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Hobart “Hobie” Alter, born October 31, 1933, is a founding pioneer in the surfboard shaping industry, creator of the Hobie Cat, and founder of the Hobie company.
One of the most successful entrepreneurs in surfing history, Hobie Alter is widely remembered as the man behind the development of the foam-and-fiberglass surfboard. His label, Hobie, remains one of the top-selling surfboard brands of all time. He is also the creator of the Hobie 33 ultralight-displacement sailboat and one of the finest mass-produced radio-controlled gliders, the Hobie Hawk.
During summer vacation 1950 “Hobie” hit on an idea to bring together his two loves, woodshop and water. He asked his dad to pull the Desoto out of the family’s Laguna Beach, California garage, and the history of surfing was about to enter a new era.
Hobie began by building beautiful 9-foot balsawood icons for his friends. They worked well! Hobie’s hobby had become a business and his dream of never owning hard-soled shoes or having to work east of California’s Pacific Coast Highway was becoming a reality. A couple of years and 40 tons of sawdust later, Hobie opened up Southern California’s first surf shop in Dana Point, California. Then in 1958 Hobie and his buddy Gordon “Grubby” Clark (as in Clark Foam) began experiments making surfboards out of foam and fiberglass. The new boards were lighter, faster and more responsive than anything else in the water. Demand skyrocketed, production cranked up, and everyone wanted to be on a Hobie surfboard. While the Beach Boys were making records, the legendary Hobie Surf Team was setting them. Hobie’s lineup virtually comprises the surfing hall of fame; Joey Cabell, Phil Edwards, Corky Carroll, Gary Propper, Peter Pan, Mickey Munoz, Joyce Hoffman and Yancy Spencer among many, many others. The shaping innovations and meticulous attention to detailed perfection are still Hobie trademarks and the Hobie Surf Team still strikes fear among their competitors.
Hobie was born and raised in Ontario, California, but his family had a summerhouse in Laguna Beach, where Alter got into the full array of ocean sports. Initiated into surfing by Walter Hoffman, he started shaping balsa boards in the early ’50s. When the family’s front yard became a litter of balsa-blank glue-ups, hardened patches of resin and piles of balsa shavings, his father moved him off the property by buying him a lot on Pacific Coast Highway in nearby Dana Point for $1,500. That was 1953. In February 1954, with the first stage of the shop completed, Hobie Surfboards opened its doors after a total investment of $12,000. “People laughed at me for setting up a surf shop,” Hobie remembers. “They said that once I’d sold a surfboard to each of the 250 surfers on the coast, I’d be out of business. But the orders just kept coming.”
Alter augmented his own considerable shaping skills by hiring other talented board-builders, including Phil Edwards and Reynolds Yater. With the introduction of foam-and-fiberglass technology, Alter brought Joe Quigg over from Hawaii to help keep up with demand. Then came the high-volume production shapers like Ralph Parker and Terry Martin, guys who have shaped hundreds of thousands of surfboards over the years. Other Hobie shapers included Dewey Weber, Mickey Munoz, Corky Carroll, Don Hansen. Bruce Jones and the Patterson brothers.
After experimenting with foam for a couple of years, Hobie made a breakthrough in 1958, finally achieving the right skin hardness for shapeability with the right core density for strength. He decided to set up a separate foam-blowing operation in nearby Laguna Canyon and recruited one of his glassers, Gordon “Grubby” Clark, to make polyurethane surfboard blanks. Almost immediately, Gidget was released, and surfing (and the demand for surfboards) boomed. “If that movie had come out in the balsa era,” says Alter, “no one could have supplied them.”
The new foam boards were called Speedo Sponges and Flexi-Fliers, and Hobie was soon manufacturing 250 a week. Clark eventually took over the foam operation, renaming it Clark Foam, and he’s serviced the lion’s share of the world’s surfboard blank market ever since.
Alter was a solid competitor in his younger days. He won the second Brooks Street contest in Laguna in 1954 and placed third and fourth at the Makaha International Surfing Championships in 1958 and 1959. He was also an excellent tandem surfer, placing second in the event at Makaha in 1962. Alter added to his personal notoriety by making the Guinness Book of World Records in 1964, surfing the wake of a motorboat 26 miles from Long Beach to Catalina Island.
The Hobie competition team was the one to beat in the ’60s, and the company sponsored the most successful competitors on the West and East coasts, including Corky Carroll and Gary Propper.
After sailing on the Woody Brown’s Manu Kai, Alter patented the idea. Brown did not contest this, just as he had refused to contest Tom Blake’s claiming of his invention of the surfboard skeg. Alter’s subsequent Hobie Cat became the nucleus of a very successful worldwide catamaran business.
Alter sold Hobie Cat to Coleman in 1976, and his sons Hobie Jr. and Jeff carry on the family tradition, operating Hobie Designs and overseeing the company’s licensing operations. Today, Alter divides his time between the mountains of Idaho (where he skis in the winter) and an island in the Pacific Northwest, where he anchors a 60-foot, foam-core, twin-diesel power catamaran he designed and built himself