A Solid Half-Century
When I awoke one August morning in a small town near Milwaukee with slightly blurred vision and a dull throbbing between my ears, I knew just who to blame. Along with several hundred other members of the sailing community, I had raised a few too many glasses at a birthday party. We had gathered to celebrate Harken’s 50th anniversary.
There can be few sailors who aren’t familiar with the Harken brand, and not many boats that aren’t equipped with at least a few of its products, be they blocks, furlers, cleats, winches, whatever. The company’s rise and the growth in recreational sailing in the United States during the 1970s and ‘80s paralleled each other almost exactly. The tale of its founding is an almost quintessential American success story: immigrant brothers seize an opportunity to start a small business that grows not only to dominate its market but overflow its boundaries. Along the way they become involved in events that shape the sport they love, from the Olympics to the America’s Cup, all the while having a hell of a good time and garnering the goodwill of even their fiercest competitors.
Brothers Peter and Olaf Harken were born in Indonesia to Dutch and Swedish parents, and to cut a long and interesting story short they ended up in Wisconsin. There, in 1967, they developed the first of the plastic ballbearing blocks that would make their name, and also started a fledgling boatbuilding business called Vanguard Boats. When Lowell North and Peter Barrett won the Star class gold at the 1968 Olympics, and Buddy Friedrichs took the gold medal in the Dragon class, all using those newfangled Harken blocks, the writing was on the bulkhead. From those small-boat blocks, originally conceived for scow and iceboat racing on midwestern lakes, the progression to big boats and eventually the America’s Cup was almost inevitable.
My own introduction to the brothers, at a trade show many years ago, was a mixed affair. The magazine I was then working for had printed an uncomplimentary review of one of their products, and both Peter and Olaf were, shall we say, blunt in their critique of the methodology that had been employed. After my dressing-down, they shook my hand and invited me for a drink. Later that night I was treated to the sight of Peter and his longstanding rival, Ronstan’s Alastair Murray, standing arm in arm on top of a bar counter and leading a packed pub in raucous song. Work hard, party hard…
I don’t often write about the marine trade, but to me, stories like that of the Harkens are part of the fabric of modern sailing. No matter what kind sailing we do, the products we enjoy, the boats themselves, the sails, the deck gear, all the things we take for granted, sprang from other sailors’ passions and desire to improve the sailing experience. Even the brands that have become corporatized owe their existence to some sailor thinking, “Hey, what if…”
In Harken’s case, that moment came when Peter, at the time employed at a medical equipment company, accidentally spilled a box of plastic ball bearings and noted how high they bounced. What if…
Sometimes that’s all it takes. Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to raising another glass or two at the company’s 51st birthday party. s