck and straightens the knot of an imaginary tie. Sir Ben.

TWO ILLUSTRATIONSDON MOSSA radical bulb-nosed keel with swept-back "wings" on each side and a double-jointed trim tab on the trailing edge make the Aussie challenger sharply different from a more conventional 12-meter (indicated by the dotted line).PHOTOThe man and his boat: Everyone likes Lexcen, but that can't be said of Australia II.PHOTOThis summer Australia II has amassed an impressive 43-5 record over her six rivals.PHOTOMcCullough's memo was the first salvo in the war.