insight - Hobie Alter

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AT THE AGE OF 16 a youngster nicknamed Hobie started crafting surfboards in his backyard. They became legendary in their own right – but not nearly as legendary as the catamarans that bear his name.

Hobart ‘Hobie’ Alter doesn’t sound like your typical business success story. Indeed, the American might be the first to deny he’s a businessman at all. More a sports lover, perhaps. Passionate about dirt biking and skiing, he became a champion surfer. Having designed catamarans that profoundly altered the sailing world, he sold his iconic company and moved on to gliding, nominating his Hobie Glider as his proudest achievement. In retirement he plays golf and enjoys fly-fishing, a long way from the sea. “I liked having fun,” says Alter of his life and work, before adding: “Though it wasn’t always as much fun as people thought. The image was of me on the beach with a beer and a blonde, but there was a lot of work involved.”

The image of the beach bum came from teenage days spent surfing in California, but Alter wasn’t your average kid. In 1950, when he was just 16, he began crafting surfboards for friends in the backyard of his family’s Laguna Beach holiday home. Three years later he moved to a lot on the Pacific Coast Highway courtesy of his father, who was tired of being unable to park his car in the family garage. Here, Alter opened a surf store with a modest investment.

“People laughed at me for setting up a surf shop,” Alter recalls. “They said once I sold a surfboard to each of the 250 surfers on the coast, I’d be out of business.”

His first boards were crafted from balsa wood, but fibreglass and foam were starting to change the business, making surfboards lighter, faster, and more responsive. By 1958, competitive surfers were using Hobie boards to break records, and suddenly everyone wanted one. They remain among the top-selling surfboard brands, but Hobie is typically modest about the achievement. “I just got lucky because I grew up right on the beach.”

Alter was also a top international surf competitor, but already his mind was moving on. He was introduced to catamarans, at the time unusual in international sailing, where the monohull ruled. Nevertheless, Alter – who admitted he knew nothing about sailing at the time – saw that catamarans could more easily be launched or pulled up onto the beach through the surf, because they didn’t tip over.

Alter built four prototypes in his shed, using a new sand-casting process with metal to produce shapes that, up until then, had been unachievable with fibreglass. “It gave us some good shapes that we couldn’t otherwise do, for the crossbeam and runners and that. The boat started to have a body of its own, a kind of a weird-looking one. I guess the defining feature of the cat was the asymmetric hulls.”

It was 1967 and the Hobie 14 essentially became the first sports catamaran ever. Its hulls were indeed famously asymmetrical, joined by aluminium fittings and an elevated trampoline. Light, nimble, and faster than its competitors, the catamaran was easy to sail solo. The price tag was attractive too: US$999 at a time when the average watercraft was selling for US$3,000.

The Hobie 14 took the sailing world by storm, becoming one of the most influential boats in modern sailing history. Life magazine featured it on a cover, and the catamaran is still in production today at Hobie plants in Europe and Brazil, though not in the USA.

Alter knew he had found his niche: durable, easy-to-use boats at a reasonable cost. Just two years later, the Hobie 16 – a relatively modest improvement on the Hobie 14, with larger hull, beam, and sails – would become the most popular catamaran in history, the most competitive in its class anywhere, and the standard by which all catamarans thereafter would be measured.

“There are bigger, faster, and fancier boats,” Alter frequently admitted in interviews. “But the 16 is tough to beat, and was the real key to everything.”

The Hobie 16 also allowed amateurs to race in a big class of boat at reasonable cost, and without the need for a full crew. But clever marketing strategies also helped put Hobie on the map.

The company arranged its own regattas and championships (initially because sailing competitions didn’t allow for catamarans) and after-regatta parties and other events became common. ‘Have a Hobie Day’ became the slogan for a company still noted for its social and racing activities, with many calling Hobie ownership a way of life.

Alter had noted the convivial after-sports scene with two of his other favourite pastimes, dirt biking and skiing, and thought sailing was too snobbish. “I wanted to create the same thing with sailing. I loved the idea of guys and girls sailing together, people making friends, and enjoying their time on the water.” Despite creating the biggest revolutions in surfboard and sailboat design, however, Alter gave it all away when he sold the company in 1976. The Alter family retains licensing rights to skateboards, surfboards, clothing, sunglasses, and other products, and is still involved with design. Indeed, as a diversion from catamarans, Alter designed the Hobie 33, a monohull that also became something of a cult classic.

The company itself continues to be innovative. In the early 1990s the TriFoiler – a trimaran with two sails and hydrofoils that lift the hulls out of the water at speed – became the fastest production sailboat in the world, capable of reaching speeds above 30 knots. And in 1994 the plastic-hulled Hobie Wave, produced for the recreational rather than racing market, caused another surge in catamaran sales. These days, Hobie continues to rattle the world of watercraft with ventures into novel kayaks.

But the man who has long been a legend among surfers and sailors is modest about his accomplishments. “We didn’t know what we were doing. We were really lucky. Yes, you could say it was good luck.”

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