Hobart “Hobie” Alter. Photo courtesy of hobiecat.com
Hobart “Hobie” Alter. Photo courtesy of hobiecat.com
With it’s easy accessibility to both Puget Sound and Lake Washington, it’s no surprise that Seattle is filled with people who love to sail. With both salt- and freshwater venues to choose from, Seattle is a natural for people who love the water.

Recently, as I cruised some of the residential streets of Queen Anne and Magnolia, I spotted a few Hobie catamarans on trailers, tucked out of the way in the back of driveways, ready for a quick launch if the wind was favorable.

The Hobie Cat is a perfect toy for those looking for a fast, easy-to-maneuver and relatively cheap way to get out on the water.

As I looked through The Seattle Times a couple of weeks ago, I noticed a small item used almost as a page filler on the bottom of Page 2. Hobart “Hobie” Alter was dead at 80 from cancer.

Before the craze

The son of a Californian orange grower, Alter was born in Ontario, Calif., on Oct. 31, 1933, and graduated from Laguna Beach High School at age 17.

I’ve known the Hobie name since the early 1960s, except it wasn’t attached to catamarans then but to surfboards. I first learned to surf on a Hobie surfboard.

An eighth-grade friend of mine, Stan Bovee, and I were driven by Stan’s parents one day down to Doheny State Park in Southern California and dropped off while they went on to visit friends who lived nearby. Across the highway from the park was a stand that rented surfboards.

We had gone to Doheny with the idea of doing some snorkeling. It was a good beach for that, being relatively shallow, only about 6 or 7 feet deep, for a long ways out. Doheny was also a good beginning-surfer beach because it took a small swell and held it for a long ride.

When we got tired of our diving adventures, we remembered the surfboard rentals and decided to see what that was all about.

The stand had about 20 boards of various sizes for rent by the hour. We talked to the guy running the stand and admitted we’d never surfed before, and he soon had us fixed up with the length of boards he thought we should ride. They were Hobie surfboards, from the shop the next beach up the coast, in Dana Point, Calif.

Remember, this was before the whole surfin’ craze hit Southern California and the rest of the country; it was in the pre-“Gidget” (1959) days. When that movie was released, it seemed the whole country wanted to go surfing. Then “Gidget” was followed by all the “Beach Party” movies, which had nothing to do with real surfing, and the fad was unleashed. Luckily, my brother and I started surfing before the hoard. 

All in the family

When Alter first discovered surfing, at his family’s Laguna Beach summerhouse in the early 1950s, boards were made from balsa wood, and there were only about 200 fellow surfers in the whole of California. A few of the more enterprising surfers, such as the Hoffman brothers, began to establish their own shops to manufacture boards at a profit.

Working first in his parents’ garage and later from a small factory in Dana Point, Alter had soon sold many of his balsa-and-fiberglass creations. Together with his friend “Grubby” Clark, the pair soon found and developed a balsa substitute — polyurethane foam — and the surfing world was never the same again.

Almost every time we’d go to the beach, we’d cruise past the Hobie shop in Dana Point just to check out the boards. One day, my father came home with a used surfboard he’d gotten from one of his coworker’s sons. I thought it was bitchin’, but my brother, Ron, then spent $143.52 (a lot of 1962 dollars) on his own custom-designed Hobie surfboard.

In the late ‘60s, Alter turned his focus to sailing and designed a lightweight sailboat inspired by the twin-hulled Polynesian catamaran. The Hobie Cat, which could be launched from the beach, brought high-performance sailing to the masses. Since its creation in 1971, the Hobie Cat remains the world’s best-selling catamaran, with approximately 150,000 still sailing today.

Ron, who has since grown up but never forgetting the Hobie name, has also had three Hobie Cats over the years and a Hobie skateboard. He even wears Hobie sunglasses.

My sister and-brother-in-law, who live in Michigan, bought a Hobie Cat, too. They loved its ease of trailering and sailed it quite extensively on Michigan’s lakes.

In the early 1990s, Alter sailed to a retirement place in the San Juan Islands on a 60-foot, diesel-powered catamaran he built himself.

Godspeed, Hobie — you were one of my childhood heroes.

GARY McDANIEL is a longtime Magnolia resident.

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