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Harken 50th Anniversary

We were witnesses of the day Harken turned 50, and we were there to celebrate, but there is always a question about who is Peter, who is Olaf and how they become the company they are today. So let's go back in time and go back to day one, the time when they were born.

Where it all started

Peter and Olaf Harken were born of Dutch and Swedish parents in Indonesia at the beginning of World War II. In 1941 the Japanese attacked Indonesia. During the fighting and nightly bombings, Peter, Olaf, and their Swedish mother managed to escape to Borneo. Their Dutch father, Joe, who represented the Caterpillar Tractor Company in Asia, 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. In the meantime, Peter, Olaf, and mother Ulla lived first in Borneo, were then troop-shipped to New Zealand for a year, to Australia for another year, and finally shipped to San Francisco in 1944. Here they were miraculously reunited with their father in 1946 after the war was over. The family traveled to Peoria, Illinois, home of Caterpillar, and subsequently lived a few years in Larchmont, New York. Joe then had an offer to move to the Philippines where he would develop and supply heavy-duty, earth moving equipment to be used in the reconstruction of the badly damaged, war-torn nation. Peter and Olaf lived in the Philippines all through their school years, attending the American International School in Manila until they left for college in the United States.

"We both received swimming scholarships due to the many years we swam competitively in the Philippines," said Olaf, who majored in industrial engineering at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, Georgia. Peter enrolled at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wisconsin where he first majored in engineering but finally graduated in International Economics. "It was a faster way to get out of school and get on with real life," he said.

Peter joined the UW Hoofer Sailing, Skiing, Whitewater Canoeing, and Mountain Climbing clubs. Sailing on both water and ice quickly distracted him from more studious pursuits. After squandering his father's college money on sailing, skiing, girls, and other non-academic adventures, his father pulled the plug saying, "You're on your own; I'm not going to pay for your playing." So Peter, with $50 to his name, packed up his 1951 Chevy jalopy with his skis, his dog, about 30 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and ski-bummed in Colorado for a semester instead.

To pay for his education after his return to Wisconsin, Peter worked part-time at Gilson Medical Electronics, staying after hours to design and build his own sailing hardware for his E-Scow and iceboats. One night some of the plastic ball bearings rolled off his bench and onto the floor. "I was amazed at how high they bounced," he recalled. "The less mass, the faster things accelerate. That's what pulleys do on a boat-stop and start all the time." Peter replaced the stainless steel needle bearings in his pulleys with 1/4" nylon ball bearings. His boats became the test platform for his designs, and as competitors saw Peter's sails releasing faster and his equipment working more smoothly than theirs, word about the "black blocks with white plastic balls" began to spread.

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