Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Hobie Alter, surfboard...

...and sailboat manufacturer, died at age 80. From his obit in the Los Angeles Times (my emphasis):

When he was a young man, Hobie Alter had a clear vision of his future: He didn't want a job that would require hard-soled shoes, and he didn't want to work east of Pacific Coast Highway.

He succeeded.

The son of a second-generation orange grower, Alter is credited with innovations that allowed people who couldn't lift log slabs to surf and those who couldn't pay for yacht club memberships to sail.

Known practically everywhere with a coastline or a lake simply as "Hobie," Alter developed the mass-produced foam surfboard. He later popularized sailing by inventing a lightweight, high-performance catamaran.

A self-taught design innovator and entrepreneur, Alter was a reluctant businessman who wore cutoffs instead of suits and was guided by his imagination above all else.

"I'm making money producing things that give me pleasure, doing exactly what I want to do," Alter told a reporter in 1977. "I guess I'm really lucky that way."

There were only several hundred surfers lugging their heavy wood boards into the waters of Southern California in 1958 when Alter and then-partner Gordon "Grubby" Clark perfected the delicate chemical process of making rough-cut polyurethane foam blanks that could be custom shaped in less than an hour.

Initially dismissed as flimsy toys, Hobie's lightweight boards caught on. In less than a year, wood boards that had been used since Hawaiians invented the sport were obsolete.

Alter's timing couldn't have been better. The following year, the movie "Gidget" introduced the nation to a fun-loving California subculture. Interest in the sport surged, and Alter — the so-called Henry Ford of surfing — was there to provide the vehicle.

"He is one of the pillars on which the sport of surfing is built upon," said Steve Pezman, a surfing historian and publisher of the Surfer's Journal. "He was enamored with inventing things. He'd get interested in something, see how it could be improved and go make a better version of it. Once it became repetitive, he moved on to something new."

As a teenager, he learned from Walter Hoffman, a pioneer of big-wave surfing, the art of turning a slab of balsa into an instrument for gliding across the water. He sold that board for $65 — a $20 profit. He made three more in his parents' garage and quickly sold them too.

"Nobody had ever before given me more money for something than it had cost me to make it," Alter later told a reporter. "I thought that was pretty keen."

Alter graduated from Chaffey High School in Ontario and was attending Chaffey College — splitting his free time between skiing and surfing, depending on the weather — when he decided to move to Laguna and concentrate on making boards.

He moved out of his parents' garage in 1954 and used an $8,000 inheritance to open Orange County's first surfboard shop on Coast Highway in Dana Point. If the surfboard business didn't pan out, Alter figured he could earn a living as a cabinetmaker.

"The most important thing to Hobie was to have fun in whatever he did," said Dick Metz, a childhood friend and longtime business associate of Alter, and founder of the San Clemente-based Surfing Heritage Foundation. "He didn't want to run a business."

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