A Solid Half-Cen­tury

SAIL - - From The Editor -

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

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