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Hobie Alter, surfboard and sailboat innovator, dies at 80

By New York Times

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 04:23 p.m. HST, Mar 31, 2014


Hobie Alter, who was known as the Henry Ford of the surfboard industry for his manufacturing innovations and who went on to create the Hobie Cat -- the popular double-hulled sailboat that was originally intended to amuse surfers while they waited for better waves -- died on Saturday at his home in Palm Desert, Calif. He was 80.

His death was announced on the website of his company.

Strong, straight onshore winds, which flatten the wave tubes that surfers so relish, frustrated Alter. And so -- at first to fill those times when he and other surfers could not ride their boards to full exhilaration -- he created the Hobie Cat in the late 1960s.

He had great success in the 1950s and '60s developing manufacturing techniques and using breakthrough materials in the production of surfboards, but Alter could not have anticipated how popular his downsized version of the catamaran would become.

"Leaping over a breaker in the Southern California surf, this lightweight catamaran looks more like a kite on takeoff than a boat," Life magazine wrote in 1970, two years after the first 14-foot Hobie Cat went on the market. Longer models followed.

Unlike conventional sailboats, which knife through the water, a Hobie Cat skitters across the surface, resting on two pontoons and drawing a few inches of water. If a wind gust knocks it over, a sailor can easily right it by hauling lines attached to each hull.

"His catamaran was designed to help dedicated surfers find excitement on breezy days," Life magazine said, pointing out that 1,000 had been sold for $1,200 each in the first two years.

Since then more than 200,000 have been sold worldwide, now at prices ranging from $3,400 to more than $20,000. And as Steve Pezman, the publisher of Surfer's Journal, said in an interview in 2011, the clientele has ranged far beyond the surfer crowd.

"It was so superfun to sail that it became the largest multihull class in the world, with its own lifestyle and culture," Pezman said. "Not only did they race the boats, thousands of people would go to the lake and party."

Pete Melvin, a multihull designer and top America's Cup catamaran designer, echoed that view. Alter broke the mold of traditional sailing, said Melvin, who sailed in Hobie Cat events in Florida as a teenager.

"It was more of a cultural get-together with a different feel to the yacht club scene," he said, adding that it was "like going to a rock concert instead of a regatta."

Alter's influence is still apparent, Melvin said.

"A lot of those early adopters who sailed the Hobie 14 and 16 helped push the sport forward," he noted. "Without that surge of interest we wouldn't be anywhere close to where we are today in terms of acceptance of multihulls."

In 2011, Alter was one of the first 15 inductees into the National Sailing Hall of Fame in Annapolis, Md.

Alter's first passion, however, was building surfboards.

In 1954, using $8,000 in inheritance, Alter, then 21, had purchased a lot on Coast Highway in Dana Point, Calif. -- near where the legendary Killer Dana wave roared -- and built what would evolve into a surfboard factory. Until then, most aficionados had fashioned their own boards in their basements or garages, mostly out of bulky redwood planks or lighter but far more porous balsa.

There were surf shops in other coastal towns where individual artisan's boards could be bought. But at HobieSurfboard, in large part because of its location, demand quickly exceeded expectations. Soon there were six-week waiting lists for Alter's boards.

"He invented a production-line methodology that would make building five surfboards a day practical," Pezman said. "And as he increased his capacity by hiring other shapers, he became known inside the sport as the Henry Ford of surfboard manufacturing."

Then, in 1959 -- working with a master laminator, Gordon Clark, known as Grubby -- Alter came up with a revolutionary innovation. Instead of using the rare and expensive balsa, he began making boards out of polyurethane foam, a durable synthetic material that lowered costs and sped up the process.

"While Alter was not the first to use the material," The Los Angeles Times wrote in 1992, "he was the first to mass-produce the foam boards, paving the way for the surfing craze that was to follow in the 1960s and creating the prototype still in use today."

By 2011, according to Alter's son Hobie, more than 180,000 Hobie boards had been sold, in recent years for about $1,000 each (they had cost about $160 in the 1960s). The Hobie logo -- with the right leg of the H swooping under the name -- can be spotted on beaches around the world.

Hobart Laidlaw Alter was born in Ontario, Calif., on Oct. 31, 1933, one of three children of Hobart and Katie Alter. The family owned orange groves around Ontario and a summer home in Laguna Beach.

"That's where he got into skin diving, spear fishing, riding waves on a big old paddle board," his son Hobiesaid. "When he was 17, a guy showed up with a balsa board. They switched, and my dad knew this was what he needed to learn how to surf."

That summer, in 1950, Alter fashioned his own balsa board in the garage at Laguna Beach.

"I sold my own board twice," he told The Los Angeles Times -- for $65 each and a profit of $25. It was the start of a multimillion-dollar sports empire that his sons, Hobie and Jeff, still run.

Besides his sons, Alter is survived by his wife, Susan; a daughter, Paula; two sisters, Carolyn Wise and Lillian Spencer; eight grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

Profitable though the business became, what drove Alter was the search for the next plaything. After theHobie Cat, he built a 60-foot, diesel-powered catamaran (for his own cruising), but also the Hobie Hawk, a radio-controlled model plane; and the Float Cat, a small fishing platform that can be paddled or pedaled on the water.

"Throughout his life he's really been a toy designer, with himself in mind," Pezman said, "an adventure-toy maker."






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