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Ben Lexcen AM (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.
Born Robert Miller in the coastal town of Newcastle in the Hunter Valley region of New South Wales, 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 and began to make a name for himself in local competition. He founded a boatbuilding, sailmaking and shipchandlery firm (Miller and Whitworth) with friend Craig Whitworth and designed boats part-time. One of his lasting early successes was the design that became the International Contender (dinghy). 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 the Soling class.
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 a Miller-designed 12-metre class yacht named Southern Cross, after the constellation of the same name. 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 sailmaking company but its name was retained. Soon after the 1974 Cup challenge, Miller changed his name to Ben Lexcen to avoid confusion with the company. It is unclear why he chose this name.
Bond and Lexcen challenged for the America's Cup in 1977 (against media mogul Ted Turner) and 1980, losing both times.
Lexcen realised that to stand a chance of winning against the defenders with their 100+ years of America's Cup winning experience needed a superior boat. So he designed a winged keel that was designed to make a boat more stable and maneuverable in the water. The keel design, which borrowed elements from aeronautics, was to prove highly controversial.
Australia II was a revolutionary design approach with the winged keel and also the shortest waterline length ever measured on a 12-metre. The American defenders formally protested but Australia II complied with both the 12-metre class rules and the America's Cup rules and hence the protests were rejected by the America's Cup Committee and Australia II was allowed to race. A key part of the protest was that the keel was a Dutch design and not an Australian design.
The 1983 America's Cup saw Lexcen's Australia II, with John Bertrand at the helm, take on the NYYC skipper Dennis Conner and his yacht, Liberty. The Australians were sure they had a fast boat but the intense pressure of continuous failure by challengers who rarely won a single race possibly caused Australia II to lose the first two races. However Australia II stormed back to take four of the last five. This was the first time in history that the series depended on the result of the last race and the pressure was now firmly on the defenders. In the deciding race on 26 September, the pressure showed and Dennis Conner made an uncharacteristic tactical error and Australia II won becoming 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 effort.
Lexcen was commissioned by Bond once again in 1986 to design a defender for the 1987 America's Cup. Australia IV, Lexcen's final design, was defeated by the Iain Murray-designed and skippered Kookaburra III in the Defender Trials and did not compete in the Cup that year. Australia competed in the Cup without Lexcen as their designer for the first time in ten years and were humbled by the American challenger, Stars & Stripes, 4 races to 0.
Lexcen died suddenly on 1 May 1988, of a heart attack.
In 2006, Lexcen was posthumously inducted into the America's Cup Hall of Fame.