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That eureka moment

Look down in John F. Hollenbach’s Ericson 28 Plus, Pelican, and reflected in the deep, honey-thick varnish coating the cabin sole you see the love he has for this sailboat.

The 57-year-old contractor also loves gardening and often brings his favorite cut flowers — orange day lilies — on board. “I’d put them in Tupperware. Eventually, the day lilies would fall over, and the water and pollen would go over the cabin sole,” he says. This he did not love.

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“I had installed a tile hearth and Dickerson wood-burning stove,” he says. “Around the stove I had put a Weems & Plath clock and barometer, an oil lamp on a gimbal, and then I had a bunch of their other products around the boat. One day, I’m sitting there cleaning up the [spilled lily] mess and I look up at the oil lamp and say, ‘There’s a solution!’ ”

Hollenbach’s invention is now available in the Weems & Plath catalog as the Yacht Vase, a simple brass cylinder with a flared top that fits in the company’s oil lamp gimbal. For every vase sold, Hollenbach gets a royalty payment. He is but one of the more recent inventors in the storied history of this Annapolis, Md., business ( Capt. Philip Van Horn Weems, who founded the company in 1928, was an inventor and innovator of navigational instruments. The current owners say they have chosen to continue that tradition.

“I guess we decided about seven or eight years ago that we really needed to build a portfolio of new products and intellectual property” that fit in the company’s niche, says Peter Trogdon, 51, Weems & Plath president. “We also found that if we opened our minds up to other people’s ideas, with their ideas and our market understanding and our manufacturing and organizational skills, we could put out some neat products.”

Trogdon says his company’s niche is the “manufacture of fine nautical instruments.” One company catalog starts with heavy brass “eight-day wind ship’s bell clocks” and ends with leather log book covers. The pages in between offer sextants and plastic plotters, dividers and parallel rules, brass bells, lanterns, chart weights, compasses, binoculars, barometers and the curious “Stormglass Weather Forecaster.” Many of these products were standard items when Trogdon and his wife, Cathie, bought the company in 1997 from Litton Industries. (Trogdon had been hired two years earlier to manage the company.)

“When I arrived here, there was a file of inventors that we were paying royalties to,” Trogdon recalls. “One gentleman passed away. We had been paying him royalties 20 years, and in his will he asked that Weems & Plath stop paying royalties. Nobody here had ever met him.” Weems, the company founder, had invented products but also had bought the inventions of others and put their names on them, Trogdon says.

Now there is, within Weems & Plath, a “new products committee” responsible for assuring that the company is offering its customers a stream of new items. It is this committee that decides whether an inventor’s idea fits the niche.

Trogdon says he is looking for products that are fairly simple and don’t require a lot of training. “The buyer can look at it and figure out what it does,” he says. “The price range is $15 to $300. It’s important that they fit into a cardboard box; can live on a hot, cold, humid boat; that they won’t break so there won’t be a lot of returns; and that it fits the company’s category of products so [salespeople] can always go to the same buyers and know they will be well-received.”

Such was the case with the Light Rule, the brainchild of a British inventor living in France. Guy Milan and his Ohio-born wife, Megan, took a sailing course in Gibraltar. “As part of this, obviously you need to sit down and know the lights and shapes” for identifying vessels at sea, Milan says. “This information doesn’t stick. The brain doesn’t process a number of different colors in different patterns. From that, I identified there was need for a device to act as a memoir … so people can be able to identify lights and shapes and have something on board when they need it.”

Milan’s solution is a 15-inch-long black plastic slide rule with a magnifying bar at one end, through which can be read descriptions of specific arrangements of vessel lights. The depiction of those lights appears through slots in two drawings, one of a vessel profile and the other of an approaching vessel.

To get to the point that his invention was actually ready for sale, Milan had to complete several steps. “You need to design the thing,” says Milan, who makes his living as an inventor. “You have to take as much risk out of the product as possible. You have to show them this can absolutely work. With Light Rule, this was easy. You have to know what the product will be made of, how it will be made,” as well as “where it’s going to sell, to whom, and what numbers will sell.”

With all those questions answered, Milan determined that Weems & Plath was a likely customer for his invention, so he traveled from the south of France to Amsterdam, where Trogdon was attending a trade show. The negotiations began there.

“Peter was trying to convince me he would do me a favor by taking it off my hands for nothing. I don’t hold that against him,” says Milan. “I convinced him of the error of his ways. I went through the numbers with him, and he changed his tune very quickly.”

Today, Trogdon and Milan are both pleased with the deal they struck. The Light Rule was a “big hit from the start,” Trogdon says. And Milan says dealing with Weems & Plath “has been quite a breath of fresh air.”

When dealing with large corporations, “you’re dealing with a room full of egos,” says Milan. “You’ve got to get someone to be your supporter who has an issue with another guy.” At Weems & Plath, he says, “their egos are not the first thing that come bounding out of them when they come into a meeting. Their foundation is on trying to sell good products that work. That’s very, very encouraging to someone like me, because it’s easier to work with them.”

Trogdon’s stable of idea people includes another British sailor, David Young, who calls himself a “freelance inventor concentrating in chemical engineering mainly.”

“But you can’t very easily restrict one’s inventive capabilities to one’s designated field,” Young says. “You have lots of ideas.”

One of Young’s brainstorms came as a result of his single-handed cruising aboard a 27-foot pilothouse sloop he built in his back yard. He saw a need for a device to transfer longitude and latitude coordinates from a GPS to a chart and the reverse. “I wanted something that can literally be operated by one hand. It really had to be very accurate, as well,” Young says. “I felt there was a bit of a gap in the market, as it were. I created a series of prototypes and tested them on a number of offshore trips to France across the English Channel.”

Young then showed his invention to sailing friends. “In refining it, I had bumped into people involved in maritime markets,” he says. “One company kept cropping up, Weems & Plath. Everybody spoke of the reliability of the company.”

Near the completion of its development, Young’s ParaLock Plotter is now “quick, easy, simple.” And it’s intuitive, Young says. “Such devices may be all very well if you’ve just read the instructions, but if you’re cold and wet and being thrown around, it has to be absolutely obvious,” he says. That the ParaLock Plotter is these things, he says, results from his working relationship with Trogdon.

“Many of my previous inventions, I’ve had quite a lot of difficulty keeping any hands-on feedback,” Young says. “Peter has been very open to the idea of exchanging hard, physical products backward and forward. To be able to actually handle and think and put it on a real chart and skim it across and play with it … I would be absolutely delighted to work with him again.”

Indeed, Young and Trogdon are collaborating on an improvement Young saw for a product Weems & Plath already had in development. “To show you my respect for him, I haven’t even felt it necessary to create any sort of formal agreement with him,” says Young. “I will rely on Peter to reimburse me if he feels it is going to turn into a new product.”

Hollenbach, the Ericson 28 sailor, brought a bouquet of flowers to Annapolis on the September day in 2000 that he first met Trogdon. “I had made a little prototype holder for the gimbal,” he says. “We went in and sat down at the [table], six or seven of us. I pulled out the unit. I dropped the vase in. I asked … for the flowers, dropped them in. Peter said, ‘Do you know how many of these gimbals we sell a year?’

“Peter and his staff took care of the integration of the product to their manufacturing in Taiwan. They launched it about two years ago, and it’s been fairly successful. I’ll never get rich on it,” says Hollenbach, “but it’s a nice legacy, and it pays for sailing in the Caribbean every year.”

The down-to-earth work of Mystic River

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Many know of Mystic Seaport and “Mystic Pizza.” As the visiting hoards migrate along the beaten Connecticut tourist path between these two landmarks — one seafaring, one cinematic — they pass a lesser-known institution where can be found this region’s true “metal.”

Rising as one large block beside a dead-end boatyard lane just across the Amtrak railroad hump from Main Street, Mystic River Foundry’s cinderblock-and-brick building turns out castings in aluminum, brass and bronze. Your early Pearson needs a new tiller boss? Send the part here for reproduction. Your vintage 12 Meter could use replacement floors? Look no farther. You want bow cleats for your new line of mass-production bass boats?

Well, that’s another matter. It is true that owner Sharon E. (Sher) Hertzler always says, “Yes, I can do it.” But Hertzler, who is also half of the work force in this sweat-producing shop of roaring oven and glowing molten metal, doesn’t do mass production. While most in the marine industry are looking for the next technology to increase business volume, Hertzler uses bronze-age methods and a business model that yawns at the notion of growth. In place of volume, Hertzler has range. In addition to marine hardware, her shop, where she has worked for 30 years and owned for six, turns out architectural details for historic buildings, furniture, automotive parts, plaques, and memorials and artwork (

Mystic River Foundry was owned by Elliott and Phyllis Borges in 1976, when Hertzler, then a recent graduate in print-making from Mount Hood College in Oregon, started looking for work. In casting, she found a home for her inner artist, doing work that is “all visual and hands-on. You have to think conceptually,” she says.

There are three parts to the work — called sand casting — done inside the foundry’s blockhouse by Hertzler and her employee of 10 years, David Nigrelli. First, sand is packed around a pattern or an object that is to be reproduced, which is mounted inside a wooden box-like contraption. Next, ingots of the metal to be used — different types of aluminum or bronze — are melted in crucibles inside an oil-fired furnace sunken in the floor. Finally, with the pattern removed from the box, the molten metal is poured by hand from the crucible into the cavity that remains in the sand mold.

Except for an office in one corner, cluttered with assorted patterns, the blockhouse is a dark cavern, two stories high, heaped with the tools and materials of this work. Outside, there are whistles and gate bells each time an Amtrak train passes the nearby grade crossing. Inside, there is the hammering of a large air compressor’s cylinders as the sand castings are being made, the scraping of metal shovels scooping sand from the concrete floor, and the jet-engine thunder of the furnace while the ingots are melting. Silent on one wall is a circular thermometer, its top number 120. There have been summer days when, Nigrelli says, “We’ve buried [the needle of] the thermometer.”

“It’s a very physical job,” says Phyllis Borges, who at 82 is retired but still goes to the foundry on occasion. “You have to have the endurance and the will and the muscle to do it.” She notes that Hertzler, the mother of four children ages 20 to 30, is a sailor who is agile and athletic. “I think she’s fabulous. She’s going gangbusters.” Borges says Hertzler has branched out into art castings and is “getting some really nice work from architectural firms.”

Indeed, the little foundry has become a mandatory stop for first-year architecture students at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. Their professor, S. Edward Parker III, calls Hertzler’s work “really nice, quality, finished castings where you could use them right out of the blocks, without doing any extra polishing.” Parker says he used two other foundries before he found Mystic River Foundry. The work of those other shops “seemed to be less of a nice, finished product than what she has,” he says. “I think she takes extra time to set up her molds and uses a little bit finer-quality sand to produce her objects.”

Hertzler’s customers confirm Parker’s judgment. There might be other foundries that could do the work, says Earl McMillen III, whose Beaufort, S.C., company, McMillen Yachts, restores classic boats. “But we’re just so happy with her work. Does a nice job and turns it around quickly,” he says.

The foundry’s first job for McMillen involved work on a classic motoryacht that had been found in the back of a Chesapeake Bay boatyard. “The hardware was a little sketchy,” McMillen says. “She was able to reproduce any and all the missing hardware.” For example, Hertzler was able to create doorknobs by using an original brass knob found in the boat’s bilge as a model.

“We work hard with trying to get it right,” Hertzler says. “It’s very rewarding to get the boats going again.”

Even before working on boat parts at the foundry as an apprentice, Hertzler was familiar with boats. She began sailing dinghies at age 6 on the Connecticut coast and sailed with her father on his Charles Mower-designed Fishers Island 24. Now she races a Herreshoff-designed Watch Hill 15 and a C&C 33, crewing occasionally on bigger boats as a mainsail trimmer.

While the foundry had done its share of nautical castings under the Borgeses, Hertzler gained entrée to the Newport, R.I., boating community when the late Frank McCaffrey, a noted yacht restorer, came to her for work. She went on to work on Bob Tiedemann’s fleet, which included classic wooden 12 Meters, and for Mystic Seaport, among others.

Hertzler is fond of the work she is doing for students at Old Saybrook (Conn.) High School who are building a replica of the Turtle, a submarine invented in Connecticut in 1775 and designed for attaching mines to enemy ships. The foundry has built a hatch for this project. For the restoration of a World War II B-17 bomber, Hertzler and Nigrelli have reproduced an aluminum ball turret.

Other work has included parts for motorcycles and automotive manifolds. Yacht parts are not, Hertzler says, the major work of the foundry. But she can drop some impressive names of the nautical restoration work she’s done: Onawa, Ticonderoga, Brilliant.

“There are not that many people who are so dedicated as she,” says Tiedemann’s widow, Elizabeth. “She loves it. She has fun doing it.” Tiedemann recalls the time her husband came home from the foundry to report, “That woman poured molten metal in a tank top and Converse sneakers.”

Tiedemann notes that Hertzler was the main trimmer last summer on the Tiedemann yacht Mariner during a regatta. “I’ve never met another woman like her,” she says. “She likes challenges. She likes creative things. I think that’s the passion. I think she loves making parts that will function.”

The competitor as innovator

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The sailing trophies Robie Pierce has won in six decades of racing are, for the most part, gone, discarded like worthless trinkets. There was one for the J-30 North American Championship, another for the 1993 World Disabled Championship (a perpetual trophy), and many PHRF cups.

“Sailors by and large don’t have big trophy rooms like track stars or football stars,” says Pierce. “It would be conceited if you did.” And so he gives the hardware to his children or throws them out. Mementos, apparently, are not him.

Which is a bit odd, considering Pierce’s new business: personalized time and tide clocks. Send him a photo of your yacht or any other subject you’d like to preserve, and for about $80, in no time you’ll always know what the tide is doing, all the time.

At 67 Pierce could content himself with cruising through retirement in his wheelchair, contemplating the seasons as they flow by Newport, R.I. But he admits that even in sailing, he has never been much of a cruiser. “I’m very much a competitor. It’s very difficult for me to cruise,” he says. “I was always getting somebody to adjust the sails just right. If the jib was a little heavy [on a cruise] I’d say, ‘Do you mind letting that out a little bit?’ ”

There is a connection, a thread that runs between Pierce’s sailing and his clock-making. It takes knowing something about his boating life to unravel that thread. His zeal for the race is in his blood. When he began sailing at age 6 on Buzzards Bay, he had his father, Russell Pierce, as a model. “In his day in the ’30s to ’50s, he was a legend in southeastern Massachusetts,” Pierce says. “He raced Herreshoff S-boats and 12.5-footers.”

And he didn’t keep trophies, either. “My father had hundreds of them,” Pierce recalls. “My mother threw them away. She didn’t want to polish them.”

By his late teens Pierce was aboard the legendary Swamp Yankee when, in the 1960 Bermuda Race, having apparently won the overall trophy, Carleton Mitchell nipped ahead in an even more storied yacht, Finisterre, to win for the third time in a row. Two years later, Swamp Yankee, a Block Island 40, was first in class and third overall.

By this time, Pierce was going into his senior year at the University of Vermont. “I also loved to ski,” he says. UVM had no collegiate sailing, but “even then, I did a lot of offshore racing, Southern circuits [SORC]. I started sailing on bigger boats. Then I graduated and started working in [the] marine industry.”

Pierce became vice president of sales for O’Day Corp. and Allied Yachts. He was an executive with J/Boats for several years and then moved on to C&C. “One of my assets was I could go out [with a customer] and race a boat and do well, and we’d come back and translate that into sales,” he says. “Then I had my own company a few years and then in ’86 to ’89, I was marketing director for Carroll Marine.”

Before he started his own business, however, Pierce was diagnosed in 1985 with chronic, progressive multiple sclerosis. By 1991 he was in a wheelchair. By 1992 he had started entering races for disabled sailors. And in 1993, he won the Disabled Worlds in a regatta at Marblehead, Mass,. in an International 210.

“We had 21 boats from 19 countries,” he recalls. Returning to the dock following a win in the next to last race, Pierce and his crew — jib trimmer Rusty Sergeant and main trimmer Nick Bryan-Brown — realized they had won the championship without having to compete in the final race. “I don’t think anybody’s ever won the World [Championship] with that kind of margin,” Pierce says. “We beat strong horses from all over the world. When I was on the podium and they played the national anthem in honor of our team, that was pretty moving — a standing ovation and yelling and screaming. You sure forgot you had a disability then.”

“As a person,” says Sergeant, “he’s very generous and a gregarious guy. As a skipper, he’s intense but not in a negative way. His personality changes; he puts his game face on. But he’s not screamer. You know, you’re in competition. Football coaches get worked up. And other guys like [New England Patriots coach Bill] Belichick just stand there. A lot of ways I’d say he’s a lot like Belichick — thoughtful and knowledgeable and he focuses.”

“He’s very good,” confirms Jim Hunt, former president of O’Day, who began sailing with and against Pierce when they were young. “I’ve also sailed with him since he’s had MS. I just marvel at the guy. I would say his style is he’s an aggressive, smart sailor.”

Adds Sergeant: “He’s always a salesman. He’s a hustler.”

Once diagnosed with MS, Pierce began hustling to make sailing available to other individuals with disabilities. His first effort came in 1989 when he joined Shake-A-Leg, a Rhode Island non-profit corporation whose mission is helping individuals with spinal cord injuries and other disabilities. The organization, which used sailing among other activities as therapy, was 7 years old.

“I used my expertise and contacts in the sailing world to really bring the program from what I’ve always called an agricultural program to a world-renowned program,” says Pierce. “They had a couple of boats, and they     didn’t know what to do with them. I got my friends in the advertising business to put a brochure together. We put ads together for boating magazines, did public service ads. Between that and getting more boats in the programs — and I started the national championships called the Independence Cup — we go through a couple thousand sailing opportunities a year here.”

In 1991, Pierce says he conceived an event called the Wall Street Challenge, a fund-raiser that has generated more than $3 million for spinal cord rehabilitation programs that Shake-A-Leg runs in the summer and for the charity’s other programs. “It started out in the investment world. We got Bear Stearns and Credit Suisse and the American Stock Exchange” along with other firms to participate, he says. “My idea was to re-create an America’s Cup weekend in the 12 Meters. The entry fee is $30,000, and they can bring along 10 associates, whether it be clients or vice presidents or maybe a top performer for a certain department.”

The corporate competitors are each given a leased 12 Meter to race and are housed in a leased Newport mansion for the weekend. When those costs are deducted, the balance goes to the charity, he says.

“I’m still with Shake-A-Leg as director of sailing,” says Pierce. “I [was] chairman of the Sailors With Special Needs Committee of US Sailing for four years in the 1990s. Until 2004 I was on the executive committee of the International Federation of Disabled Sailors, a subcommittee under ISAF [International Sailing Federation].”

Pierce has given to disabled sailing, and he has been a beneficiary. “In 15 years I won the world match racing champs in Tokyo in ’94, and in ’92, which was America’s Cup in San Diego, I put together the disabled match racing championship in San Diego. I won in ’93 in Marblehead and defended in ’94 in England. From there, I’ve been to Spain, Germany, Sweden. I’ve done many more miles in a wheelchair than I ever would have done on my own two feet because of the opportunities I saw in disabled sailing. The story of my life is if you keep moving ahead you’ll find opportunities.”

Now Pierce moves around Newport on motorized tricycles he designed, and he moves a cursor around on his computer screen, creating his tide and time clocks. The business, EMA Clockworks (www.emaclock, is one more opportunity he has found by continuing to look forward.

“You always look for something people don’t have,” Pierce says. “Not many people have tide clocks, and not many people would say they don’t want one if you give it to them. I found that they make great commissioning and Christmas presents and great gifts for crew.” With his yacht club contacts, he has found a way to market his clocks.

The quartz mechanisms come from California. The redwood frames come from Missoula, Mont. Pierce creates graphics — burgees or code flags, for example — on his computer and places them with the artwork selected by the customer.

He has branched out from yachting and produces clocks for corporations, Red Sox baseball fans, and the like. Ironically, he’s been producing a lot of sailing trophies. “That’s where my market’s going to be,” Pierce says. And he expects his clock trophies to reverse a trend. “You can’t throw away a clock.” n

Harken: In search of a better block

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Harken, the dominant manufacturer of sailboat hardware and accessories, needs new ideas to stay ahead of its competitors — and it gets them.

“We get inundated with [the ideas of] paper inventors” who have never actually built their inventions, says Peter Harken, the company co-founder. “We have an open mind in that we accept any crazy idea that comes.”

Harken, 70, invented his company’s first product and with his brother, Olaf, 68, started the firm in Pewaukee, Wis., in the 1960s ( Now holding a “good 100 patents,” the company has replaced him with a committee of engineers and advertising and marketing experts (overseen by Harken) who decide which new ideas the company will tackle. The so-called “product development committee,” which meets every Thursday, is far removed from the kitchen table where, alone, Harken figured out how to build sailing’s first ball-bearing blocks.

With a batch of crazy ideas, the committee begins asking questions: “What if? Does it fit our marketing? Does it fit our distribution business?” says Harken. “Then we go through a procedure [to decide] whether we’re going to attack this product or not.”

At this point, Harken says, the company’s innovation comes from all over the world, a lot of it from sailracers who already are Harken customers and have seen a way to improve on a product. That’s what happened in the 1960s, when Peter Harken was a college student studying international economics at the University of Wisconsin.

“I had started in engineering, and I was a big screw-off at school,” he recalls. Among his favorite diversions were sailing and iceboating. These interfered with the sport for which Harken had been given a scholarship — swimming — and in the end, he says, the swimming coach helped him choose in favor of sailing by yanking his scholarship.

Needing an income to stay in school, Harken got a job at Gilson Medical Electronics, a manufacturer of medical devices and instruments. The owner allowed him to use the company’s machine shop after hours. “When you’re a student, you don’t have any money, basically,” he says. “I built my own boats and gear, deck hardware. I spent more time doing that than going to class.”

At work, Harken was assigned to various projects. One involved using a Lazy Susan device for filling test tubes inside a refrigeration unit. “I was scratching my head on what kinds of bearings I could put the Lazy Susan on that wouldn’t rust and would be completely clean,” he says. “All of a sudden I wondered, Does anybody make plastic balls? I found a little company in New Jersey that did.” He says the bearings “worked nicely” on the Lazy Susan.

“At the same time, I was making my own pulleys,” Harken says. “It sort of lit up in me. I wonder if I can use these plastic balls in a pulley, because it would have some value in sailing.” Harken says he was looking for ways to overcome the problem of letting the mainsail out in light air. “In normal blocks, there was a lot of friction. You had to push the boom out. I was trying to find a way to stay quiet in the boat, because the [quieter] you are, the faster you are.

“After that evening that I discovered how well they [plastic ball bearings] worked on that Lazy Susan machine, I went home, and instead of picking up the books I started sketching out on the kitchen table how I would use them on a sheave,” Harken says. “[I] kind of calculated the side plates so there would be a tiny amount of slop.” Even today, “In all our products, we do design slop to allow salt and dirt to get in but also to get out. People don’t like lubrication on their boats.

“The next day after work, I started making chips, getting on the machines to make the blocks,” he recalls. “After I made the first one, I spun it, and it looked pretty good to me. So I made several and put them on my boat, and they worked well.”

Harken’s friends saw how well his blocks worked, and he made some for them. Then in 1968, when he made an unsuccessful bid to make the Olympic sailing team, he made blocks for two other boats that won gold medals. “Suddenly all the Europeans were looking at them, [asking], ‘Where do you get those things?’ The rest is history.”

Sailboat racing still is a driving force of the company’s innovation, Harken says. “Volvo Ocean Race, Vendee Globe and the French boats that are out there racing now, I would say most of the equipment on those boats is ours, and we do learn quite a bit from those,” he says. “From our ocean-racing experience and around-the-world racing, we learn a lot about reliability. As an example, we do very much fatigue testing. We never had to do that before. Basically, when sails stretched, boats gave a little bit, lines stretched, all we had to do was test for static load. If a piece of equipment should take 10,000 pounds, that’s what we tested for.”

Improvements in the technology for constructing lines mean they no longer stretch, Harken notes. Carbon fiber is “extremely stiff,” he says. “The material in sails doesn’t stretch at all. Everything is a shock load, like hitting it with a hammer. So we have gone into endurance testing. It’s like taking a strip of metal and bending it back and forth. How many times can you do that before it breaks?”

And there is a benefit for cruising sailors, he says. “What we learn,” he notes, “we’ll put into the cruising line.”

Harken says 10 of the 11 America’s Cup syndicates in the last event used the company’s hardware. “And it’s all custom work,” he says. “From that work, we get a trickle down. What’s on the market for big boats was on America’s Cup boats two times ago.”

It’s the exact model with which the Harkens started the company 40 years ago. But now neither one is the inventor. “I did [the inventing] in the beginning,” Harken says, “and now I’ve got a pretty tough engineering staff. I just stick my nose in and oversee it.”