American Inventor Series: Hobie Alter, the Henry Ford of Surfing

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Hobart “Hobie” Alter was born on October 31, 1933 in the inland community of Ontario, California, though his family owned a summer home in Laguna Beach where he developed a passion for water sports.

His second love was woodworking, which he applied to the art of shaping surfboards after graduating from Laguna Beach High School in 1950.

Paul Holmes, in his book Hobie: Master of Water, Wind and Waves, recounts the moment Alter came up with the plan for his life. Laying around on the beach with his friends, the question on everyone’s mind was what they were going to do with the rest of their lives.

“Instead of talking about what we might do, let’s first make a list of what we don’t do,” Alter said to his friends, freshly graduated from high school. He came up with a list of rules: “We won’t wear suits and ties,” “we won’t wear hard shoes,” and “we won’t work regular hours that might interrupt our surf time.”

Alter didn’t know it at the time, but he had just laid the groundwork for the surfing phenomenon that would sweep through Southern California in the 1960s. His father pulled the car out of the garage at their Laguna Beach home and Alter built his first shop.

According to a company history, Alter took out his drawknife and carved out his his first surfboard in his parents’ garage in 1950 after receiving his first shipment of balsawood. He continued to build handmade balsawood boards for his friends. By 1954, he had outgrown the family garage and his father was tired of the sawdust, so Alter opened up Southern California’s first surf shop in Dana Point.

“People laughed at me for setting up a surf shop,” Alter said. “They said that once I’d sold a surfboard to each of the 250 surfers on the coast, I’d be out of business. But the orders just kept coming.”

Video of his earliest operation shows that he was clearly a skilled woodworker, inventing methods of expediting the manufacturing process, such as a press that glued more than one surfboard at a time and a shaping machine that cut out the shape of the board.

By the mid 1950s, the supply of balsawood was running low and the cumbersome process of building wooden boards couldn’t keep up with the demand. So Alter and his friend Gordon “Grubby” Clark developed the first polyurethane foam surfboard. The durable synthetic material cut costs and saved production time.

“The new boards were lighter, faster, and easier to ride than anything else in the water,” the company says. Hobie, as the company was called, quickly became the number one surfboard brand in the world.

“He became known inside the sport as the Henry Ford of surfboard manufacturing,” Steve Pezman, publisher of Surfer’s Journal, told The New York Times.

The new foam boards were called Speedo Sponges and Flexi-Fliers, and Alter was manufacturing up to 250 a week. Grubby Clark took over the foam operation, naming it Clark Foam, and produced most of the world’s surfboard blanks until its abrupt collapse in December 2005.

A competitive surfer himself, Alter started the Hobie Surf Team in the mid 1960s and surfing greats like Phil Edwards, Joey Cabell, and Corky Carroll repped the brand.

In the later 1960s, Alter turned his attention to the world of sailing. He introduced the first Hobie Catamaran, called the Hobie Cat, and “democratized” the elitist world of yachting, his biographer says.

“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,” Holmes told The Los Angeles Times. The Hobie Cat was dismissed by the sailing establishment, but it was an instance success among beginning sailors. Alter sold more than 30,000 in the first six years of production, and more than 200,000 have been sold worldwide.

“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 later said of the Hobie Cat.

As he did with surfing, Alter had brought sailing to the masses. He eventually sold the Hobie Cat to Coleman Corp. in 1976 for $3.6 million.

Alter’s other inventions include the “Hobie Hawk,” a high-performance remote controlled glider, a line of skateboards, a 33-foot mono-hull sailboat, a “Float Cat” for easy fly-fishing, a variety of kayaks, and the “Katie Sue,” a 60-foot powered catamaran that he built from scratch for his personal use.

Alter received the Waterman Achievement award from the Surfing Industry Manufacturers Association in 1993, was inducted to the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame in 1997, and was an inaugural member of the National Sailing Hall of Fame in 2011.

Hobie, as known to his friends and the surfing world, died at the age of 80 on March 29, 2014 after a battle with cancer.

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Anthony Gockowski is managing editor of Battleground State News, The Ohio Star, and The Minnesota Sun. Follow Anthony on Twitter. Email tips to anthony.gockowski@gmail.com.

 

 

 

 

 

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