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Hobie Alter, A Legend In Surfing And Sailing, Dies At 80

Hobie Alter, an innovator whose ideas brought surfing and sailing to wide audiences, died this weekend. Here, one of his Hobie Cat sailboats is seen sailing past North Head in Sydney, Australia.
Cameron Spencer
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Hobie Alter, an innovator whose ideas brought surfing and sailing to wide audiences, died this weekend. Here, one of his Hobie Cat sailboats is seen sailing past North Head in Sydney, Australia.

Hobie Alter, whose innovations helped thousands of people go surfing and sailing, died in California on Saturday at age 80. In the 1950s, Alter helped perfect a foam-core surfboard that revolutionized the sport. A decade later, his iconic Hobie Cat catamaran design opened the world of sailing to a wider audience.

Alter died after a long fight with cancer, according to the Orange County Register. Reflecting his legacy in two sports, his name is included in both the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame and the National Sailing Hall of Fame.

Surfer magazine highlights this video of Alter as a young man, when he often surfed in singles and tandem competitions; it was produced by the Encyclopedia of Surfing:

"In discussing the future with friends as a young man Hobie declared that he wanted to make a living without having to wear hard-soled shoes or work east of California's Pacific Coast Highway," according to a remembrance posted on the Hobie Cat company website.

Alter achieved that simple goal by a wide margin, establishing a business that could mass-produce cheaper and lighter surfboards with foam cores than those that had previously been made with balsa wood. His breakthrough came in 1958, working alongside his friend Gordon "Grubby" Clark.

The Hobie surfboard brand rose to the top of a young and burgeoning industry, which also received a boost in popularity after the surfing movie Gidget came out in 1959.

From the Surfline website comes this view of Alter's early days in the surfboard business:

"Hobart Alter Jr. was born and raised in Ontario, California, but his family had a summerhouse in Laguna Beach, where Alter got into the full array of ocean sports. Initiated into surfing by Walter Hoffman, he started shaping balsa boards in the early '50s. When the family's front yard became a litter of balsa-blank glue-ups, hardened patches of resin and piles of balsa shavings, his father moved him off the property by buying him a lot on Pacific Coast Highway in nearby Dana Point for $1,500. That was 1953. In February of 1954, with the first stage of the shop completed, Hobie Surfboards opened its doors after a total investment of $12,000. "People laughed at me for setting up a surf shop," Hobie remembers. "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.'"

As his business grew, Alter hired many notable surfers and board shapers. One of them was five-time U.S. surfing champion Corky Carroll, one of the most successful pro surfers of the 1960s and '70s.

"He had a major impact on my life when I was young," Carroll said of Alter, according to the Register. "A true legend and always a really great person."

In the late 1960s, Alter unveiled his design for a fiberglass sailboat, which he promoted as "The Cat That Flies." From Surfer magazine:

"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."

The Hobie Cat website says that in keeping with tradition, a mass "paddle out" will be held in Alter's honor, as surfers will take to the water near his family's old home in Laguna Beach. A date for that event has yet to be announced.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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