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  • Andrew Cowell

THE INNOVATIONS OF HOBIE ALTER

The ancient Hawaiian “sport of kings” – surfing -- did not begin as an industry. Instead, surfing’s roots developed out of an individual pursuit for joy and community, and for a personal connection with nature. In a way, a vision quest, to separate the mind from body, and to refrain, if only for a moment, from the complexities of everyday life. Surfing, as an art form, was simply a way to enjoy the Hawaiian aloha spirit and the comradery of others.



By the mid-1950s, surfboard building materials, primarily balsa wood, began to wane at an alarming rate. An export of Ecuador, balsa wood, due to its light weight and malleability, was the surfboard shapers preferred material for constructing wave sliding vehicles. Hobie Alter: inventor, innovator and pioneer in surfing, was always on the lookout for other materials that could be easily made into surfboards, while providing the same water experience. Out of his search, the post World War II material, polyurethane foam arose as balsa’s successor.

An explosive and volatile material, the high-density polyurethane foam was water tight and structurally sound, qualities needed in surfboards. Alter, armed himself with a child’s chemistry set and began to explore the new material’s potential. During this experimentation period, Hobie enlisted the aid of employee and university graduate chemist, Gordon “Grubby” Clark. Grubby recounts, “The foam thing was all Hobie – his idea, his money – my name shouldn’t even be there. I was just his glasser. He deserves all the credit. It was an incredible time in the development of the techniques, materials, all of it. And it was all done in the Hobie Shop.” Alter and Clark would open a factory in Laguna Canyon, and proceed to perfect the material that would give way to the golden era of surfboard manufacturing. As the 50s progressed into the 60s, Hobie became the stalwart of surfboard builders, and his handcrafted equipment became sought after nationwide.

In 1966, Nat Young’s World Contest win would shake the surfboard industry to its very foundation. Young, and his 9’4,” “Magic Sam”, named after an American R&B guitarist, was the most radical board ever seen for the time. Sam’s performance, profile and high-aspect fin was an astonishing six inches shorter than any American design. This historical moment forever changed the way surfers and American board builders would conduct business.

For Hobie, with his inquisitive mind, it became apparent that it was time to begin to look for other outlets to pursue his love for ocean play. At his Poche Beach home, in Capistrano Beach, California, Hobie, and notable others, Phil Edwards and Mickey Munoz, began to experiment with double-hulled sailboats. An aspiration that turned into revolutionizing an industry. Alter used the aforementioned polyurethane foam to make two hulls, with an attachable platform and sail. This new vessel, the “Hobie Cat,” could be launched from the beach, sail through the surf, and be easily piloted by a one-person crew. “We could make hulls just like we made surfboards,” recalls Mickey Munoz. “We could shape them one day, glass them, and have them in the water the third day out. It was a huge, huge, advancement in boat designing.” By the summer of 1970, Hobie Cats, 14 and 16, exploded onto the market with worldwide acclaim. Today, the Hobie Cat is available in a variety of lengths and models, which many boaters continue to enjoy due to the ingenuity of Hobie Alter.

Besides surfboards and catamarans, Hobie conceived, manufactured, and brought to market several other notable inventions. The Super Surfer skateboard. The Hobie Hawk, a remote controlled glider. Polarized sunglasses, and even skiing equipment. These innovations have pushed the constraints of performance and taken the adventurist to new heights. In one way or another, Hobie’s innovations have touched countless individuals. His was always the pursuit to step outside and enjoy the outdoors. In the immortal words of the Hobie Alter, “If it’s fun, it’s never work. And if it isn’t fun, it’ll never work.” A mantra to know and live by in this modern age.

Editor’s note: This was written for the Orange County Airport exhibit, The Life of Hobie Alter,2018.

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