Burly big-wave pioneer and beachwear industrialist from Laguna Beach, California; longtime president of Hoffman California Fabrics, surf fashion's biggest textile supplier; younger brother to surf world rapscallion Philip "Flippy" Hoffman; stepfather to two-time world champion Joyce Hoffman, and grandfather to surf-rebel icons Christian and Nathan Fletcher.
Hoffman was born (1931) in Glendale, California, raised in Hollywood and Laguna Beach, and began surfing at age 14. At Malibu, he was soon keeping company with Matt Kivlin, Joe Quigg, Bob Simmons, Buzzy Trent, and a number of other surfers and boardmakers who collectively helped shape the sport in the years following World War II. On the first day of his first visit to Hawaii in 1948, Hoffman and Hawaiian surfer George Downing rode beautiful 10-foot waves off Diamond Head, igniting in Hoffman a lifelong interest in big, powerful tropical surf.
In 1951, after he enlisted in the navy and was stationed at the Pearl Harbor, Hoffman began surfing regularly at Makaha, the versatile break on the west side of Oahu, where the waves sometimes hit 20 feet or bigger. Hoffman mailed rolls of 8-millimeter film back to California, causing a stir among his surf mates back home, including his brother Flippy and Buzzy Trent. "The lights went out," Trent later said, recalling the first time he saw Makaha on film, "and here came the immortal Walter Hoffman driving through a gigantic 15-foot wave."
Trent and Flippy joined Walter in Hawaii, and they were soon camping on the beach at Makaha, before moving into nearby wooden shacks and army-built Quonset huts. By 1953, Hoffman, Trent, Downing, along with Wally Froiseth, Woody Brown, and a few others, were riding their newly streamlined big-wave boards in waves up to 18 foot—half again bigger than the biggest waves ridden just five years earlier. Explorations were also made along the North Shore of Oahu, where Hoffman often led the charge at Sunset Beach; by mid-decade the North Shore had replaced Makaha as the new big-wave epicenter.
In 1959, Hoffman took over Hoffman California Fabrics, the wholesale textile business his father had launched in 1924. The surfwear industry was in large part built out of Hoffman fabrics; under Walter's stewardship the company would be the primary textile provider to Quiksilver, Billabong, and Gotcha, among other popular surfwear brands.
While Hoffman had only a passing interest in surfing competition, he and partner Joanie Jones won the tandem division of the 1954 Makaha International, and he judged the 1967 Duke Kahanamoku Invitational. Hoffman's stepdaughter, Joyce, was the women's world surfing champion in 1965 and 1966. His second daughter, Dibi, married longboard ace Herbie Fletcher, and is the mother of Christian and Nathan Fletcher.
Walter Hoffman was given the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association Waterman Achievement Award in 1995. Walter and Flippy together were inducted to the Surfing Walk of Fame at Huntington Beach in 2006.