Peter and Olaf Harken sailing their E-Scow on hometown waters of Pewaukee Lake in 1967.

Lowell North
The founder of North Sails, Lowell North was not only a successful businessman, but is a sailing legend: five Star world championships, a gold medal at the ’68 Olympics, and numerous Big Boat world championships. Trained as an engineer, Lowell was known as a detail man who insisted on testing every roll of sailcloth for quality. He simulated a season’s sail wear by hanging new cloth from his car’s antenna as he drove from San Diego to Newport Beach (California) at a constant 50 mph. His ‘flutter test’ is still used to calculate stretch, but now a machine is used to duplicate the flutter.

Buddy Melges
Buddy Melges is one of sailing’s greats. He won Olympic bronze in the Flying Dutchman in 1964 and Olympic gold in the Soling in 1972. In 1992 he successfully defended the America’s Cup as helmsman for America3. He has over 60 major national, international, and iceboating titles. Buddy is going strong—lecturing, teaching clinics, and showing younger sailors a thing or two about winning. Buddy, a.k.a "The Wizard of Zenda," lives just down the road from Harken in Zenda, Wisconsin.

George Shelby Friedrichs, Jr.
A member of New Orleans Southern Yacht Club, George (Buddy) Friedrichs with crew Barton Jahncke and Gerald Schreck sailed their wooden Dragon Williwaw (US 231) to a gold medal win at the 1968 Olympics in Alcapulco, Mexico. A picture of this historically significant boat hangs in the bar of Southern’s new club house (the original structure burned during hurricane Katrina). Currently, Williwaw is being restored in Texas and will not only sail again, but race with the North American fleet.

Bruce Kirby
A native of Ottawa, Canada, Bruce Kirby began sailing at a young age, but says he was late getting started because he was born in January and didn’t start sailing until June. Kirby’s boat of choice was the International 14. He produced his first serious I-14 boat designs in 1958—the Kirby Mark I and later, the Kirby Mark III, and the Mark V. A newspaper journalist by profession, Kirby became editor of One Design Yachtsman Magazine (now Sailing World) in 1965. During this time he was asked by a friend to design a car-top dinghy. The Laser hit the market in 1971 and Kirby became a boat designer full-time. Kirby has designed more than 60 boats including IOR boats, 12-Meters Canada 1 and Canada II, the San Juan 24, Sonar, Ideal 18, and PIXEL.

Necessity is the Mother of Invention


olympic_preHarken-blocksSailboat Hardware Before 1967:

An Exercise in Friction
Jammed blocks, kicked travelers, and grease to lubricate the steel ball bearings. Before 1967, that was sailing hardware-agricultural, heavy, hard to use, and a pain to maintain.

Sailboat Hardware After 1967:

An Era of Innovation 
Like many good ideas, Peter Harken's decision to use plastic instead of steel ball bearings in his boat hardware was born of necessity. Little did he realize his invention would change the face of sailing.

"I blew Dad's college money for the University of Wisconsin-Madison on boats, skiing, girls, and other good things, so I took a job at Gilson Medical Electronics as a product designer to pay for school," said Peter Harken. "I was too broke to buy hardware for my E-Scow and iceboats, so I built my own, using the plastic ball bearings I found at Gilson. They worked great! Much slicker than greasy steel balls! Sailing friends noticed how fast my sails released, so I built pulleys for them too."

Peter and his brother, Olaf, shopped their plastic ball bearing blocks to distributors with discouraging results. Disheartened, they put them in an old cigar box and showed them to Gary Comer, founder of a marine hardware supply (now clothing) company named Lands' End. "If I put them in my catalog, you'll have to make them, and I need them fast," Gary told them.

Gary sold some of these early blocks to Mexico City Olympians Lowell North (Star) and Buddy Friedrichs (Dragon). Both won gold medals. People asked, "What was the gear on those boats?" Harken ran an ad on the victory in One-Design and Offshore Yachtsman (a U.S. magazine now called Sailing World). Editor Bruce Kirby wrote a humorous editorial arguing that Peter's blocks were dangerous because they let the boom out so fast. Some readers took him seriously and generated fantastic publicity. "These diabolical devices are called Harken ball bearing blocks," he wrote, "and in my opinion it will take years for yacht designers to come up with boats fast enough to stay under the sails."

Lands' End Catalog 1969
Land's End Catalog"The ingenious blocks on these pages are the brainchildren of Pete and Olaf Harken. Trimming with them is unbelievably easy-as is the way sheets run out when eased. So easy, in fact, that the super-competitive U.S. Olympic Trial contestants used more Harken blocks than any other single make, and the two U.S. Gold Medal winners in Dragon and Star used them in their mainsheet systems. Very good, when you consider last year was their first year on the market.”

Business Takes Off

olympic_001By 1972, Harken blocks reigned supreme at the Olympic sailing events-34 boats at the '72 Olympic Games in Germany, and 106 boats at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Harken became the Official Equipment Supplier at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and the '92 Barcelona Olympics. The blocks were strong, dependable and exceptionally free-running. For many years, Small Boat blocks set the performance standard for Olympic and international champions.

These are still featured in the Harken catalog, but they have a new name-"Classic Blocks." They come in multiple sizes and dozens of configurations to provide racing and cruising sailors with a vast library of hardware choices for every style of boat and trimming task.

Said Buddy Melges while speaking at Harken's 40th anniversary celebration: "Peter came to Zenda (Wisconsin) with his new blocks and we put them on our E-Scows. They made these powerful boats so much easier to sail. Without Peter's blocks, where would small boat sailing be?"

Innovation Continues

Harken's long affiliation with the Olympics has helped both the company and the sailors. Since the beginning, Olympians have always clamored for stronger, lighter hardware. And as Peter succinctly puts it, "this brings on head-scratching innovation to give them that edge."

T2-loop_150In 1999, Harken Engineering made a major design breakthrough. Space-age materials, modern machinery, and a constant push for new ideas produced another first in the industry-Carbo AirBlocks®.

"Our Carbos are a major, major breakthrough," say Peter and Olaf Harken. "They provide the most significant strength-to-weight ratio advance in small boat hardware since Harken came out with ball bearing blocks, no ifs, ands, or buts about it." Harken's new line of small boat blocks was quickly snapped up by Olympic sailors.

Carbo AirBlocks® have become the standard for racing sailors and small boat cruisers. These are 30% lighter and 60% stronger than previous generations, and they're well-suited for the small-diameter, hard line favored today. Carbo blocks come in all shapes and sizes, including, switchable ratchet blocks and load-sensing Ratchamatics®. Today sailors may also choose any Harken Power3 ratchet sheaves in any ratchet block. These sheaves offer different line holding power sailors can perfectly match to the day's sailing conditions.

2171 with lineExtending Harken's unending mission to provide At The Front performance is the new line of Fly Blocks. These blocks are small and light and incredibly strong, designed especially for the skimming and planing and foiling rocket ships we sail today. Fly blocks are tiny to again match the ever-smaller diameter lines sailors favor as line technology radically improves. There's another reason tiny blocks are increasingly important, that would never have been contemplated 50+ years ago: reduced airflow or aero impact. Today, boats move so quickly through the liquid and gas fluids they navigate that reducing drag as the rig package moves through the air is increasingly important. Less aero friction, more speed.  Fly blocks can hold loads now that would have required significantly larger blocks just a few years ago. They offer titanium sheaves where needed; composite materials in the side plates and everywhere weight can be shed. And in something of a complete circle from where we started, Fly blocks have stainless bearings and bearing races. That's right metal ball bearings! But don't worry, these are nothing like the metal components of the 60s. These stand up to incredible loads, while still passing the Harken finger-spin test!

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