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.
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.