Think surfing. Think skateboarding. Think sport-specific clothing. Think catamarans. Think glider planes. Think sailboats. Think kayaks. Think Hobie and the culture it inspires.
Hobart Alter, the iconic legend recognized around the globe simply as Hobie, died at his Palm Desert, Calif. home March 29 at the age of 80. He began creating toys and shaping a culture in his teens. World-renowned as the genius behind the development of the foam-and-fiberglass surfboard, Hobie was an all-around waterman, surfer, snow skier, motorcyclist and swimmer. The man and his brand created an empire of surfboards, catamarans, monohull sailboats, Hobie Hawk radio-controlled model gliders, apparel and sunglasses. He introduced the polyurethane skateboard wheel and designed and built Katie Sue, a 60-foot motor-cat.
It was the summer of 1950 when Hobie took command of the garage at the family’s summer house in Laguna Beach, Calif. He began shaping nine-foot surfboards for his friends. Revered as a founding pioneer in the surfboard shaping industry, Hobie and his love of woodworking and water sports grew together. When the front yard became littered with tons of balsa wood shavings and hardened resin patches, he and his surfboards were forced to move up the road. At the age of 20, Hobie opened the doors at Hobie Surfboards in Dana Point in 1954. His dream of not having to own hard-soled shoes for work was becoming reality.
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“People laughed at me for setting up a surf shop,” said Hobie. “They said once I sold a surfboard to each of the 250 surfers on the coast I’d be out of business. But the orders just kept coming.”
Until the late 50s the majority of surfboards were made of balsa, an expensive, hard to source material, the shaping process of which left most of the wood on the floor. Impressed with polymers’ weight-to-strength ratio and resistance to soaking up water, Hobie and his buddy Gordon “Grubby” Clark began experimenting with a chunk of polyurethane foam. Their breakthrough came in 1958 when they achieved the perfect balance of skin hardness and core density. Glassed with polyester resin, the new boards, called Speedo Sponges and Flexi-Fliers, were lighter, faster and easier to ride.
Surfing and the demand for surfboards hit a new high with the release of the movie Gidget in April, 1959. It seemed everyone wanted to be a surfer and every surfer wanted a Hobie. “If that movie had come out in the balsa era,” said Hobie, “no one could have supplied them.”
Hobie complemented his own inventive genius and shaping skills early on by hiring talented board builders Phil Edwards, Reynolds Yater, Joe Quigg, Ralph Parker and Terry Martin. They manufactured 250 boards a week.
According to former employee and eventual competitor Don Hansen, Hobie had the reputation of being honest and trustworthy. “I would have given him all my money for five years on a handshake and know I’d get it back…he had integrity.”
A solid competitor, Hobie often placed in West Coast and International Surfing Championships. In 1964, he made the Guinness Book of World Records, surfing the wake of a motorboat the 26 miles from Long Beach to Catalina Island. The Hobie Surf Team lineup was a who’s who of surfing greats from coast to coast and was considered the team to beat in the 60s.
Messing around with boats, Hobie developed a lightweight, easy-to-sail catamaran. Hobie 14, the design of which was first drawn in the California beach sand, was easy to drag down the beach and through the surf. At $1,000 in 1968, it was an instant hit. The Hobie 16, synonymous with The Hobie Way of Life, and Hobie 18 followed. Utilizing the same polyurethane foam surfboard technology, Hobie revolutionized an industry and introduced new toys for fun in the sun. Today, the Hobie Cat fleet includes eight models, ranging from 12 to 18 feet in length for one to six crew. They remain the world’s best selling catamarans.
“I didn’t know anything about sailing so I wasn’t confused by any past ideas,” said Hobie. “And the fact catamarans had speed…if you were a surfer, you wanted a little more thrilling thing.”
Hobie founded the first World Hobie Cat 16 Championship in 1976. He competed with his daughter, Paula Alter. Sons Hobie Jr. and Jeff Alter crewed together in a rival 16. Now in its 38th year, the Hobie World Championship remains a family affair. Hobie Jr. took top honors in Tahiti in 1982 and Jeff beat all the American racers in 2004 in Cancun and in Australia earlier this year. The 16-day regatta in Jervis Bay, New South Wales, attracted sailors from six continents, 24 countries, with 451 entries and 901 athletes in February.
“The Hobie 16 is such a great competitive One-Design Class and it was great getting back into racing after a 10-year gap.” said Jeff Alter. “It had been a while but I guess it is a bit like riding a bike. I certainly was not at the top, but could run with the best of them and I was stoked on our performance.
“My father was very proud that the little boat he designed 43 years ago still has such a great following.”
In the years following the sale of Hobie Cat to the Coleman Company in 1976, Hobie continued his simple but unforgettable innovation in imagery. Wanting the speed of a motor boat and the grace of a sailboat at anchor, Hobie designed and built the best of both worlds, Katie Sue, a 60-foot, foam-core, twin-diesel powered, ocean voyaging catamaran. She was named after his mother Kate and his wife, Susan and is docked at the couple’s summer home in the Pacific Northwest.
“If something could be made better, Hobie knew he’d go after it or fix it if it was broken,” said long-time Hobie Cat employee and VP of Sales, Ruth Triglia. “It was the essence of Hobie.”
Hobie spearheaded the design of the Hobie 33, a trailerable, eight-foot beamed monohull sailboat. Attaining cult status, many of the 187 boats built between 1982 and 1986, are still raced competitively, according to Triglia.
“Whatever he was getting into, he was into it until he conquered it,” said Jeff of his dad. “Whatever he did, he did 100 percent.”
Hobie kayaks, introduced in the mid 90s, now offer 19 models in the Paddle, Inflatable, Pro Angler, Island and Mirage Series for kayaking and fishing.
Hobie Cat Company is privately owned and manufactures and sells Hobie sailboats and Hobie kayaks worldwide, according to Jeff Alter. The Alter family owns Hobie Surfboards and Hobie Designs. They oversee Hobie branding as well as licensing operations for surfboards, stand up paddleboards, apparel and sunglasses.
In 2011 Alter, alongside Paul Cayard, Dennis Conner, Gary Jobson, Ted Turner and others, was honored as part of the first class inducted into the National Sailing Hall of Fame located on the historic waterfront of Annapolis, Md.
Hobie Alter began shaping surfboards and ended up shaping a culture. He didn’t just create toys, he created a way of life. This California surfer’s prime motivation was always, “to build them a toy and a game to play with it.”
The biography, Hobie Master of Water, Wind and Waves, written by Paul Holmes, was published last fall.