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A Bloke With Designs On The Cup
Sarah Pileggi
August 29, 1983
Is it Ben Lexcen's controversial keel that makes Australia II so fast? An edgy Newport waits and wonders
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August 29, 1983

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

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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."

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