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Australia II - John Rousmaniere reflects on that winged keel

by John Rousmaniere on 15 Oct 2009
The man whose name is synonymous with the winged keel, Ben Lexcen was the most prolific Cup designer over the five-match period that ran from 1974 through 1987. Rolex
Noted America's Cup historian, John Rousmaniere reflects on the current brouhaha over the designer of Australia II's winged keel.

The issue of who designed Australia II has come to the forefront once again (and more angrily than ever, it seems). It last arose four years ago when I wrote an article for the American magazine Sailing World titled 'Who Designed Australia II?'

The story was stimulated by a particular question by a particular group, the America's Cup Hall of Fame Selection Committee. The Hall of Fame is not (as the Sydney Morning Herald reported) an entity of the New York Yacht Club. It is an arm of another institution altogether, the Herreshoff Marine Museum, the repository of the works and archives of Nathanael Greene Herreshoff in Bristol, RI. More about the museum and the Hall of Fame may be found at http://www.herreshoff.org/


Back then, when I spoke or corresponded with some 40 people, including Peter Van Oossanen, about the boat's design history, I was representing the Hall of Fame as a one-man subcommittee attempting to gain some insight into a well-known, 20-year-old controversy involving a candidate whose nomination had stalled in the selection committee, Ben Lexcen. To revive the nomination (which I backed), I believed the best thing to do was to ask some questions and file a report. I worked exactly as I do when I write books and articles—going down the middle, following the research trail, and sorting opinion from fact.

After my report (which was later published in Sailing World), the selection committee elected Lexcen into the Hall of Fame with only one dissenter, who was not me. While we differed over some details, the majority agreed that Lexcen deserved the honor because of his long involvement with the America’s Cup, because of his brilliance, and because of Australia II, to which he contributed in many, many ways. There may be arguments about what exactly those contributions were. Yet it is no small thing in someone’s biography to have taken such a leading role in such a project. This boat changed yachts forever—in its shape, in its rigging, in its sails, and in its racing record.

I wish the whole bitter argument surrounding this matter would go away. I suspect that it would if some credit were given to the individual Dutch researchers for their roles in the team. Yes, the extent of those roles may be in dispute. But the fact of them is not. Reckoning time is passing too quickly to be wasted in bickering over credits.

The story to which John Rousmaniere refers is as follows:

In 1983 an Australian team ended the New York YC’s grip on the America’s Cup in a breakthrough 12-Meter famous for its winged keel. That pivotal moment in sailing history has long since passed, yet there remains a long-running dispute about the roles taken in the design of this remarkable boat by the designer of record, Ben Lexcen, and his technical team.

As a member of the America’s Cup Hall of Fame selection committee, I know this controvery well. After many years of heated debate concerning the merits of selecting Lexcen, in 2004 I volunteered to serve as a committee of one answering the question, 'Who designed Australia II?'

Over a year and a half I reviewed the record while soliciting statements from dozens of people. In October 2005 I presented a report to the committee, which then selected Lexcen for the Hall of Fame.

Before proceeding, I should disclose that I am a long-time, but hardly lockstep, member of the New York YC. As a writer I strive to be fair, and I long ago recognized that nothing in the America’s Cup is as simple as it first seems.

It is clear that Australia II was the creation of a brilliant international design team, headed by Ben Lexcen. Other answers to our question have tended to follow two opposite paths. One leads to the conviction that the designer of record, Lexcen, was also the designer in fact, meaning that he conceptualized Australia II’s three distinctive features: a small hull, a small 'upside-down' keel, and the winglets on that keel.

Three reasons have been given: First, Lexcen, the boat’s owner, Alan Bond, and other members of the Australia II team said as much during and after the controversy-ridden 1983 America’s Cup summer. Second, Lexcen had long experimented with several of Australia II’s features. Some of his Australian 18s, model boats, and other designs had wing-like endplates and unusually small fins.When he worked on the design for Bond’s 1977 Cup challenger, Australia, he and his associate, Johan Valentijn, tested wings and a keel 15 to 20 percent smaller than the norm before doubts about the accuracy of the tank tests led them back to more conventional shapes.

The third reason many people give for concluding that Lexcen must have designed Australia II is the man himself. Bob Fisher, the English sailing journalist (and America’s Cup Hall of Fame Selection Committee member), characterized Lexcen’s talent this way: 'Outrageous in its naiveté, fundamental in its approach, and gloriously effective in its delivery.'

Grant Simmer, who sailed in Australia II and now helps run the Alinghi campaign, told me, 'As a yacht designer with his small boat and skiff background, he was intuitively one of the best I have worked with (even if not technically the best, given his background).' Simmer’s last words refer to the fact that Lexcen dropped out of school at the age of 14.

People who knew Lexcen before his death in 1988, at age 52, have affectionately described him as brilliant, chaotic, loveable, and extravagant. Here is the man who ended a former business relationship by changing his name from prosaic Robert Clyde Miller to the more dramatic Ben Lexcen (the inspiration is still in dispute). 'He has the most glorious flights of fancy,'

John Bertrand, Australia II’s skipper, wrote of Lexcen in 1985, 'always talking about the depths of the oceans, about dolphins and other great fishes.My children love him, because in a sense he is very like them, full of wonderment at a world he believes is probably undiscovered.'

A journalist who spent several tumultuous days with Lexcen, Jay Broze, called him 'the sailing world’s undisputed champion of free association' and a man with 'his own personal brand of reminiscent hyperbole.' This caution can easily be forgotten in the natural rush to believe only such an outrageously original individual could have produced such an outrageously original boat. If the first path through the thicket of the Australia II design question is a sprint to this remarkable man—more Romantic poet than engineer—the second is a methodical pace into the realm of two Dutch scientists with advanced degrees who worked in cutting-edge test facilities in the Netherlands.

These are Dr. Peter van Oossanen, a naval architect at the Netherlands Ship Model Basin (NSMB), and Joop Slooff, an aerodynamicist at the Theoretical Aerodynamics Department of the National Aerospace Laboratory While Lexcen often portrayed them as advisors who followed his direction, the two scientists have described their relationship as one of partners. In their view, Lexcen gets high marks not for creating the design but for managing it—for recognizing the possibilities, for helping to persuade Alan Bond that he must build this crazy-looking boat, for designing the rig and construction plan, and, for working with Bertrand, the New Zealand sail designer Tom Schnackenberg, and the rest of the crew to refine Australia II.

Here it helps to appreciate the stakes that were at play at the genesis of Australia II in the spring of 1981. In Bond’s previous Cup challenges in 1974, 1977, and 1980, he had spent small fortunes sending innovative Lexcen-designed boats to Newport only to watch them destroyed by defenders. Bond’s boats sailed a total of 13 races in Cup matches and lost 12 of them. To compound his disappointment, each American defender was a

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