AT THE FRONT The Harken Newsletter - May 2020

Welcome to the May issue of Harken's At The Front Newsletter. This month... a little memory lane excursion.

Ageless Wonders

Some of Harken’s oldest products stand the test of time.

By Greg Hartlmeier, Senior Engineer, also fondly known as 'Papa'

As Harken engineers, we’re paid to innovate. “What’s next? What’s a better way?” These questions lurk deep in the company DNA. But this is also a little odd. Because after you’ve worked at Harken a while, you figure out the preoccupation with new…isn’t new. I started at Harken in July of 1981. It was my first job out of college. I am the first staff engineer to work at Harken…other than Peter Harken. For nearly 40 years (wow!), our discussions have always been how we could take industry standard rigging products and make them work better.

I don’t think much about this, but I was recently asked to list my two all-time favorite Harken products. Those would have to be the Cam-Matic cam cleat and the MKIV headsail furling system.

Peter Harken gets credit for designing the first ball bearing sailboat block—those launched the company. And they changed the way generations of sailors expect to be able to adjust sails in even the lightest breeze. But I’m not alone in the Harken Engineering Department in thinking the Cam-Matic cam cleat is his best design. People might forget that each cam has three stacked rows of ball bearings inside them. Yes, they are the world’s first ball-bearing cam cleats. That innovation, along with the shape of the pawls (cams), is what makes drop-in cleating and un-cleating so easy—all without having to change the sail adjustment to get the cams to open and accept the line. He did this design way back in 1979. We’ve added sizes and features, but the fundamental design hasn’t been changed—and doesn’t need to.

My other favorite Harken design is one I worked on and have been returning to for years. It’s the MKIV furling unit for headsails. We host “Harken University” a couple times a year in different places around the Harken world. Before the test on the last day, we ask attendees for their favorite—and least favorite Harken products. It’s very rare when the MKIV furler doesn’t come up in the list of most-favorite. The riggers say they like it because it is easy to install. And it’s also designed to be easy to disassemble if the boat’s going to be raced—which was a good notion at the time. I like it because we were able to make it rotate so efficiently. That’s due to the multiple races of ball bearings we stack in both the top and bottom units. Having that many races balances things so we don’t get point loading. Another thing I like is that the bearings themselves don’t need lubrication, so the units are pretty maintenance-free for years.

We all have our favorites…and everything you design feels like your baby for a while. But around here, you need to be ready because someone’s going to come along and redesign your baby one day—that’s Harken after all.

This May edition of At The Front is designed to remind us of just what makes those favorite products worth the love. Heck, some folks reading this might not even realize there are 66 little balls in every Harken 150. Hope you enjoy this issue. Happy Spring—Finally!


The year is 1966. To pay for his college education, Peter Harken 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 blocks 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.

Two years later, Peter and Olaf put new ball bearing blocks into an old cigar box and showed them to Gary Comer who featured them in the Lands’ End catalog for sailboat hardware. The rest is history.

From The Vault

Not every Harken innovation survives the test of time. Some products that are ingenious solutions to problems in one era become less relevant due to changes in the way we sail or in developments in other areas of rigging. One example of this is the Harken Magic Box that was discontinued in the early 2000s. Here’s what Peter Harken remembers about how they came to be—and how they ended:

The Magic Box was “The Poor Man’s Hydraulics." It acted like a small hydraulic cylinder; it created a lot of power within a rectangular aluminum tube fitted with thin multiple stacked plastic sheaves that formed an internal block and tackle system. One end with sheaves was fixed and the other end with sheaves was on a shaft with a clevis that slid about three-quarters of the internal length of the box when the input line was pulled.

Products like these were popular in small boats (470, 505, FD, Lightning, and Soling) to power systems for boom vangs, outhauls and halyards that needed to be moved during racing where only a limited amount of power movement was needed, like 6, 8, or 10 inches. They came in basically two power sizes with 6:1 or 8:1 systems.

We made a lot of them, but they fell slowly out of favor with the oncoming more flexible, less friction, more movement cascading block systems made possible by today’s much stronger, smaller line. These same developments are the reason we developed FLY blocks.


What makes the Harken 150 Cam-Matic cam cleat the ultimate standard - even today, nearly 50 years later? Senior Engineer Chuck Lob gives us the low-down.

Baby Pictures

Something wonderful happens when you make products that work well for a long time. People acquire boats equipped with fantastic vintage Harken hardware and they send us great photos of those boats.

Recently Jonathan McKee (yes, THAT Jonathan McKee) sent us some great photos of a Tasar rehab product he took on in March. You can read about his whole process here: www.sailingworld.com/story/racing/tasar-rehab/ 

Anyway, he sent Peter Harken this photo of the old school double block that is part of a cascading 4:1 purchase that hangs from the boom. If you look closely, you can see it’s actually two single blocks…there are two sideplates in the interior—probably what was done before there were as many options as there are now. Here’s what Peter said in his reply:

"I now remember how I was going to make a double with two square headed singles—just straddle the two square heads with a single clevis and the whole arrangement stays nice and low. I think that’s the way it went! What the heck—it sounds good anyway!”

It’s pretty neat to get a glimpse like that into the rigging time machine. One more thing: That rigging solution seemed to work pretty well. And it still does 43 years after the boat was built!