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Innovator’s designs brought surfing, sailing to masses

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    A young Hobie Alter in Laguna Beach, Calif.
    Alter, who helped popularize surfing and sailing with the development of the foam surfboard and the “Hobie Cat” sailboat, has died. He was 80.

When he was a young man, Hobie Alter had a clear vision of his future: He didn’t want a job that would require hard-soled shoes, and he didn’t want to work east of Pacific Coast Highway.

He succeeded.

The son of an orange grower, Alter is credited with innovations that allowed people who couldn’t lift log slabs to surf and those who couldn’t pay for yacht club memberships to sail.

Known practically everywhere with a coastline or a lake simply as "Hobie," Alter developed the mass-produced foam surfboard. He later popularized sailing by inventing a lightweight, high-performance catamaran.

He died Saturday at his home in Palm Desert, Calif., according to an announcement posted on, his company’s website. He was 80.

Alter was diagnosed with cancer about five years ago and since then had serious health problems, said Paul Holmes, author of "Hobie: Master of Water, Wind and Waves," a 2013 biography.

Born Hobart Laidlaw Alter in Ontario, Calif., he designed a prize-winning kite at age 5.

A self-taught design innovator and entrepreneur, Alter was a reluctant businessman who wore cutoffs instead of suits and was guided by his imagination above all else.

"I’m making money producing things that give me pleasure, doing exactly what I want to do," Alter told a reporter in 1977. "I guess I’m really lucky that way."

There were only several hundred surfers lugging their heavy wood boards into the waters of Southern Cali­for­nia in 1958 when Alter and then-partner Gordon "Grubby" Clark perfected the delicate chemical process of making rough-cut polyurethane foam blanks that could be custom-shaped in less than an hour.

Initially dismissed as flimsy toys, Hobie’s lightweight boards caught on. In less than a year, wood boards that had been used since Hawaiians invented the sport were obsolete.

Alter’s timing couldn’t have been better. The following year, the movie "Gidget" introduced the nation to a fun-loving Cali­for­nia subculture. Interest in the sport surged.

Soon his Dana Point workshop was pumping out 250 boards a week and became the epicenter of Cali­for­nia’s burgeoning surf culture.

Alter licensed the Hobie name to new surf shops in San Diego, Hawaii, Peru and on the East Coast, and sponsored a team of professional surfers, including Phil Edwards, Joey Cabell and Corky Carroll. All got their names on "signature" Hobie surfboards — another business innovation that spurred sales.

The Hobie brand dominated the surfboard business into the 1970s. Today the foam-core board remains the standard for an industry Alter arguably helped create.

"He is one of the pillars on which the sport of surfing is built," said Steve Pezman, a surfing historian and publisher of the Surfer’s Journal. "He was enamored with inventing things. He’d get interested in something, see how it could be improved and go make a better version of it."

In the mid-1960s, with his surfboard business booming, Alter turned to a new hobby: sailing.

As with wooden surfboards, Alter discerned an inherent problem with his 600-pound catamaran: It took at least four people to haul it to the water.

After more than a year of experimentation, Alter unveiled the Hobie Cat. The 14-foot catamaran was light enough for one person to carry and small enough to tow or even strap onto a car.

"He totally democratized sailing," said Holmes, Alter’s biographer. "Prior to the late 1960s, it had been the preserve of a pretty elite group. But then you could get a fully rigged Hobie 14 for $999 — with the trailer."

The original Hobie Cat and subsequent models did for sailing what the foam-core board had done for surfing: made a niche sport accessible to the masses.

"The yacht clubs were really down on the catamaran because here was some guy with a little investment going faster than they were in their million-dollar boats," Alter told the Surfer’s Journal in 2009.

Alter sold his catamaran company to Coleman Corp. for $3.6 million in 1976 and turned to other projects.

He developed a radio-controlled glider dubbed the Hobie Hawk. He introduced a line of skateboards. He designed new watercraft, including the popular Hobie 33, a quick and agile racing monohull.

And he entered into international licensing deals that lent his name to lines of swimsuits, sportswear and sunglasses he designed.

In the early 1990s Alter literally sailed away to a retirement place in the San Juan Islands in Washington state on a 60-foot diesel catamaran he built himself.

Alter’s survivors include wife Susan, sons Hobie Jr. and Jeff, daughter Paula, sisters Caro­lyn and Lillian, eight grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.

Mike Anton, Los Angeles Times

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