Hobart “Hobie” Alter, who started out shaping surfboards and ended up shaping a culture, passed away at his home in Palm Desert on Saturday, March 29. He was 80 and had been in declining health for some time.
The recently published biography “Hobie: Master of Water, Wind and Waves,” by Laguna Beach author Paul Holmes, explains the transformation of a son of a second-generation Ontario-born orange farmer.
Alter flourished spending time at his family’s Laguna Beach summer home on Oak Street, where in the family’s garage in 1950 he began his somewhat accidental career by combining his two loves, wood shop and water, crafting handmade nine-foot balsawood surfboards for his friends.
Business was good. When his father tired of the sawdust, Alter would open the area’s first surf shop in Dana Point in 1954.
But as demand continued to grow and balsawood was becoming scarce, Alter’s gift for self-taught, engineering emerged. 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 number one 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.
Alter, who himself was a top surfing competitor, in the ‘60s turned his attention to another of his water-based passions. He developed his namesake “Hobie Cat” catamaran, a light-weight and affordable craft pulled on a trailer that is credited with broadening the market for high-performance sailing beyond the typical yacht club member.
His tinkering included other inventions such as the “Hobie Hawk,” a high-performance remote controlled glider, pioneered a “Float Cat” for fly-fishing and 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 and determination to earn a living without having to wear hard-soled shoes or work east of Coast Highway.
In the process, he introduced an active outdoor lifestyle and collection of products that made the world just a bit more fun.
With his wife Susan, Alter 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 below the family’s 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