Eight Bells: Olaf Harken 1939-2019

Author:
Publish date:
yandy-600x

Olaf Harken, who along with his brother, Peter, created the now legendary sailing hardware company Harken in Pewaukee Wisconsin, has died. He was 80-years-old and is survived by his wife of 47 years, Ruth, three daughters, four granddaughters and one grandson.

When Olaf and Peter were inducted into the National Sailing Hall of Fame in 2014, he explained the brothers’ business philosophy in the following terms: “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!”

“Peter and I were not very smart,” Olaf also said in his 2015 memoir Fun Times in Boats, Blocks & Business, “but we did know that success is linked directly to trust and treating people with dignity, and maybe a little sprinkling of humor.”

Earlier today, shortly after his brother’s death, Peter told an assembly of Harken members: “My brother did all the hard work, so I could have all the fun. During the days when the company was just getting going, Olaf was in charge of the money. He kept us in business. If I had been in charge of that we would have been in big trouble. His legacy is in this culture. So, let’s just keep doing what we do. Just keep getting better. You are a great family. Thanks a lot. He’ll be watching you, so no sloughing off!”

Olaf was born of Dutch and Swedish parents in Indonesia at the beginning of World War II. In 1941 the Japanese attacked Indonesia. During the fighting, Peter, Olaf and their Swedish mother, Ulla, managed to escape to Borneo. Their Dutch father, Joe joined the very small Dutch army and helped fight the Japanese until his capture. Joe was imprisoned for five years and was not liberated until the end of the war. Meanwhile, Peter, Olaf and Ulla lived first in Borneo then New Zealand and Australia before finally being shipped to San Francisco in 1944. Here they were reunited with their father in 1946 after the war was over.

After studying at Georgia Tech, Olaf Harken took an engineering job in New York City, but in 1967 he returned to Wisconsin to help Peter build boats for the college market. "Why I made that decision then I'll never know," said Olaf. Their first year together made $3,800. Nonetheless, they hung on, in the process creating a global company with offices stretching from Australia to Poland and Italy that has long since become synonymous with sailing excellence in the truest sense of the word.

Beyond that, Olaf was both a great sailor and a great guy in general. He will be missed.

For more on Olaf Harken and the company he and his brother, click here.

October 2019

Related

01-LEAD-View-of-the-Bow

Know-How: Marlinspike Seamanship in the Arctic

I was crewing aboard a boat named Breskell, a 51ft cutter-rigged, cold-molded, mahogany sloop. We were voyaging from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to Port Townsend, Washington, via the Northwest Passage. A few days before setting sail, the captain, Olivier Huin, asked me to secure ...read more

Prop-Coat-Barnacle-Barrier-Quart-No-Background

Gear: Prop Coat Barnacle Barrier

Prop Coat Barnacle Barrier 1792 is now available in a quart-size can and, as always, can be used on all underwater metals, including saildrives, shafts, strainers and folding and non-folding props. Two or three coats are recommended, after which the coating will purportedly ...read more

DY_171021_6877

Boat Review: Seawind 1600

Seawind Catamarans introduced its 52ft 1600 model in Europe last year, where the boat promptly started winning awards. The more jaded among us may look askance at such things, especially when it comes to a bluewater-rated catamaran billed as a providing a combination of ...read more

01-LEAD-Sailing-upwind.-300-dpi

Cruising: Australia’s Rugged Southern Coast

After a hard 33-day crossing in the Roaring Forties from Cape Town, South Africa, Jeannie, my wife and shipmate of over four decades, and I arrived to kiss the dock in Albany, a small but well-serviced Victorian town on Australia’s southwestern coast. We were glad the trip was ...read more