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Hobie Alter dies at 80; shaped Southern California surf culture

Hobie Alter, known as the Henry Ford of surfing, developed the mass-produced foam surfboard with a partner in 1958. His Dana Point shop became the epicenter of Southland surfing.

March 30, 2014|By Mike Anton
  • Surfoard designer Hobie Alter was a self-taught design innovator and entrepreneur who was guided by his imagination above all else.
Surfoard designer Hobie Alter was a self-taught design… (Jim Heath, Hobie…)

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.

Share your memories: Hobie's contributions to SoCal culture

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.

He died Saturday at his home in Palm Desert, according to an announcement posted on http://www.hobie.com, his company's website. He was 80. The cause of death was not disclosed.

Alter was diagnosed with cancer about five years ago and since then had experienced serious health problems, said Paul Holmes, author of "Hobie: Master of Water, Wind and Waves," a 2013 biography.

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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.

Soon his Dana Point workshop was pumping out 250 boards a week and became the epicenter of California's burgeoning surf culture, a place through which a generation of top shapers practiced their craft.

Photos: Alter through the years

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