Olaf Theodore Harken
“When trying new stuff our rule is to ask, 'if it all goes bad, can we survive?'
Then we go to the bar and forget what we just said and do it anyway!”
May 6, 1939
Birthplace: Medan, Sumatra, Indonesia
U.S. Citizen: February 18, 1963, Atlanta, Georgia
Olaf Harken got his engineering degree from Georgia Tech. After being discharged from the Navy, he joined his brother Peter building Tech Dinghies in Pewaukee, Wisconsin. They reformed the company in 1967, called it Vanguard, and built Flying Juniors for the college market. Three boats were in contention for the 1976 Olympics. Olaf and Peter consulted with their good friend, designer Bruce Kirby, and bet on the 470. They were right, and secured the U.S. franchise. They built 500 of the 470s in one year, had dealers all over the world, and added Finns and Flying Dutchmen to their line. They sold the company in 1986. “It stopped being fun,” Olaf explains, “and that’s a big deal for us, having fun.”
From then on the Harkens concentrated on the hardware Peter had developed in the mid-1960s. Kirby, who was then editor of One Design Yachtsman, had jokingly called Harkens’ blocks “dangerous” because they had let the main sheet run out so fast he nearly fell overboard. “Gary Comer had started a little mail-order marine supply company called Lands End,” Olaf says. “We showed him the blocks. He said ‘fantastic – you make ‘em, I’ll sell ‘em.’” Through Comer, a Star sailor, prototype Harken blocks got on Lowell North’s Star and Buddy Friedrich’s Dragon for the 1968 Olympics. Both won gold medals. “Until then, we hadn’t actually sold a block,” Olaf says. They went to see Kirby again, who gave them some full page ads on credit.
The Harkens aren’t sure exactly when the turnabout happened, but Olaf the engineer ended up running the business side of Harken Inc., with Peter the economist handling design and production. “Peter designed the blocks, and knew more about manufacturing than me,” Olaf says. “Olaf was more patient, better at the business than me,” Peter says. “Each of us was better at the other guys’ education. We kept it quiet, figuring people wouldn’t want blocks designed by an economist.”
They needn’t have worried. The breakthrough quality of the product has led to a whole new world of nautical gear. In 2014, Harken Inc. opened a 175,000 square foot plant in Peewaukee. “All our engineers are sailors,” Olaf says, “so they’ll understand what the market needs.”
- Roger Vaughan