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An ‘Auld Mug’ Conversation with the Harken Brothers

Olaf Harken passed away on October 21, 2019. There isn't a day in Pewaukee when we don't remember him and smile. Rare that so many owe so much to someone. Stories like the one below helps keep our memories of how Olaf and Peter talked to each other-the way they looked at each other-just how they thought things through together, alive. Enjoy it.

We wanted to develop a line of Big Boat blocks. The Delrin® bearings in our dinghy blocks wouldn't work because they couldn't handle the loads. Metal bearings reduced block size, but they were heavy. What we wanted was a strong, low-friction plastic bearing that could handle extremely high loads. We figured somewhere in the world some crazy scientist would have the goop we needed. Amoco had just released Torlon® for commercial use. It was the toughest plastic in the world. The material was perfect for our prototype mainsheet block.

We were small boat builders and didn't know many big boat sailors in the U.S. We met the Swedish America's Cup team at the 1976 SORC in Florida, and asked if they would test a prototype Big Boat mainsheet block on 12-Meter Sverige, their entry in the 1977 Cup. After the series, the team told us our mainsheet block was the only one they didn't have to replace.

The America's Cup is a perfect arena to develop and test new products. The guys are out sailing every day and are merciless on the equipment. We estimate the AC provides us with 10 years of hard testing in just one year. We use this information to improve our standard product line too.


For the next 10 years, we focused on developing Big Boat blocks and travelers for offshore racing and America's Cup boats. At the 1987 Cup in Fremantle, we introduced titanium runner blocks for the first time. They were aboard over a dozen 12-Meters, including America II, French Kiss, Heart of America, and Kookaburra.

At the 1992 AC in San Diego, Bill Koch, Buddy Melges, and the guys won the Cup with America3 using high-load titanium Air® blocks. Sheaves were designed to remove excess weight and roller bearings replaced the composite bearings used in our other titanium blocks. The Air block surpassed all of our goals and is now part of Harken's Big Boat Black Magic® line.

It was time to take the next step-carbon fiber winches. We knew if we got into the AC winch game we'd really have to commit ourselves. It would be dangerous, because if we failed, the whole world would know. It's like entering the bullring. Don't go looking for praise, cheering, and backslapping, because you're going to get bloodied. We told our guys here, "Guys, the pressure is going to be horrendous. At times we'll be working night and day. No whining."

A longstanding friendship between Harken distributor John Street and New Zealand syndicate head Sir Peter Blake opened the door for us. When talking with Blake he asked us, "Can you guarantee your winches will be successful?" We said, "We can't guarantee anything other than that we'll work our butts off to keep you sailing. We'll work around the clock if we need too."

Our winches had carbon fiber drums, a first in the industry, and were much lighter than the competition's. Blake also liked the idea of our service and took a chance. New Zealand won the Cup and everybody started looking at our winches. It was the first time in modern Cup history that one company had provided complete deck hardware and winch packages to both America's Cup finalists-this has continued to today.

We often ask ourselves, "How many times can we reinvent the wheel?" We get pressure from America's Cup syndicates. "You gotta solve this, you gotta solve that." If we say we don't have an answer, they say, "You must!" So we do.


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