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.