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Alter, Hobie


Ocean-sports industrialist from Orange County, California; founder of Hobie Surfboards in 1954 and the Hobie Cat sailboat company in 1967. "Perhaps more than anyone else," surf journalist Drew Kampion wrote in 1988, "including Gidget, Dora, Frankie and Annette, even the Duke, Hobie Alter has been responsible for the growth and development of surfing."

Alter was born on Halloween, 1933, in Ontario, California, the son of an orange farmer, and began surfing at age 16 in Laguna Beach, near his family's summer home. He made the finals of the Makaha International surfing contest in 1958 and 1959. Alter made balsa boards out of his garage from 1950 to 1953; the following year he opened Hobie Surfboards in Dana Point.

In 1958, after teaming up with board laminator Gordon "Grubby" Clark to develop a commercially viable polyurethane foam surfboard blank, Alter began using foam instead of balsa on all Hobie surfboards. They weren't the first to make surfboards from polyurethane—Santa Monica's Dave Sweet had been furtively laboring to perfect the foam blank since 1954—but they marketed their product better than Sweet, and had three molds up and running by 1958, cranking out boards at an unprecedented rate. Alter's company was the industry leader for the next 12 years, selling up to 6,500 boards annually during the mid-'60s.

The sturdy, broad-shouldered, plainspoken Alter developed into one of the sport's best tandem surfers; with partner Laurie Hoover, he won the 1961 West Coast Surfing Championships, as well as the Pacific Coast Tandem Championship in 1962 and 1963. Hoping to link surfing and recreational boat use, Alter became the leading advocate in the mid-'60s for wake surfing, in which the surfer rides the wave created by a boat wake (an early version of wakeboarding, but with conventional surfboards instead of specially designed wakeboards), and in 1965 he wake-surfed 30 miles from Long Beach to Catalina Island. Hobie Skateboards was meanwhile launched in 1964. Alter was also a key figure in the creation of the United States Surfing Association in 1961, and served as the group's vice president for four years.

In 1967, Alter began marketing the Hobie Cat, an easy-to-use 14-foot catamaran designed to launch from the beach and ride over the surf. "The Cat That Flies," a Life magazine photo feature on the Hobie Cat, was published in 1968, and sales for Alter's new creation soared. More than 110,000 Hobie 16s—the most popular Hobie Cat model, released in 1969—have been manufactured worldwide since the late '60s. Alter sold Hobie Cat to the Coleman outdoor supply company in 1976, but continued to design and commercially build catamarans and boats.

Alter received a Waterman Achievement Award from the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association in 1993; in 1997 he was inducted into the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame. He was admitted as a member of the National Sailing Hall of Fame in 2011.

"The Innovations of Hobie," a photo and memorabilia art exhibition was installed at the Surfing Heritage Foundation in 2012. The Museum of Modern Art in New York has a 1958 balsa-redwood Hobie surfboard in its permanant collection.

Hobie: Master of Water, Wind and Waves, a biography written by former Surfer editor Paul Holmes, was published in 2013.

Alter, 80, died of cancer in 2014.