Before filmmaker Bruce Brown boarded a plane alongside two surfers to film what would become the 1966 break-out movie “The Endless Summer,” the man credited with devising the modern surfboard elicited a promise. Wear suits and ties to the airport, urged Hobart “Hobie” Alter, who wanted to clean up the sport’s rebellious, beach-bum reputation.
The board-carrying trio heeded the admonition, though Brown took the sartorial advice less seriously. He wore tennis shoes with his suit.
Alter, who started out shaping surfboards in his father’s Laguna Beach garage in the ‘50s, would go on to shape popular culture and transform two sports. He died at his home in Palm Desert on Saturday, March 29. He was 80 and had been battling cancer and Parkinson’s disease for some time.
The son of a second-generation Ontario-born orange farmer, Alter was “an inventive, creative genius, who built a lot of neat toys we all wanted to play with,” said Dick Metz, who called his 55-year business partner the equal of inventors Henry Ford and Thomas Edison.
Alter’s accidental career flourished from his family’s summer home at Gaviota and Oak streets, applying his high-school honed woodshop skills to crafting handmade balsawood surfboards for his friends.
Business was good. When his father tired of the shavings from 90 boards, he set his son up in the area’s first surf shop in Dana Point in 1954. But the scarcity of balsawood led Alter to tinker with foam, then being developed by Dupont. “The rest of us were out drinking beer and he was home with a chemistry set,” said Metz, as well as creating experimental molds.
With friend and employee Gordon “Grubby” Clark, Alter pioneered the development of the polyurethane foam surfboards. With the lighter and more responsive boards, Alter popularized the sport and Hobie-branded boards became the top surfboard brand in the world. Legendary surfers and shapers would go on to work or ride for Alter, credited with launching California’s iconic surf industry.
“By ’61, he lost interest,” said Metz, who began selling Hobie boards in Hawaii and would eventually own 22 retail surf shops.
Alter turned his attention to another water toy that also revealed his gift for self-taught engineering. A top surfing competitor himself, Alter frequented big wave contests in Hawaii. There, he took a thrill ride through swells aboard a 40-foot catamaran that usually ferried tourists.
“That made an indelible impression,” said Laguna Beach author Paul Holmes, whose recently published biography “Hobie: Master of Water, Wind and Waves,” describes Alter’s exploits.
Alter developed his namesake “Hobie Cat” catamaran, a light-weight and affordable craft pulled on a trailer that democratized sailing. Its asymmetric hull mimicked boats carved by ancient Polynesians, but were produced with a modern material, laminated hollow foam, Holmes said.
Metz, who would set up boat dealerships on the all the islands, confesses to knowing little about sailing when Alter enlisted him to test a prototype in Oahu’s 40-knot winds off Diamond Head.
“He was like a pied piper; he would get excited about a product,” Metz said.
Alter’s tinkering included other inventions such as the “Hobie Hawk,” a high-performance remote controlled glider and a built from scratch a 60-foot power catamaran, the “Katie Sue,” named for his mother Katie and his wife Susan.
Beyond his inventiveness, Alter stood out because of his personal integrity, making handshake business deals without contracts and his determination to earn a living as a non-conformist.
“He never wanted a real job,” said Holmes. Instead Alter’s aim was “to build a toy and a game to play with it.”
Besides products, Alter helped establish surfing and sailing associations to nurture the beer-and-barbecue social vibe that he sprang from, Holmes said.
In more recent years, Alter, with his wife Susan, spent years on the lakes and ski slopes of McCall, Idaho, navigating the Katie Sue through the channels near their home in Orcas Island, Wash., and hitting the links at Ironwood Country Club in Palm Desert.
In addition to Susan, he is survived by his sisters Carolyn and Lillian; his daughter Paula and her partner Ian; son Hobie Jr. and his wife Stephanie; son Jeff and his wife Laurie; grandchildren Cortnie and her husband Dylan, Brittany, Scotty, Cody, Ashlyn, Tyler, Noelle and Justin; great-granddaughter Serena; and many close friends that were always made to feel like they were immediate family.
Alter received the Waterman Achievement award from the Surfing Industry Manufacturers Association in 1993, was inducted into the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame in 1997 and admitted as an inaugural member of the National Sailing Hall of Fame in 2011 alongside Dennis Connor and Ted Turner.
Details of memorial services are pending. A paddle out at Oak Street home in Laguna Beach is planned.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that you consider a donation to either:
Sport of Kings Foundation – in Memory of Hobie Alter, PO Box 2499 Capistrano Beach, CA 92624
Surfing Heritage Culture Center – Hobie Alter Scholarship Fund, http://www.surfingheritage.org.
Orcas Island Community Foundation – Deer Harbor Volunteer Fire Department– in Memory of Hobie Alter
Remembering Hobie Alter
I can trace Hobie’s influence and guidance in virtually everything I do on a daily basis. His generosity and encouragement when I was in my 20’s helped give me the opportunity to succeed. He said that people had helped him along the way, and he wanted to do the same. He did much more than that. Later, he took another incredible leap of faith when he entrusted me with one of the pillars of his namesake brand. To my dismay, he actually suggested it, and when I told him I didn’t know anything about retail, he said, “Do what I did. Just surround yourself with the best people you can find and let them do what they do.” I am honored and humbled to be the caretaker of this piece of the culture that started in that Gaviota Street garage 64 years ago. The name Hobie means a great deal to the world. But it is the character and integrity of the man behind the name that means more to me than I can ever express.
Over the years, he lent me a hand when I needed it most, stood by my sister and I when our brother and parents passed, gave me opportunity, offered advice and even some well-deserved constructive criticism. He made me a better person, a better businessman and gave me a desire to think outside the box in searching for answers or opportunity. So much of what I am, what I have with my family and what I think and do on a daily basis are the direct result of my relationship with this great man.
I cannot thank him enough. I am grateful to be a part of the family and will forever cherish and remember all that he shared with me.
Hobie was all about bringing the joy of the sea to all of us…
My first surfboard back in the ‘60s was a Phil Edward’s designed Hobie Surfboard purchased on a surf-safari to Dana Point for surfing the wild waves north of Santa Cruz. We were the Half Moon Bay Fog Dogs, aka Belmont BeananBoys & Crew or Cabrillo Surfing Association. It was the early ‘60s and the NoCal was ours to surf and share.
Hobie brought us much joy and adventure with his incredible boards and the Hobie cat. When I lived along Beach Road in Capo, Hobie & Susan would be out there in a storm on a 16′ while I sailed (and turtled) my uncle’s 14′. My brothers and I flew Hobie cats in San Francisco Bay and up in Huntington Lake. Hobie surfboards opened my passion for the ocean.
Hobie is a genuine California hero of the ocean.
Please share our condolences with his family and those who love him.
Mike Beanan and Jinger Wallace, South Laguna