Thanks to Ben Lexcen's Kooky Keel, Australia II Threatens to Drag the America's Cup Down Under

updated 09/19/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/19/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It has been a long hot summer in Newport, R.I., where the America's Cup trials have been taking place, and some blame the discomforts not on the temperature but on the cupidity. Even now the freshening September breezes have done little to cool Australian designer Ben Lexcen's anger at the New York Yacht Club, which has devoted much of the summer trying to shoot his sleek white boat, Australia II, out of the race, if not the water. "They've made my life hell," growls Lexcen, who, in his dirty green trousers and tattered green shirt, looks like a big weathered teddy bear rather than a man many say is the most brilliant boat designer in the world. "These are the kinds of men who start wars."

What's behind—or below—all this verbal shooting is a single keel: a secrecy-shrouded, bulbous concoction of Lexcen's that is giving opponents mal de mer. In the great battle on Rhode Island Sound this week, Lexcen's revolutionary boat will take on Dennis Conner's Liberty, tapped over two other contenders to defend the Cup for the 25th time—Conner himself successfully defended against the Australians in 1980. But many sailors think Australia II stands the best chance ever of wresting the prestigious "auld mug" away from the Americans, who have held it for 132 straight years. The thought is enough to make blue blood run cold, and it has. Australia II swamped six foreign rivals with 44 wins and five losses in the races to determine the challenger. "Ben's a very smart designer," concedes Johan Valentijn, who designed Liberty and used to work with Lexcen, adding: "But until two boats go neck and neck, nobody knows."

Lexcen, a veteran of two previous unsuccessful America's Cup campaigns, designed Australia II—which is skippered by John Bertrand—in total secrecy at the hilltop home he shares with his wife, Yvonne, in Paradise, overlooking Sydney Harbor. He replaced the usual long sloping keel with a smaller, bulb-nosed one sporting swept-back delta-type fins. "It makes us much faster upwind, and we can turn her on a dime," notes Lexcen. Ever since the boat arrived, the Aussies have hidden the keel in skirts of plastic when dry-docked. "The secrecy may have backfired on us," says Lexcen of his woes, "but it sure has made the Americans paranoid."

In fact, Australia II's speed has driven its foes a bit loco. A Canadian diver attempted to photograph the keel underwater. Conner's syndicate tried unsuccessfully to buy the design from the Netherlands firm with which Lexcen spent four months testing his keel. Both Conner and the British, who finished second in the challengers' preliminaries, frantically slapped last-minute fins on their own boats, but found they didn't suit them. And the New York Yacht Club finally tried to discredit Lexcen by suggesting that Dutch naval architects had in fact designed his keel.

Lexcen's opinion of the NYYC is salty. "The Cup is all tied up with their honor," he snorts. "Criticizing them is like pricking an elephant with a pin. But what can you expect from people who live in a city filled with garbage?"

"Ben's just different from the other designers," says John Longley, Australia II's project manager—and that's clearly so. Though prosaically born Bob Miller in 1936, Lexcen says he was forced to change his name at the age of 40. "I had founded a design and sail-making firm with a partner," he explains. "We had a falling-out and I left the company, but they kept using my name, my reputation, opening my mail. So my lawyers advised me to change my name. Lexcen is from my wife's family. Ben, well, it's sort of like Bob."

Lexcen began his idiosyncratic fiddling with boat design as a youngster. A native of Boggabri, a landlocked town in the Outback, he was sent at 6 to live with his grandparents north of Sydney when his father abandoned his mother. "My first boat was a canoe of plywood," he says. "I built it on the fourth floor of a tenement and had to lower it out the window. I never went to school really. Why have someone teach you to do something wrong? I just watch boats and try to see what'll make them go fast."

Lexcen has never stopped experimenting and slowly built his reputation as a sailmaker and designer, graduating from dinghies to ocean racers and developing into a first-class sailor. When Alan Bond, head of the Australia II syndicate, hired Lexcen full-time, he moved to the 12-meter class.

This week will find Ben Lexcen in his familiar spot on the Australian tender Black Swan, watching as his boat bravely takes on the wily Dennis Conner. "I'd love to see her blow by Dennis on the first leg," he says with a laugh. "That would make him break open a bottle of whiskey." But whether or not Australia II returns to the Royal Perth Yacht Club as the proud possessor of the Cup, Lexcen's mind already is racing ahead. "I know how to build a boat now that's much faster than Australia II," he allows casually. "I knew while I was drawing it that there was an even better idea than this keel." Then he winks slyly.

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