Eight Bells: Olaf Harken 1939-2019

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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

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