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.
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
“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.”
By 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?"
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."
In 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.
Extending 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!