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Hobie Alter was a surfer, boatbuilder and trendsetter

Alter's Hobie Cat turned a niche sport into a popular pastime.

Hobart "Hobie" Alter was a visionary who revolutionized surfing and sailing. He was in the first class of sailors inducted into the National Sailing Hall of Fame in 2011, along with such legends as America’s Cup skipper Charlie Barr, yacht designer Nathanael Herreshoff and solo circumnavigator Joshua Slocum.

Alter, who died March 29 at his Palm Desert, California, home at the age of 80, is ranked in that esteemed company for a reason. “Hobie was a visionary,” says his biographer, Paul Holmes, author of Hobie: Master of Water, Wind and Waves (Croule Publications, Newport Beach, California, 2013).

He revolutionized surfing with the introduction of the mass-produced fiberglass-and-foam-core surfboard, which replaced the heavier balsawood board and became the icon of 1960s and ’70s beach culture. Then in 1968 Alter designed and built his first beach catamaran — the Hobie 14 — on hulls made of the same fiberglass-sheathed polyurethane foam that he used for the surfboards. Again he turned a niche sport — beach sailing — into a popular pastime.

“Hobie Alter did more for sailing than any person in the last 100 years,” writes Phillip Berman in Sail-World. Berman, who started sailing a Hobie14 at age 13, is now CEO of The Multihull Co. He may be slightly prejudiced, but he stands by the statement.

“He built the first boat that was truly designed to sail in and out of the surf,” Berman tells Soundings. “Hobie Cats were designed to actually surf on the waves and [with their automatic kick-up rudders] ride the waves onto the beach.”

Hiked out and flying a hull or launching off a wave in the surf, the Hobie 14 skipper was in for an adrenaline rush on what was arguably a precursor to today’s light, fast, acrobatic sailboats that offer athletic sailors an “extreme” sailing experience. “I think [the Hobie Cat phenomenon] was at the time really an action sport — like jetskiing, motorcycle riding and snowboarding,” says Alter’s son Jeff, an avid Hobie sailor and president of Hobie Designs, which makes surfboards, stand-up paddleboards, sunglasses and sports apparel.

“I didn’t know anything about sailing, so I wasn’t confused by any past ideas,” Alter would say of his foray into catamaran design. “And the fact [that catamarans] had speed … if you were a surfer, you wanted a little more thrilling thing.”

Hobie Alter

Alter told his staff to trial the 14s in surf near the old Hobie factory in Capistrano Beach. “It was a great test of the integrity of the craft,” biographer Holmes says. “It was the ultimate quality control test to see if you could break it.”

Alter democratized sailing, made it affordable. The original Hobie 14 sold for less than $1,000 and moved sailing from the buttoned-up, button-down yacht club to the beach, where the vibes were more egalitarian, free-spirited and relaxed. “Hobie opened up places to sailing that had never been used before,” Berman says. “If you’re in Fort Lauderdale and go down to the [south] end of the A1A beach, you’ll see Hobie Cats on the beach for rent.” They are ubiquitous around the globe — on oceanfronts, lakefronts and riverfronts; at homes and cottages, resorts and beaches.

“When you go up and down the coast, wherever you find a beach you’ll often find an assembly of these beach cats,” he says.

Hobie regattas became one of the rites of summer on many of these beaches. Alter invited anyone with a hankering to sail — plumbers and stockbrokers, youngsters and seniors, singles and couples — to race in his regattas and enjoy the big, happy party afterward. Hobies taught countless neophytes to sail; kept kids off the streets by offering them fast, hell-bent-for-leather rides on waves; and treated a lot of older folks to the joys of sailing with quiet sunset cruises.

Alter first made his mark with lightweight foam-core surfboards.

“Hobie regattas were a huge social phenomenon in the ’70s and ’80s,” Berman says. They were like rock concerts. It wasn’t unusual for 500 boats to turn out for a regatta on Arizona’s Lake Havasu. “The whole shoreline was covered with Hobies,” he says.

Alter gave catamarans cachet as real sailboats, although it took a long time, says Jeff Alter. When the Hobie 14 came out in 1968, sailboat dealers wouldn’t touch them because they were just too radical for a sport that at the time was chained by tradition to the monohull. So Alter started selling them through surf shops and Hobie Cat enthusiasts.

America’s Cup 2013 — arguably one of the most exciting Cups ever — was raced on powerful 72-foot hydrofoil catamarans and introduced big cats to an international audience in the world’s most prestigious yacht race. Cup followers watching the supercats trial on San Francisco Bay could see them zooming past Hobie 16s that were racing like a colorful cloud of mosquitoes near Sausalito.

Larry Ellison, the head of Oracle Team USA, paid homage to Alter’s pioneering work in his victory speech after his syndicate’s amazing come-from-behind Cup win last September. “I think a lot of young kids are going to go out now and try sailing. They might jump on a Hobie Cat rather than a Laser, who knows,” the elated billionaire said.

Catamarans have come of age, yet the America’s Cup spectacle couldn’t have been more different than what Alter envisioned when he designed his first beach cat. At less than $1,000 for a boat and trailer, the first Hobies were eminently affordable, and weighing 350 pounds they could be launched off the beach by one person. “Hobie’s idea was the right idea — that everybody could get out on the water and enjoy sailing,” says Doug Campbell, president and CEO of The Hobie Cat Co. from 1975 to 1989.

And if you liked to race, he wanted Hobie Cats to be true one designs so money couldn’t buy a skipper a faster boat and a first-place finish.

Alter later designed the double-handed Hobie 16 to make his cats more sociable. “A guy could take his girlfriend sailing, or a father could go sailing with his son,” Holmes says. He wanted the Hobie to be a boat that families could sail together.

Alter in his element

“I’m a catamaran broker,” says Berman. “I can’t tell you how many people I sell catamarans to that say the first boat they sailed was a Hobie Cat. They tell me, ‘It’s the boat I learned to sail on. That’s when I found I enjoyed sailing.’ ”

Like Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who started out building computers in Jobs’ parents’ garage, Alter started shaping surfboards from balsawood for friends in his parents’ garage in 1950. By 1954, he was building them — 200 a week at one point — with a small staff at a shop in Dana Point, California, on the Pacific Coast Highway. An “easygoing surfer” with an engineer’s mind and an intuitive sense for marketing, Alter was fulfilling his dream to make a living without having to wear hard-soled shoes to work or live east of the Pacific Coast Highway, Holmes says.

And although he loved to surf and sail, “he had a laser-like concentration when he was on a project,” says Campbell. “It consumed him.” And he never rested on his laurels. He rode the waves of popular sports culture, introducing Hobie Supersurfer skateboards with tough polyurethane wheels; the Hobie Hawk, a remote-controlled, high-performance glider; the Hobie 33, a trailerable high-performance monohull still admired for its speed and tough construction; the 15-foot Hobie Power Skiff; the Hobie Float Cat, a one-person cat with a seat for fly fishing; and, after he retired, a 60-foot power cat, which he designed and built for himself and his wife, Susan, for cruising.

The Coleman Co. bought Hobie Cat in 1975, and partners Dick Rogers, Mark Vittert, Glen Wegner and Greg Ketterman bought it from Coleman in 1995. The company has carried on Alter’s legacy of innovative small-boat design, bringing to market the 22-foot Hobie TriFoiler, a 35-mph sailing hydrofoil; the rotomolded 12-foot Bravo; 13-foot Wave and 16-foot Getaway catamarans; a series of rotomolded polyethylene kayaks — sailing kayaks, paddle kayaks and foot-driven kayaks with fin propellers; inflatable kayaks; 16- and 18-foot trimarans with both sail and foot-drive fin propulsion; and the high-performance Formula 18 Wild Cat.

Alter designed and built Katie-Sue, a 60-foot twin-diesel power cat, for his retirement years.

“We’ve continued [Alter’s] legacy,” says Hobie marketing director Daniel Mangus. “He had a big influence on this company. He had good ideas and developed products that everybody had fun on. He created sports that people still do today.”

The Hobie Cat Co. has built an estimated 200,000 catamarans since 1968, that number alone a testament to Alter’s influence. “I don’t think there’s any question,” says Campbell. “There have been three key designs — the Laser, the Windsurfer and the Hobie Cat — [that] got people on the water like they’d never been on the water before.”

July 2014 issue