Harken: Winches for our multihulls

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Out in the Italian countryside between Milan and Lake Como, there is a grey building with the word Harken, written on it, in red letters. To get inside the factory perimeter, there is a gate with a winch acting as a handle. But this is not a Harken winch - it says Barbarossa on it. Around here, symbols are important, and so is history.

In the past, the employees of Harken in the US used to dress up in costume to welcome guests, and funny messages would be attached to any orders. Today, the two sites have 362 employees, including a quarter in Italy. That means that they have to behave like a responsible and serious company… Davide Burrini, Global OEM Leader, is the international face of Harken for the shipyards. He is the one who’s organized this visit. We get the traditional welcome, with the visitor’s flag fluttering in the blue sky beneath the Stars and Stripes, and with the snow-capped peaks as a backdrop. In the entrance hall, there is an enormous steel winch – an 1150 – and a personalized welcome message on the screen. We need to go a little further into the heart of the factory and meet the big boss of Harken Italy, Andrea Merello, before we get to learn all his secrets.


A history that stretches back over 50 years

Let’s go back to the early 1950s in the US. Peter Harken, a temperamental student, was mad about E-Scows and ice yachting. One evening at home, Peter accidentally dropped some ball bearings on the floor. He was impressed by the height of their rebound. It gave him the idea of replacing the steel needle bearings in his blocks with nylon ball bearings. His Scow became a floating laboratory, and it validated the efficiency of his first black blocks with white bearings… In 1967, with the help of his brother Olaf, Peter decided to start building yachts. Vanguard Boats started out in an abandoned Wisconsin garage, with the blocks being made by friendly sub-contractors, Leroy and Al Stippich, who owned the equipment maker Accurate Products. Already in 1968, the Harken brothers were touting their blocks to Olympic medal winners. Harken/Vanguard grew, moving into new premises, and began producing sailing dinghies, which of course dominated the market. In 1976, Peter and Olaf started to take an interest in large sailing boats. The Delrin bearings were not resistant enough, and they were replaced with Torlon. Their prototype block performed brilliantly on the mainsheet of the Sverige, the Swedish 12m JI that took part in the 1977 America’s Cup. The two sectors of activity – boat builders and equipment manufacturers – became difficult to manage by the end of the 1980s, and the brothers decided to sell Vanguard Boats to focus on Harken deck gear, and in 1987 they bought the Italian winch maker Barbarossa. And that’s why there is evidence of the former brand at the entrance of the factory.


A winch factory in the heart of Europe

Harken was happy with the location of the Italian factory: Milan is a large, easily accessible ...

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