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Photographs relating to Ben Lexcen

Date: 1984
Medium: Silver gelatin print
Credit Line: ANMM Collection Gift from Bruce Stannard
Classification:Photographs
Object Name: Archive series
Object No: ANMS0260

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    Description
    This archive series numbered [001] - [080] consists of photographs relating to yacht designer Ben Lexcen (formerly Robert Miller) collected by Bruce Stannard which illustrated the 1984 book 'Ben Lexcen: The Man, the Keel and the Cup'. Included is one drawing of the line and sail plane for AUSTRALIA, and 79 photographs which document Lexcen's development as a world renowned boat designer, including the yacht TAIPAN.
    HistoryTAIPAN revolutionized the 18-foot skiff class on its debut in late 1959. TAIPAN's principal designer was Bob Miller, (later known as Ben Lexcen) and he explored a completely new concept for the class. The craft was built close to the minimum beam of 6 ft (1.83 m) with a lightweight vee-shaped planing hull, three crew, overlapping headsails and decking. This was almost the opposite to the existing fleet of heavy craft with 5 or 6 man crews. TAIPAN’s early racing race was unspectacular. With a borrowed sails from a Flying Dutchman class dinghy it failed to perform, but when it finally raced with its full sized battened main and overlapping genoa TAIPAN sailed away from the fleet to be over a leg in front on the Brisbane River course.

    The design began as an idea from his experiences with friends sailing on the Flying Dutchman class. They knew that this fast 2 handed craft from Europe could beat an 18-foot skiff upwind, and Miller could see how to adapt the concept to the 18-foot skiff class. He was also aware of Uffa Fox's many planing dinghies for the International 14-Foot class from reading Fox's books, and another influence at that time could have been the WA 14-foot skiff DARKIE which was featured in SEACRAFT and in turn had elements of the Sydney VJ class.

    The opportunity arose for Miller to put the ideas into a real project when he moved to Brisbane in the late 1950s to work for the boatbuilders Norman Wright and Sons. He was employed as a sailmaker in their subsidiary business called Florite Sails. Miller injured himself quite badly falling from a mast and spent time in hospital recovering. Norman Wright Jnr made him a drawing board he could use in bed, and amongst the things he drew were sketches or plans that were the basis of the TAIPAN. Wright was an 18-foot skiff sailor, and was also familiar with the comparative speed of the Flying Dutchman and even the relatively new Light-Weight Sharpie class, another chine hull form. Norman Wright encouraged Miller to design and build the TAIPAN. There is evidence that the Queensland 18-foot skiff association was looking to adopt a simpler type of boat for the 18-foot skiff class at this time, but was not quite ready for the radical thoughts embodied in TAIPAN.

    When he returned to work Miller began building the boat later in 1959, but his impatience was evident. Wright had to get others in to help, notably Brian Hamilton, so that TAIPAN would be finished. Hamilton and Norman's son Norman Wright III were the crew for Miller and after some initial problems at launch, TAIPAN went on to win a number of races in the early part of 1960. At different times Miller experimented with a endplates and fences on both the rudder and centreboard, as well as developing better sails and understanding how to get the most out of this new concept. After the Queensland State titles TAIPAN was chosen to represent Queensland in Auckland New Zealand for the world title contest later in that summer.

    TAIPAN was regarded as the outstanding boat at that championship, even though it failed to win and only finished fourth. Prompted by dissension from Sydney club representatives, the race committee judged that it was not built to the rules with regard to its decking, even though it satisfied the class definition of an open boat. Miller was forced to cut large holes in the fore and aft deck panels which weakened the hull and caused it to take on more water. Twice it was dismasted, but despite all these setbacks it showed enough speed and potential for its rivals to realize that this was the future of the class. On its return to Australia, TAIPAN took part in a special challenge race on Botany Bay late in March 1960. Racing against a champion 16-foot skiff and one of the best of the Sydney 18-foot skiffs, TAIPAN won comfortably without needing to set a spinnaker and on a course that probably favoured the best point of sail for a 16-foot skiff. TAIPAN was sailed in the race by Miller's close friend Carl Ryves, who had never sailed the boat before and this further underlined the dominance of the concept.

    Miller then built a new and very streamlined hull he called VENOM, which went on to win the next world championship with Craig Whitworth in the crew as a steadying influence. This ensured that the concept started by TAIPAN became the path for all future designs. TAIPAN changed hands, and as CRYSTAL LAD won the Australian title a year later with Len Heffernan of NSW at the helm. Eventually the craft found its way to owners in the ACT early in the 1980s, but it was in need of repair. The final owner in Canberra rebuilt various parts of the structure and it sailed again on Lake Burley Griffin. In the late 1980s the owner donated the historic craft to the Australian National Maritime Museum where it is now part of the National Maritime Collection.

    In 2007 a project has been completed which has restored TAIPAN to its early 1960 arrangement. Working closely with the Australian National Maritime Museum's curatorial and conservation staff, Sydney Harbour Wooden Boats has expertly rebuilt the hull and rig based on plans prepared at the museum by curator David Payne. These plans were developed from details seen on contemporary images, evidence of structure on the existing hull, and detailed advice or recollections of people involved with TAIPAN during this period, including Bob McLeod, Carl Ryves, Brian Hamilton and Norman Wright III. In mid October TAIPAN sailed again, and looked just as it did when it created a furore in 1960.

    The story of the TAIPAN captures the key elements of the life of its creative designer. Miller was always ready to experiment with new and original ideas, and not only was the whole concept quite novel in the class, but he also continued his experiments with endplates on the rudder and centreboard. His impatience and lack of attention to detail was always coming to the surface and those supporting him often had to work behind the scenes to patch up or attend to things that were otherwise overlooked. Much of this is repeated elsewhere in his career, and TAIPAN leads directly to the winged keel concept of his victorious 12 metre design, the AUSTRALIA II, winner of the America's Cup in 1983.

    Additional Titles

    Web title: Photographs relating to Ben Lexcen

    Primary title: COLLECTION OF PHOTOGRAPHS RELATING TO BEN LEXCEN (ROBERT CLYDE MILLER), THESE PHOTOGRAPHS WERE COLLECTED BY BRUCE STANNARD AND USED IN A BOOK ENTITLED `BEN LEXCEN: THE MAN, THE KEEL AND THE CUP'

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