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Bob Miller and his Moth Class dinghy sailing on the Lane Cove river in the late 1950s.

Ben Lexcen

1936 - 1988

Ben Lexcen (Bob Miller) has a special place in yachting history as the designer of the yacht Australia II which first won the Americas Cup from the Americans. Lexcen was always trying different ideas and prepared to move in a different direction, but not always with immediate success.

Personal background:

Ben Lexcen was born Robert Clyde Miller in Boggabri, NSW, March 19 1936, and had a difficult early life with only 5 years of formal schooling. He was abandoned by his parents and ended up in the care of his grandfather in Newcastle. They lived in New Lambton near the border of Adamstown and Broadmeadow. There he began to take a keen interest in the sea and boats. Warren Elliott was a school friend whe they both attended Cook's Hill Intermediate High School in Newcastle, and he recalled the following:

"Rob (Ben) was always drawing sailing boats and in particular sails. He would do this at any opportunity he got in class. On reflection we must have been sitting next to each other for two years as I recall one year convincing him to join in a sweep we had going for the Melbourne Cup. He was very reluctant to do so but, after much persuasion from myself, he put in sixpence for a horse. Much to his surprise and mine - his horse won. The winnings would have been only about five shillings. (Fifty cents in today's currency). He wasn't an outward going lad but, more the quiet type keeping mainly to himself."

After leaving schoolat the end of 1954 he went to work for the NSW State Railways and was apprenticed as a fitter and turner. While working there he built his first boat. In his early twenties he learnt sail making, and moved to Sydney. Sailing and related work then became his full time occupation.

In Sydney he formed a close and lasting friendship with the Ryves family at Hunters Hill, and especially with Carl Ryves with whom he often sailed. Their home became his home for a period. They sailed together on Carl's Flying Dutchman and Bob built a catamaran of his own design.

In the late 1950s Norman Wright in Brisbane invited Bob to leave Sydney and join his boatyard to run the new sail making part of the business. In typical fashion he arrived to start work unannounced and penniless, but the Wrights took him in and he joined both the firm and the family. He remained there until 1961 when another friendship and partnership was formed with Craig Whitworth and the two won an inter-dominion championship in the Flying Dutchman class. At the end of this event they decided to set up a sail making business in Sydney where the market was much bigger. Again, with little concern for the consequences he appeared to simply abandon the Wrights who had acted as his parents, sponsors and tutor while he was with them and started afresh under the banner of Miller and Whitworth.

The Miller and Whitworth firm was a success from its brash beginnings with full page adds in the sailing magazines. The business grew into a design and sail making firm with clients from all over Australia and some from overseas.

In the mid 1970s Miller abandoned this partnership and moved on, initially alone but for the 1977 America's Cup design he was partnered by Johan Valentjin, an ex Sparkman and Stevens employee. This arrangement survived for a short time beyond the Cup series and some more yacht designs were completed before this partnership also folded. By now Miller had become exasperated by the fact that his name could be used by previous businesses with whom he was no longer associated. In an impetuous act, he simply changed his name, and almost overnight it was Ben Lexcen, but nothing else had changed.

The America's Cup win in 1983 allowed Lexcen to set up a sizable office with intentions of becoming an established international design firm. The office was successful but in May 1988 Lexcen died of a sudden and massive heart attack.

Lexcen was often helped toward his success with the assistance of others who could provide a balance to his energy and full speed approach to everything. Whitworth was the business man who guided Miller and Whitworth's fortunes while Miller attracted the clients and provided the creative input. As well there the other team members that were employed at different times, such as Joe Adams, John King and Peter Lowe. As draftsmen and designers they could take the concepts or handle the details and help turn Lexcen's ideas into finished designs. He was constantly active, creative and his temper had a very short fuse. This hyper activity was probably related to his long term problems with high blood pressure that contributed to the cause of his death. He died at a time when he still had much to offer as someone prepared to look for and try ideas that were outside of the mainstream.

Lexcen (as Miller) first married in 1961 but this only lasted about 2 years. He later married Yvonne his second wife in 1974. She had two children from a previous marriage, and grandchildren.

Design background:

When Miller went to Queensland he was self taught in boat design practices, picking up the skills from reading books such as Manfred Curry's Yacht racing text and the many books by Uffa Fox. When Norman Wright began thinking of a new plywood 18-foot skiff for the Queensland clubs, it was Bob who had the radical ideas that led to the TAIPAN and then the VENOM. At the yard he had a serious accident falling from a mast and was in hospital for some months. Norman made him a drafting board and it was there that Bob first put his ideas for TAIPAN onto paper.

He was able to think laterally and grasp ideas quite quickly, including complex engineering concepts. He could sketch and draw with excellent skills when necessary, but often his mind was ahead of his hand as he moved quickly to develop an idea, or jump to a new one leaving the old one only partially formed. VENOM was never first drawn out as a plan, ideas appear to have been quickly sketched over a drawing of TAIPAN, and the boat designed full size on the loft floor.

Significant Vessels.

The TAIPAN and VENOM first established Bob Miller's name as a designer. Both boats adapted features from the Flying Dutchman to create craft unlike any others in the skiff fleet. His temper, a lack of attention to detail, and pedantic rule interpretations by disgruntled opponents held TAIPAN back and it did not achieve the success that it appeared headed towards. When Craig Whitworth joined the crew on VENOM, his steadying hand complemented Bob's larrikin style and VENOM won the world championship for 1961. Other skiff designs similar to TAIPAN were drawn for 18-foot skiffs and 16-foot skiffs.

At Miller and Whitworth, whilst still designing sails and some skiffs, designs for yachts began to appear, including a major part of co-designing the successful MERCEDES III for Ted Kaufmann, and later working with Joe Adams to design the half-tonner PLUM CRAZY. The IYRU established a competition for a new single handed class, and Bob Miller's Contender class prototype was chosen. VOLANTE was designed for a New Zealand client and then the famous APOLLO was designed and built. The client was Alan Bond, and the seeds for later success were sown. APOLLO was developed from VOLANTE. APOLLO was a lightweight 57 foot sloop not unlike an ocean going Flying Dutchman. It had an impressive race career and became a legend in Australian ocean racing.

His major work in ocean racing design came from Gary Bogard's GINKGO, designed for the Admirals Cup in the early 1970s. The IOR rule was now well established, but its measurement point mentality was yet to become completely dominant. Miller adopted a different approach to other designers with a very clean looking easily driven hull shape and relatively low sail area. With an enthusiastic crew GINKGO had a successful career, as did its sister ship, the alloy APOLLO II. Two smaller derivatives with the same concept, CEIL III and RAMPAGE went on to win the Hobart race, while APOLLO II flourished a second time when the IMS rule was introduced in the 1980s. Other custom and production yacht designs also used the same concept but were not as successful, and the second generation of bigger designs, APOLLO III and RAGAMUFFIN were outclassed by the more rule orientated designs from Peterson and Holland.

In the meantime he had been able to turn his attention towards the America's Cup and 12 metre designs, as Alan Bond set out on his quest for the cup and glory. SOUTHERN CROSS, the 1974 challenger was again not a mainstream design, and the refined American yacht COURAGEOUS was able to win 4-0. Undeterred Bond challenged again and Miller was joined by the experienced Johan Valentjin as a steadying influence to design the next yacht, AUSTRALIA (I), a yacht closer to the typical path being followed elsewhere. Although beaten 4-0 again by COURAGEOUS, the yacht had potential and was modified by Miller, now Lexcen to race again in 1980. It sported a radical bendy mast with a fibreglass top, a concept copied from the English yacht LIONHEART. Publicly Lexcen created a smokescreen by denigrating the whole idea; meanwhile the team secretly built their own version to Lexcen's design, catching the Americans by surprise. Again they lost, 4-1, but the gap was closing.

Buoyed by seeing the Americans rattled in the 1980 series Bond decided one more challenge, and Lexcen produced the famous AUSTRALIA II, the yacht that took the America's Cup from the USA, who had defended it for 132 years.

AUSTRALIA II is the best example of this free thinking self taught designer. He identified a means of making a significant improvement to the 12 metre design with an extraordinary keel shape no one had ever considered. In his younger days whilst doing an ocean race he had observed the problems of tip vortex and drag off the keel. The eddies were highlighted by phosphorescence, while at the same time the boat he was on was rapidly falling behind the others beating to windward. He later played around with fences and endplates on his 18-foot skiff appendages, and returned to the concept at other times.

With AUSTRALIA II he finally had a solution that paid dividends. The keel was shaped so that it had more mass toward its base, and fitted with wings which reduced tip vortex drag, improved its efficiency and also contributed to a lower centre of gravity. By then optimising the hull shape and sail plan to take advantage of the greater righting moment and manoeuvrability this keel offered, AUSTRALIA II was almost a generation ahead of its contemporaries and especially dominant in light to moderate conditions.

Lexcen also engineered many of the fittings always seeking the lightest option, and two gear failures possibly attributed to this put the yacht down 3 wins to 2 at one point. The crew however knew they had the faster boat and climbed back to win the cup in a thrilling final race, seizing the lead downwind under spinnaker on the second last leg and holding off LIBERTY's determined tacking duels on the final beat to the finish line.

With his new post 1983 office various projects for yachts and power craft were undertaken. For the 1987 defence he produced AUSTRALIA III and IV, but neither boat showed the dominance of AUSTRALIA II and the Iain Murray managed KOOKABURRA team won the right to defend the cup, but were then beaten by the USA challenger.

The new holders of the cup, the San Diego yacht Club were then caught by a surprise challenge from New Zealand based on an interpretation of the Deed of Gift which allowed them to use a 90 foot waterline monohull. Lexcen and Bond enjoyed the audacity of the move. Hoping that multiple challengers might be accepted they began sketching a concept for a challenger, but it was during this process that Lexcen died and no yacht eventuated from his preliminary ideas.



References:
Stannard, Bruce 1984, Ben Lexcen, the Man the Keel and the Cup, Faber and Faber
Knight, Lucia 2005, Encyclopedia of Yacht Designers, Norton
Interviews by David Payne with Carl Ryves, Bill Wright, Helen Wright, Jack Hamilton, and Craig Whitworth, 2005.