Hobie Alter Interview
Matt Warshaw's October chat with Hobie
Hobie Alter’s new biography, Hobie: Master of Water, Wind and Waves, was published earlier this year. Written by former SURFER editor Paul Holmes, Master recounts the life and times of the hardest working man in the surf biz. And not just surfing, but skateboarding and sailing, and just about anything else he put his mind to. Holmes is also the author of a full-length Dale Velzy bio, and when I talked with Hobie back in October, Velzy was the first thing that came up.
You worked pretty much right up the street from Velzy in the ’50s. It’s hard to imagine two different people. He was the hustler that everybody loved, you were the honest dependable guy who got things done on time. How’d the two of you get along personally?
Velzy was so friendly, but such a pain in the ass. Just always trying to pull something. I mean, hell, he’s giving boards away, he’s got his workers living in the shop, selling boards out the back door. It was hard to compete with him.
Seemed like he treated the whole business more like a game.
That’s right. For both of us, it was kind of a game, although I took it more seriously. But yes, he’d pull something on us, and we might pull something on him. And if you did get one over on Velzy, the guy was great. Next time you’d see him, he’d slap you on the back and “Ah, you got me!” He was a great guy that way. So much fun to be around.
Were you surprised when the Feds finally shut him down?
Oh God no, not at all. We couldn’t believe he lasted as long as he did. He wasn’t a good business person at all. Somebody was going to take him down, it was just a question of when.
In 1965, around then, the skateboarding thing just got huge for you guys.
For awhile there, maybe a year, we could not fill orders fast enough. It was overwhelming. Not just on the coasts, but the whole country.
You weren’t making the boards at the Hobie factory, right?
No, I licensed the name out.
Those original skateboards, with the glued-up laminates, they looked like really cool tiny wooden surfboards—who came up with that prototype?
I did. Put together a few versions, and the one they ended up making was the best of the bunch.
Did you skate yourself?
No, not really. A little. The team we had, the Hobie Vita-Pakt Super Surfer team, you know, the Hilton boys were on there, Conrad Hilton’s grandkids, and they were really good. After being around those kids, I could ride a little. Do a 360, some kick-turns, stuff like that.
Phil Edwards, wasn’t he pretty good on a skateboard?
Ahhh . . . he was like the rest of the older guys. We could all do it okay. But not like the kids. You kinda had to be 13 or 14 to really pick up it and get good. We were too old.
The bottom just fell out of the skateboard deal in 1966, around there?
Late ’66, I think. Wow, did it ever. The whole thing just shut down. Almost like overnight. Warehouses filled with skateboards; you could buy ‘em for just about nothing.
Sailing became such a big part of your life in the late ’60s, with the Hobie Cat and everything. Looking back, do you think of yourself as more of a surfer or a sailor?
In the surfing days, that was all there was for me. Sailing, starting around ’68, it was kind of the same deal. I always got really into whatever it was I was doing. So it’s hard to say. I liked all of it. And what I also like is that there was never a lull. I think that’s maybe what I’m most proud of. Just that there was always something else, something new, to get into, and to work on.
On the manufacturing side, surfing was a lot harder than sailing. You had to find guys who could shape, who could glass, and you’re looking for good people among all these surfers, you know. Keeping the quality up was always a problem. Making boats was never like that. Boats, we just hired good production people, it was more mass production, and it mostly took care of itself.
Plus there was never really much money in surfboards.
No, that’s right. And pretty much all of what I made I put right back into the company. I made enough to keep moving forward into the next new thing, so that was good. It was better than being a lifeguard. What eventually made us some money was the sunglasses and the clothing. I had a piece of OP for awhile, and got out before they went bust. So that worked out.
Any one moment in your life that you’d pick out as a highlight?
I thought about this question while we were doing the book, and couldn’t really pick one thing out. But this came to me the other day. In 1955, or maybe ’54, I went to Hawaii for the first time. Flew out on Christmas night. Arrived around 5:00 in the morning. Grubby [Clark] was already there, so he met us at the airport, and we loaded the boards in the car, drove west, and were in the water at Makaha just as the sun was coming up. Everything was so warm. The waves were six feet, fun as heck. And nobody there. Nobody. We just surfed all by ourselves. Perfect morning. Right off the plane, too!