Flying Dutchmen who won America’s Cup with a keel
The longest winning streak in organised sporting history was broken on September 26, 1983, when Alan Bond’s Australia II broke the New York Yacht Club’s 132-year hold on the America’s Cup.
The revolutionary winged-keel was the key and all credit was given to Ben Lexcen, an immensely congenial, self-taught Sydney yacht designer.
That was what Australia believes. It was also what Bond had to convince the New York Yacht Club to believe because in 1983 it was against the America’s Cup rules to employ a designer who was not a national of the challenging club’s country.
But it was not true.
Suspicions were rife from the beginning that Lexcen was not the originator of the groundbreaking keel design. In 2009 Dutchman Piet van Oossanen claimed responsibility for the original design of the keel’s winglets and admitted accepting $25,000 in what he believed was hush money from Bond to keep the secret.
Now his claim has to be qualified. The man who kept the secret of the keel’s origin longest and who has best claim to be its designer has now come completely out of the shadow.
He is another Dutchman, Johannes “Joop” Slooff, a retired fluid dynamicist with a degree in aeronautical engineering, who has laid out his case in his book Australia II and the America’s Cup: The Untold, Inside Story of the Keel.
The evidence he presents to support his role as the keel designer seems irrefutable.
In 1981, Oossanen was the representative of The Netherlands Ship Model Basin, also known as MARIN (MAritime Research Institute of the Netherlands), contracted by Bond to conduct tank testing for the Cup challenge, and Slooff had been recruited by Oossanen from the Dutch National Aerospace Laboratory.
Slooff, whom I met with his wife, Lia, in Newport while covering the historic 1983 America’s Cup for The Australian, spoke with me from his home in Uithoorn after the release of his book this week.
“Ben Lexcen wanted to test variations on a conventional keel when he came to Holland in May 1981 at the NSMB’s Wageningen test tank,” he told me.
“He may not have been aware I had been asked to join Piet for the keel design when he arrived.
“He wanted to benchmark test the Australia model with a couple of other conventional types of keel with thicker sections that can accommodate more ballast.
“I had by then been thinking about the winged keel for two or three weeks but as my real work was with aircraft I told him of my thoughts.”
For those two or three weeks, Slooff had been talking with van Oossanen about the keel shapes to be investigated through fluid dynamic computations at his department at NLR.
When Lexcen arrived, he put forward the proposal for the upside-down keel and the winglets, and included from his computations the relative dimensions, twist, taper, cant angle, section shapes and such.
“I had been arguing for years that an upside-down keel should suffer less from loss of side force through free water surface effects than ordinary tapered keels. My department at NLR had done research on winglets for aircraft around 1979-1980 and I realised that they would also be very effective in reducing the resistance due to side force of a sailing yacht when sailing upwind,” he said.
Slooff stresses that he and his co-worker Harm Sytsma had been studying the aerodynamic characteristics and performance improvement aspects of winglets for aircraft wings for the Fokker aircraft company.
“I argued that they should also work on sailing yacht keels and, probably, even better, because of the smaller span and the associated larger drag-due-to-lift of a keel as compared to an aircraft wing. In other words, they could improve the performance of a sailing yacht through a reduction of the underwater resistance when sailing upwind.
“Besides, winglets could accommodate additional low-positioned ballast that would improve the yacht’s stability and upwind performance further.”
Well aware of Lexcen’s status as one of Australia’s greatest sporting heroes with a legendary status akin to that of Phar Lap and approaching that of Donald Bradman, Slooff stresses that “nothing of what I have said or written changes the fact that Ben Lexcen had full design responsibility and was free to adopt or reject whatever was proposed to him.
“Ben and the Australian syndicate management had the courage to adopt something radical that had not (yet) proven its superiority. For this reason, the success of Australia II, in my opinion, is and remains an Australian success.”
Those who have followed this saga across the past three decades will doubtless hark back to the stories of Lexcen fixing endplates — like little wings — to the rudder of his 18-footer Taipan nearly 20 years before Australia II, but his biographer Bruce Stannard wrote: “Ben told me he had tried the winged keel idea before but was unsure whether it would work.”
Lexcen said to Stannard: “I had tried fins or wings on 5.5s and dinghies and they never worked or if they did I couldn’t tell the difference.”
Slooff says: “If he played with winglets in the 1960s, then why didn’t he put them on Southern Cross in 1974 and on Australia (I) in 1977 or 1980? And what about inverse taper (of the keel)?
“With three of the main players — Lexcen, (Warren) Jones and Bond — no longer among us, I will probably never know the answers to these questions.
“What is certain, however, is that Ben Lexcen never told me about his 1960s winglets.”
There is no one left from that triumvirate at the innermost core of the victorious 1983 campaign to speak for Lexcen who died in 1988 from a heart attack, aged 52.
Jones, executive director of Bond’s challenge and the tough no-nonsense end of the victorious 1983 campaign, died aged 65 after a massive stroke in 2002, and Bond died during heart surgery last June, aged 77.
John Longley, the project manager, who also sailed aboard Australia II, said it was difficult to say who had been responsible for what part of the enterprise when so many people had been involved.
“You have to remember that Benny was alone, surrounded by Dutch technocrats, there were plenty of ideas flying around and I know he was twitchy about the whole deal later because he told me.”
I was aware Slooff had played an important role in the keel development when I met him, but when I asked Lexcen about Slooff’s role when we were together in Newport after the series had ended he was uncharacteristically evasive.
“He’s a very friendly guy,” isn’t he, Lexcen said, and gave me one of his crew “boxing kangaroo” ties, which I still keep as a treasured memento of that Cup.
Australia II skipper John Bertrand, now president of Swimming Australia and busily preparing his charges for the Olympic trials, visited the test tank in The Netherlands with Bond and Jones on a lay day during the 1981 Admiral’s Cup series where he was racing Bond’s Apollo V with many of the sailors who would crew Australia II.
He says only someone of Lexcen’s eclectic mindset could have brought the whole boat together successfully.
“That was his genius,” Bertrand told me. “He had a dynamism, an extraordinary ability to accept what was different and see the merits. A great lateral thinker.”
Bertrand recalls Bond and Jones were at war with the New York Yacht Club which was constantly trying to nail them on the rules.
“They even wanted us to stop using Microsoft Windows because the software wasn’t created in Australia,” he said, citing a challenge that was quickly dismissed.
Bertrand also pointed out that the rule that barred competitors from using designers from countries other than their own has now gone — but that even in 1983 was constantly being bent with yet another Dutchman, Johan Valentijn, adopting Australian citizenship to work on Bond’s 1977 challenger Australia, taking up French citizenship to design for the French in 1980 before pledging allegiance to the US and signing up with Dennis Conner for 1983.
Yachting veteran James Hardy says he spoke with Lexcen at Lexcen’s home in Clontarf, Sydney, and the designer told him he had seen “some blokes testing end plates for aeroplanes in the test tank and had asked them ‘couldn’t you do something with those on a boat?’ ”
But how can we ever know, says Hardy, musing on the elements that combined to bring about historic victory, how can we ever know exactly which piece of coal makes the whistle blow?