R.I.P. Hobie Alter

One of surfing and sailing's greats, passes away at 80

| posted on March 30, 2014

Hobie Alter, the man who probably did more than anyone else to help usher surfing from the balsa to the foam and fiberglass era, died Saturday, at the age of 80. A true waterman, Alter competed successfully in the Makaha International Surf Contest in 1958 and ’59, won a trio of tandem surfing championships from 1961-’63, and was elected to both the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame (1997) and the National Sailing Hall of Fame (2011). But Alter’s legacy will always be that of a pioneer of surfboard and sailboat production, called “the Henry Ford of the surfboard industry” by Steve Pezman, for his contribution to the large-scale manufacture of surfboards.

Alter started building balsa surfboards in his family’s Laguna Beach garage in the early ’50s. By 1954, he’d opened his own shop on Coast Highway in Dana Point. It was the second surfboard shop in existence, trailing Dale Velzy’s South Bay store by a couple years. Renny Yater and Gordon “Grubby” Clark were early employees of Alter, working the glassing side of the Hobie operation; Phil Edwards worked for Alter too for a time, sanding then moving on to shaping by the late 1950s.

In 1958, Alter made his most important mark on surfing history, when his operation converted to the full-time production of foam core surfboards. The evolution from balsa to foam construction was laughably difficult. Alter and Clark endured more than a year of grueling, self-taught labor to figure out both the proper chemical recipe for their foam blanks and how to engineer their own highly-functioning molds too. Alter was by no means the first to make boards out of foam, but once he and Clark had figured out a way to make lots of blanks without destroying their equipment and their new workspace on Laguna Canyon Road, he quickly became the first surfboard shaper to scale up production of foam boards to the point of financial viability. The boards weren’t aesthetically perfect—discolorations in the foam meant that most of the early models were painted bright colors to hid their defects—but by the summer of 1958, Balsa was but a wooden flash in the rearview mirror of Hobie Surfboards.

By the end of the 1960s, Alter had enjoyed a run of success in the newly-forming surf industry that was unparalleled to that point. He opened a shop in Honolulu in 1962, started selling boards in shops on the East Coast shortly after, and built his own line of skateboards, “Hobie Skateboards,” in 1964.

Alter’s equally important contributions to the sailing world kicked off in the late 1960s, when his lightweight, easy to transport, and easy to sail fiberglass catamaran, the “Hobie Cat,” entered development. Over the next few years, his little 16-foot catamaran helped launch a love of sailing worldwide among people who wouldn’t otherwise buy big, expensive sailboats. The Hobie Cat was cheap, and could be launched from the beach and sailed by one person. More than 100,000 Hobie 16s have since been sold, the most in sailing history.

Alter’s work helped make it possible for thousands of people to enjoy the ocean as part of their daily life. Sail on, Hobie. You’ll be missed.

Hobie Alter, boardbuilding in 1953. Photo: Hobie Archive

Hobie Alter, boardbuilding in 1953. Photo: Hobie Archive

  • Surfed

    Had two magic Hobie’s. A 1968 8′ pintail v bottom by Terry Martin and a 1973 7’4″ down rail pintail by Munoz. The v bottom was an amazing leap into the future and the down rail pintail took me around the world when a surfer’s quiver consisted of one board. Thanx Hobie…

  • Tparks

    The Tandem community honors the great Hobie Alter.
    Thank you for all the inspiration and invention.

  • bev72

    He was also a very nice man and most unprententious. R.I.P. Hobie

  • Lynton S. Vandersteen

    I have a 9’2″ Hobie performance longboard that I’ve ridden in well overhead surf many times at OB in SF and up the coast at Salmon Creek. She draws a graceful line, holds a mach 10 bottom turn then effortlessly shoots for the lip before pausing briefly and heading back down. Its a staple in the quiver and when I wear her out I’ll have it recreated….if thats possible. Sad yet joyous day. Thank you Mr Hobie you’ll be sorely missed and I’ll catch one for you soon.

  • Bill Dornfeld

    Hobie Surfboards was the first board I rented at age 12 in 1966 in Corpus Christi, Texas. I surfed my whole life, thanks to experiencing his surfboards at an early age. Hobie Catamarans lined Padre Island in the ’70’s here. Hobie Alter affected our lives in a most positive way and will never be forgotten. R.I.P.

  • John Stenzel

    At the age of 11 I rode my first Hobie surfboard. I wish I had that board today. A classic!

  • Stu Azole

    Hobie did more for surfing and water sports than anyone. Great that surfer gave him this little tribute while AI got months of press.

  • Tex

    Just acquired a 9’6″ Hobie Slug last month, shaped by Bil Shrosbree. I am looking forward to repairing it and paddling out soon. Thank you, Hobie, for helping us live the dream.

  • bob

    Yeah..we all got to go sometime…Sad,,,,but not if one is looking for the Endless Summer….RIP Sennor.

  • Chris Harmon

    He changed my life to be sure. I raced hobie cat’s, surfed hobie’s boards at the singer island pumphouse as a child. I’m looking for a Hobie 16, Hurricane charlie took my last one.

  • willie

    i like what stu said

  • Kathie Richardson

    Sorry Rennie Yater for the loss of your friend. Safe travels to the memorial and happiness in sharing of memories with your surfing buddies. Hugs and love, Kathie and Marina

  • Don Long

    Hobie did so many things for the sports every surfer loves. I never met Hobie. but I feel he knew me and all the things I wanted to do in the water. His designs are legend in surfing, high performance mono and multihulls sailboats, power boats, canoes, and, other items I may not know about. I’ve surfer on his boards, sailed his catamarans, one of his monohull designs, and fished from a Hobie Powerboat. Everything added to my love of 50+- years of loving the ocean. The world is a less cool place without him.