Hello Olaf Harken, inventor of modern deck equipment.


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Gone is a sailing “big guy,” Olaf Harken. He died in his sleep in Pewaukee, Wisconsin, at the age of 80, the man who along with his brother Peter in 1967 founded the historic brand that revolutionized deck equipment. To the point that it is so difficult today that there is not a block, a choke, a Harken winch on your boat.

Born May 6, 1939, in Medan, Sumatra, Indonesia, to Dutch and Swedish parents, Olaf Harken was first and foremost a great sailor and experimenter. “When trying something new,” he wrote in his book Fun Times in Boats, Blocks & Business, “our rule is to ask ourselves, ‘If everything goes wrong, can we survive?’ Then we go to the bar, forget what we just said, and do it anyway!” What was the secret of the Harkens? Simple: they tested firsthand the equipment they made. They wanted to improve the boats they raced on.

Olaf (right) and Peter Harken

Olaf’s story is full of inventions, twists and turns, successes and crazy feats. After the Japanese attacked Indonesia in 1941, Olaf, his brother Peter and mother Ulla fled to Borneo. Instead, his father, Joe Harken, stayed behind to fight against the Japanese army and was imprisoned until the end of World War II. Meanwhile, the family moved to New Zealand, then to Australia and finally to San Francisco. When the war ended, in 1946 their father joined them.

First Olaf took on engineering work (he had studied at Georgia Tech School) in New York, then, called by his brother who had meanwhile begun making boats for intercollegiate racing, he joined him in Wisconsin where Harken Inc. was born in 1967.

Olaf Harken in the 1970s

The first office was very “artisanal” and was in a garage: the desk consisted of a door on wooden trestles, a plastic sheet separated the offices from the area where fiberglass was processed. To advertise themselves, the two would drive around the streets at night in an old Chevrolet van where in the back compartment Olaf would print flyers, and they would distribute them to homes.

As the company grew, the two brothers reversed their roles: engineer Olaf ended up running the business side of Harken, while Peter, the economist, handled design and production.

Today Harken is a small, internationally known empire: you can find its equipment from Optimists to megayachts, from cruising boats to ocean openers. Harken’s main production facilities are its headquarters in Pewaukee and its Italian office in Limido Comasco, Como. Harken has sales and service offices in the USA (Rhode Island, California, Florida), France, Japan, Poland, Slovenia, Sweden, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK.

But we were saying, Olaf was also a great experimenter: he was personally involved in speed record-chasing challenges, such as the one in 1980 on the Slingshot prototype, which ended not so well, which we tell you about in his own words, again taken from the aforementioned book. Because Harken’s strength has been to have fun, always, and learn even from failures.


In 1980 Peter and I, with North Sails and the Gougeon Bros. (Gougeon Bros. is a company specializing in episodics, ed.) we created a small team to try to break the world sailing speed record, which was then held by Crossbow, 31.8 knots. We decided that we would participate by covering part of the expenses, but on one condition: to be on board during the record attempt.

One of the neat things about Slingshot was that it was designed to hold six people in the “cockpit,” which was redesigned to be more like a seaplane hull jumping over water. So each company could put two people of its choice on board….

The idea was to make a 60-foot proa (the typical asymmetric multihull used in Oceania and Southeast Asia, ed.) with a large stabilizer deck that extended 44 feet outboard and had a pod at the end of the stabilizer.

From there, the helmsman would steer while the crew maneuvered the sails and the outrigger, which could be moved from side to side for leverage, forming a trimaran. The theory behind the rigging was that it worked like in windsurfing, where the mast tilted up to 30 degrees and providing an upward thrust to the boat. The challenge, however, was keeping the mast from falling: when the outrigger was fully extended, there was no leeward rigging to support it. It was up to the wind pressure to keep it up, and the stabilizer always had to be recalibrated before slowing down to stop the boat…”

It comes down to the day of the attempt, in Galveston, Texas: there were 20-25 knots of air, ideal conditions for Slingshot. “The beauty of Slingshot was in her reliability, unlike other boats made to break records. We were also using her for ten “runs” a day during testing, and we never had any problems. In testing, we even reached 38 knots!”

But just when there is to break the record, disaster: “We were in about 18 knots of air, and going over 27 knots when we heard a muffled sound from the stern. Shortly thereafter, we heard Jan (Gougeon, ed.) shouting ‘Don’t govern!!!!!.’ The boat came off the water and accelerated to a speed that probably equaled the world record, but as we flew aft, our eyes were glued to the mast, which was falling. Peter, sitting in the front of the capsule, calculated that he was coming upon him and jumped out of the boat at about 30 knots, leaping over the water like a flat stone.”

The tree, fortunately, came down slowly. But the rudder had to be repaired, and the refill work meant that the right weather window for the record passed. While the two Harken brothers were temporarily back in Wisconsin to attend to business affairs, Slingshot was used for some tests in light winds, but one day 50 knots suddenly arrived while there was only a crew of two aboard. The boat was entirely destroyed.

“And that was the end of Slingshot. A very expensive effort, but what fun!”

What a great lesson Olaf, that of always having fun. Good Wind!


(photos taken from the book “Fun Times in Boats, Blocks & Business” by Olaf Harken)



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