Hobie Alter, the Henry Ford of the Surfboard Industry, Dies at 80
A surfing, skateboarding, sailing icon
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
Hobie Alter—innovator of the foam and fiberglass surfboard, inventor of the lightweight and affordable Hobie Cat, patriarch of the Southern California beach lifestyle—passed away Saturday at his home in Palm Desert, California, after a long fight with cancer. He was 80 years old.
Born Hobart Laidlaw Alter, Alter was prodigious tinkerer from an early age. “He was a doer, not a reader—except perhaps of instruction sheets and manuals about making things,” wrote Paul Holmes, author of Hobie: Master of Water, Wind and Waves.
Just out of high school in 1954, Alter opened his first surf shop in Dana Point on the Orange County coast. Along with a local kid named Gordon “Grubby” Clark, Alter began experimenting with polyurethane foam as a substitute for the heavy balsa wood then used to make surfboards. Alter and Clark’s foam-cored surfboards changed surfboard shaping and riding forever.
“The foam thing was all Hobie,” Clark, who became a foam surfboard core tycoon, told Holmes. “And it was all done in the Hobie shop.”
But it was a serendipitous catamaran ride off Oahu’s Waikiki Beach in 1956 that transformed Alter’s idea of what was possible on the water. Once home in California, Alter and his crew of tinkerers went to work designing a low-cost, lightweight catamaran. By 1968, a handful of 14-foot catamarans had been built and the Hobie Cat Corporation was born.
“He totally democratized sailing,” Holmes told the Los Angeles Times this week. “Prior to the late-1960s, it had been the preserve of a pretty elite group.”
While he was transforming the sports of surfing and sailing forever, Alter was also busy putting his stamp on skateboards (see Dogtown and Z-Boys), flying model airplanes, and creating beach lifestyle apparel. Until his passing, Alter spent considerable time dreaming and tinkering in his workshop at his home on Orcas Island, Washington. He was inducted into the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame in 1997 and the National Sailing Hall of Fame in 2011.
“Build them a toy,” Hobie would say, “and give them a game to play it with.”